In this blog, Dr Richard Fields looks at the need to be creative in developing transformative technologies such as advancements in battery life, in order to stave off an environmental disaster and ultimately safeguard humanity’s survival.
• The cost of batteries has fallen faster than even the most optimistic forecasts, which means the future for Electric Vehicles is looking very bright.
• Advanced materials may be able to increase the power of a battery by roughly one third which makes them more efficient; however, these types of batteries can degrade rapidly.
• The UK Government needs to adopt a more ambitious target in banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars, giving a clear indication to industry that Electric Vehicles is the future.
• New, more dynamic research strategies are needed where working closely with innovation accelerators and industrial partners is the norm.
Advanced materials are my favourite kind of materials. Why? Because I believe they could help dramatically improve our world. We already use many in high-tech applications: aircraft engines use blended metals known as metallic superalloys; computer chips use ultra-thin, nano-scale silicon wafers; and smartphones use chemically strengthened glass. Smashing! (Or rather not).
All these materials were developed and applied to address specific technical issues; we need something stronger, thinner, less corrosive, and so on. They enabled globally transformative technologies, ones with great socio-economic benefits.
But the world now needs us to develop transformative technologies with a difference. Not for cheaper air travel or larger media networks, but to stave off an environmental catastrophe which threatens the existence of our civilisation.
My day job is to look at how advanced materials can be used to improve electrochemical energy storage devices – in other words things that store electricity, like batteries and supercapacitors, which I do at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). From hearing aids to cars, wrist watches to laptops, batteries are everywhere, and our world relies on them.
Advanced materials, such as silicon nanoparticles, may be able to increase the power of a battery by roughly one third which makes them more efficient; however, these types of batteries can degrade rapidly. Use of 2D materials, such as graphene, can prevent degradation while maintaining battery life; in other words, you can use and charge your battery many more times before it starts to degrade and needs to be disposed of, which is better for our environment too.
Another challenge with traditional batteries is they can catch fire. This happens more often than you might think and is usually due to internal short-circuits creating high temperatures and igniting the flammable electrolyte. Fusing other 2D materials into specific battery components could prevent many common causes of battery fires.
Towards electricity, away from CO2
My aim is to enable technologies at many scales, from biomedical implants with micro-batteries (think pacemakers and vital sign monitoring), to renewable energy storage with giga-batteries (something the size of a few houses). However, one of the most important technologies advanced energy storage materials will transform, is that used for electric vehicles (EVs).
Have you ridden in a car recently? Did you know that even the ‘greenest’ petrol or diesel cars produce a minimum of 1kg of CO2 every 10km? That’s 1kg of CO2 just from driving a few miles, from the M60 ring road to Manchester city centre. Every day, people in Greater Manchester travel roughly 1.4 billion km in their cars. Even if everyone were driving the ‘greenest’ car (which they most certainly are not) that’s around 140,000 tons of CO2 spewed out daily. But it doesn’t stop there. Those figures are for light duty vehicles alone. What about the heavy haulage industry, the shipping industry and the airline industry? These are all massive markets containing transport vehicles powered by fossil fuels. We need to electrify all of this, but the technology isn’t there yet.
The answer to the problem of our road transport being utterly reliant on fossil fuels, is modern EVs. First developed in the late 1800s, EVs were actually here before their fossil-fuelled counterparts, but due to improvements in internal combustion technologies, they were overtaken by the petrol and diesel vehicles that dominate today. A new breed of EV appeared at the turn of the century. The latest incarnations of these have ranges up to 300 miles (and soon beyond) and can fast charge up to 80% in 15 minutes. Yet compared to the actual number of petrol and diesel cars on our roads, EVs are still just a drop in the ocean. UK electric vehicles made up just over 2% of new car sales in the 12 months to September 2018, compared to Norway where over the same period, 47% of all new vehicle sales were plug-in electric.
The race for better batteries
So how can we encourage greater take up of EVs? We have batteries with the energy density to power long-haul trucks (500 miles+), but they currently degrade significantly after a few journeys. We also have energy-storing supercapacitors which can be fully recharged in a few minutes, but currently only provide a 20 mile range for an electric car.
It’s clear, then, that to electrify all the vehicles that we rely on day to day, we need better batteries, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, we need them within 12 years. This may sound like a long time, but traditional research programmes last three of four years – meaning we have only three rounds of these before we need solutions in place (and that takes time as well).
So, there is a need to accelerate not only the research, but also the design and implementation of these technologies. We need new, more dynamic research strategies, where working closely with innovation accelerators and industrial partners is the norm, while retaining some flexibility for pursuing answers to more esoteric questions. We must also not be afraid to adopt modern high-throughput analysis techniques, ones which replace traditional lab techniques with automated systems, combined with intelligent (possibly artificial) decision making on where to go next.
Futuristic visions and machine-based decisions?
Through this approach, perhaps the next advanced material in energy storage may not be ‘discovered’ by a person at all, but instead by a purpose built R&D machine. Imagine if this advanced material was automatically assessed for commercial viability based upon industry costs, performance and environmental trade-offs? Approaches like this would accelerate the discovery and adoption of advanced materials and is the kind of exciting new area that I believe an initiative like the forthcoming Henry Royce Institute will be well placed to explore.
But what can we do now? I’d argue we have the power to make great strides with current technologies. Why do we need a massive two-ton vehicle for transporting one person around a congested city? Couldn’t we, in theory, convert some roads, for example the M60 ring road, into a car park where people transition from long-range, slow-recharge vehicles to short-range, fast-recharge ones, depending on their destination? Imagine if these vehicles could be automatically moved (on tracks?) around the ring-road to where the user enters or leaves the city.
Next steps in the move towards electric vehicles
As great as my vision sounds, maybe it’s a little too bold. Perhaps we can start by recognising that Greater Manchester has just 150 EV charging points, of which 12 are on The University of Manchester campus. If we’re aiming for hundreds of thousands of EVs, 150 charging points is far short of the mark. Perhaps we need to incentivise their use by making the charging point an attraction in its own right, a new economic centre. We could include a range of 15 to 60 minute experiences (virtual reality anyone?), something which can create high value jobs, supports Manchester’s Digital Strategy and kick-starts a new age global business, all made in Manchester.
In the meantime, what should policy makers consider? Some electric vehicles currently benefit from capital subsidies and lower fuel and vehicle taxation. These subsidies will be phased out in the long run as electric vehicles become comparable in price to petrol and diesel cars. And, to ensure the UK is in the top tier of countries promoting EVs, we need to offer people an incentive to not only buy an EV, but to scrap their current petrol or diesel car. EVs shouldn’t be the reserve of the affluent. A phased scrappage scheme for all internal combustion engine vehicles that enables a sensible transition to EVs should be introduced.
The costs of batteries have fallen faster than even the most optimistic forecasts, which means the future for EVs is looking very bright. The UK Government had previously committed to banning the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The Committee on Climate Change has described this target as not ambitious enough, and recently recommended that all sales of new cars and vans need to be ultra-low-emission vehicles by, at the very latest, 2035. The UK Government needs to adopt this as a formal target, giving a clear indication to industry that the EV is going to be the only horse in the race by the middle of this century.
The building of public charging points needs to be ramped up considerably if we’re to meet the 2050 target and these need to be standardised, so any vehicle can use any charging point. It would be a gamble to rely on the market to provide a charging network without incentives from central government. The market for building charging points won’t exist without EVs, and take up of EVs isn’t going to happen at the speed we need if the charging points aren’t accessible for every day users.
The decisions on where to situate that charging network needs to be taken at a local level; different parts of our cities and towns are more suitable for building on-street charging points or public charging points than others. Solutions which involve portable charging points (a van filled with batteries) have been proposed, but a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work. Local authorities are best positioned to make those decisions, so funding from central government needs to be made available at a regional level.
So, when it comes to helping to save our planet through electricity, there are some relatively straightforward, but important steps we can take today. Through advanced materials and new and innovative kinds of research, there are also many possibilities for protecting our future.
By being creative, thoughtful and bold with our current technologies, we have the immediate power to address a global challenge and, ultimately, safeguard humanity’s long-term survival.