The Battery Series
Part 2: Our Energy Problem: Putting the Battery in Context
The Battery Series is a five-part infographic series that explores what investors need to know about modern battery technology, including raw material supply, demand, and future applications.
Our Energy Problem: Putting the Battery in Context
In Part 1, we examined the evolution of battery technology. In this part, we examine what batteries can and cannot do, and the energy problem that humans hope that batteries can help solve.
Batteries enable many important aspects of modern life.
They are portable, quiet, compact, and can start-up with the flick of a switch. Importantly, batteries can also store energy from the sun and wind for future use.
However, batteries also have many limitations that prevent them from taking on an even bigger role in society. They must be recharged, and they hold a limited amount of energy. A single battery cycle is only so long, and after many of them they begin to lose potency.
Therefore, to understand the market for batteries and how it may look in the future, it is essential to understand what a battery can and cannot do.
The biggest difference between batteries and other fuel types is in energy density.
Even the best lithium-ion batteries have a specific energy of about 250 Wh/kg. That is just 2% of the energy density of gasoline, and less than 1% of hydrogen.
While it may be enough to power a car, it’s also magnificent engineering that helps makes this possible. Airplanes, ships, trains, and other large power drains will not be using batteries in powertrains anytime soon.
A Renewable Future?
Renewable energy sources like solar and wind face a similar problem – today’s battery technology cannot store big enough payloads of energy. To balance the load, excess energy must be stored somehow to be used when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Currently, industrial-strength battery systems are not yet fully developed to handle this storage problem on a widespread commercial basis, though progress is being made in many areas. New technologies such as vanadium flow batteries could play an important role in energy storage in the future. But for now, large-scale energy storage batteries are experimental.
Other energy storage technologies may also solve this problem:
- Chemical storage: Using excess electricity to create hydrogen fuel, which can be stored.
- Pumped hydro: Using electricity to pump water up to a reservoir, which can be later used to generate hydroelectric power.
- Compressed air: Using electricity to compress air in deep caverns, which can be released to generate power.
Solving this energy storage problem will pave the way for more use of renewables in the future on a grander scale.
The Sweet Spot
Therefore, the sweet spot for battery use today comes when batteries can take advantage of their best properties. Batteries can be small, portable, charged on the go, and provide energy at the flick of a switch.
It’s why so many rechargeable batteries are used in: electronics, laptops, smartphones, electric cars, power tools, startup motors, and other portable items that can benefit from these traits.
To assess the suitability of a particular type for any specific use, there are 10 major properties worth looking at:
- High Specific Energy: Specific energy is the total amount of energy stored by a battery. The more energy a battery can store, the longer it can run.
- High Specific Power: Specific power is the amount of load current drawn from the battery. Without high specific power, a battery cannot be used for the high-drain activities we need
- Affordable Cost: If the price isn’t right for a particular battery type, it may be worth using an alternative fuel source or battery configuration for economic reasons
- Long Life: The chemical makeup of batteries isn’t perfect. As a result, they only last for a number of charge/discharge cycles – if that number is low, that means a battery’s use may be limited.
- High Safety: Batteries are used in consumer goods or for important industrial or government applications – none of these parties want batteries to cause safety issues.
- Wide Operating Range: Some chemical reactions don’t work well in the cold or heat – that’s why it’s important to have batteries that work in a range of temperatures where it can be useful.
- No Toxicity: Nickel cadmium batteries are no longer used because of their toxic environmental implications. New batteries to be commercialized must meet stringent standards in these regards.
- Fast Charging: What good would a smartphone be if it took two full days to recharge? Charge time matters.
- Low Self-Discharge: All batteries discharge small amounts when left alone over time – the question is how much, and does it make an impact on the usability of the battery?
- Long Shelf Life: The shelf life of batteries affects the whole supply chain, so it is important that batteries can be usable many years after being manufactured.
There are many pros and cons to consider in choosing a battery type. The more pros that a given battery technology can check off the above list, the more likely it is to be commercially viable.
Now that you know what batteries can and cannot do, we will now look at the rechargeable battery market in Part 3 of the Battery Series.
Visualizing Copper’s Role in the Transition to Clean Energy
A clean energy transition is underway as wind, solar, and batteries take center stage. Here’s how copper plays the critical role in these technologies.
A future powered by renewables is not in the distant horizon, but rather in its early hours.
This new dawn comes from a global awareness of the environmental impacts of the current energy mix, which relies heavily on fossil fuels and their associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Technologies such as wind, solar, and batteries offer renewable and clean alternatives and are leading the way for the transition to clean energy. However, as with every energy transition, there are not only new technologies, but also new material demands.
Copper: A Key Piece of the Puzzle
This energy transition will be mineral intensive and it will require metals such as nickel, lithium, and cobalt. However, one metal stands out as being particularly important, and that is copper.
Today’s infographic comes to us from the Copper Development Association and outlines the special role of copper in renewable power generation, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
The red metal has four key properties that make it ideal for the clean energy transition.
It is these properties that make copper the critical material for wind and solar technology, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
It’s also why, according to ThinkCopper, the generation of electricity from solar and wind uses four to six times more copper than fossil fuel sources.
Copper in Wind
A three-megawatt wind turbine can contain up to 4.7 tons of copper with 53% of that demand coming from the cable and wiring, 24% from the turbine/power generation components, 4% from transformers, and 19% from turbine transformers.
The use of copper significantly increases when going offshore. That’s because onshore wind farms use approximately 7,766 lbs of copper per MW, while an offshore wind installation uses 21,068 lbs of copper per MW.
It is the cabling of the offshore wind farms to connect them to each other and to deliver the power that accounts for the bulk of the copper usage.
Copper in Solar
Solar power systems can contain approximately 5.5 tons of copper per MW. Copper is in the heat exchangers of solar thermal units as well as in the wiring and cabling that transmits the electricity in photovoltaic solar cells.
Navigant Research projects that 262 GW of new solar installations between 2018 and 2027 in North America will require 1.9 billion lbs of copper.
Copper in Energy Storage
There are many ways to store energy, but every method uses copper. For example, a lithium ion battery contains 440 lbs of copper per MW and a flow battery 540 lbs of copper per MW.
Copper wiring and cabling connects renewable power generation with energy storage, while the copper in the switches of transformers help to deliver power at the right voltage.
Across the United States, a total of 5,752 MW of energy capacity has been announced and commissioned.
Copper in Electric Vehicles
Copper is at the heart of the electric vehicle (EV). This is because EVs rely on copper for the motor coil that drives the engine.
The more electric the car, the more copper it needs; a car powered by an internal combustion engine contains roughly 48 lbs, a hybrid needs 88 lbs, and a battery electric vehicle uses 184 lbs.
Additionally, the cabling for charging stations of electric vehicles will be another source of copper demand.
The Copper Future
Advances in technologies create new material demands.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the transition to renewables is going to create demand for many minerals – and copper is going to be a critical mineral for the new era of energy.
How Much Oil is in an Electric Vehicle?
It is counterintuitive, but electric vehicles are not possible without oil – these petrochemicals bring down the weight of cars to make EVs possible.
How Much Oil is in an Electric Vehicle?
When most people think about oil and natural gas, the first thing that comes to mind is the gas in the tank of their car. But there is actually much more to oil’s role, than meets the eye…
Oil, along with natural gas, has hundreds of different uses in a modern vehicle through petrochemicals.
Today’s infographic comes to us from American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers, and covers why oil is a critical material in making the EV revolution possible.
It turns out the many everyday materials we rely on from synthetic rubber to plastics to lubricants all come from petrochemicals.
The use of various polymers and plastics has several advantages for manufacturers and consumers:
- Easy to Shape
- Flame Retardant
Today, plastics can make up to 50% of a vehicle’s volume but only 10% of its weight. These plastics can be as strong as steel, but light enough to save on fuel and still maintain structural integrity.
This was not always the case, as oil’s use has evolved and grown over time.
Not Your Granddaddy’s Caddy
Plastics were not always a critical material in auto manufacturing industry, but over time plastics such as polypropylene and polyurethane became indispensable in the production of cars.
Rolls Royce was one of the first car manufacturers to boast about the use of plastics in its car interior. Over time, plastics have evolved into a critical material for reducing the overall weight of vehicles, allowing for more power and conveniences.
Rolls Royce uses phenol formaldehyde resin in its car interiors
Henry Ford experiments with an “all-plastic” car
About 20 lbs. of plastics is used in the average car
Manufacturers begin using plastic for interior decorations
Headlights, bumpers, fenders and tailgates become plastic
Engineered polymers first appear in semi-structural parts of the vehicle
The average car uses over 1000 plastic parts
Electric Dreams: Petrochemicals for EV Innovation
Plastics and other materials made using petrochemicals make vehicles more efficient by reducing a vehicle’s weight, and this comes at a very reasonable cost.
For every 10% in weight reduction, the fuel economy of a car improves roughly 5% to 7%. EV’s need to achieve weight reductions because the battery packs that power them can weigh over 1000 lbs, requiring more power.
Today, plastics and polymers are used for hundreds of individual parts in an electric vehicle.
Oil and the EV Future
Oil is most known as a source of fuel, but petrochemicals also have many other useful physical properties.
In fact, petrochemicals will play a critical role in the mass adoption of electric vehicles by reducing their weight and improving their ranges and efficiency. In According to IHS Chemical, the average car will use 775 lbs of plastic by 2020.
Although it seems counterintuitive, petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas make the major advancements by today’s EVs possible – and the continued use of petrochemicals will mean that both EVS and traditional vehicles will become even lighter, faster, and more efficient.
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