On the brink of a battery-powered revolution

The technical marketing director at Johnson Matthey considers the electric vehicle market and how advances in technology will enable it to lead the fight against climate change

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Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the consequences of global temperature growth exceeding 2°C compared with the pre-industrial era: sea levels would rise, extreme weather would become the norm, biodiversity would suffer and the availability of fresh water would decline. Climate scientists said that we were reaching a precipice, in which we had only 12 years to act decisively against global warming and keep within the target of 1.5°C if the world was to avoid a climate catastrophe. If the UK and other signatories are to keep the promises made in the Paris Agreement, urgent action is required.

Transport and electricity generation each make up around a quarter of the UK’s annual carbon emissions; in addition to the damaging greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, cars, buses and trucks contribute to dangerous levels of toxic air pollution in the UK’s towns and cities. Pollutants from traffic, industrial and domestic sources have been linked to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK and have been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization. But in the face of serious climate concerns, the continuing dominance of fossil fuel-driven internal combustion engines in the UK is being challenged by a new generation of battery-powered vehicles.

In its report, The Road to Zero, the government states its wish to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in the design and manufacture of zero emissions vehicles and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) technology, a sector set to bring sweeping changes to a global automotive market worth over £1.5trn
a year and create huge opportunities for UK plc. BEVs can be a lower CO2 solution than internal combustion engines, but their CO2 footprint depends on how the electricity they use is generated. The UK is doing well in this area – the carbon intensity of the grid dropped by almost 50 per cent in just four years up to 2017, as we reduced the use of coal and increased the proportion of renewables. The National Grid expects to reduce these emissions by a further 90 per cent between now and 2050, which, coupled with the government’s zero emissions target for all new cars and vans by 2040, will strongly support the almost complete decarbonisation of the UK’s car fleet via the battery-powered revolution.

Consumers, too, are increasingly waking up to the challenge of climate change and want to know about the sustainable performance of their vehicle before purchasing. While adoption of BEVs is growing, it hasn’t yet reached its so-called “tipping point”, in which the barriers of cost, mileage, power and recharge points are overcome, and the uptake of BEVs outweighs that of standard vehicles. Overall operating costs, in addition to the initial price of the cars on the forecourt, need to be considered. But BEVs have fewer parts, making maintenance and repair simpler, and as electricity is usually cheaper than fuel, the average BEV is cheaper to run than a standard vehicle.

Investing around £200m in research each year, Johnson Matthey has been striving to facilitate step changes in the performance of next generation cathode materials via the development of its eLNO® family of cathode materials, which will bring the improvements needed in both battery performance and cost to make the BEV more attractive for consumers All materials in a battery possess a theoretical specific energy, and the key to high capacity and superior power delivery lies primarily in the cathode. For people in the UK, Germany and China, consumer studies have shown that the primary concern when it comes to BEVs is range. In 2018 the average new BEV could travel around 140 miles between charges. But Johnson Matthey is in the process of creating battery materials that can give BEVs a range of between 300-400 miles, enough to allow users to drive the journey between London and Paris via the Channel Tunnel. As the technology moves forward, charge times are also falling substantially, and ultra-fast charging stations of up to 350 kilowatts are allowing 80 per cent charge in just 15 minutes.

However, one of the key barriers to the roll-out of BEVs is lack of charging points. For BEVs to be commonplace, a rollout of charging points across the UK and around the globe is needed. There are currently only 23,000 public charge connectors serving around 160,000 electric vehicles, which includes both BEVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. This ratio of around one charge connector for every seven EVs is almost identical to the ratio across Europe, and is higher than the one to ten ratio target set by the European Union’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure directive. But as BEVs continue to grow in popularity, the charging infrastructure deployment needs to accelerate. The Road to Zero target of at least 50 per cent of cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2030 implies that the number of public connectors in the UK needs to grow from 23,000 to over 200,000 over the next decade. Charging points are also distributed unevenly and concentrated in larger cities. More than 25 per cent are in Greater London, whereas less than 20 per cent of the total are located in Yorkshire, Wales, the West Midlands and the North East combined. Sustained investment in the BEV infrastructure is required to meet the consumers’ needs and drive the battery-powered revolution forward.

BEVs will not suit all road users. Commercial vehicles such as long haul lorries need a far longer range than personal road vehicles, and would therefore require much larger, heavier, more expensive batteries. In these cases, hydrogen fuel cell technology – which allows 500-1,000 miles of travel between charges and refuelling times of just five minutes – will be more appropriate and will be an essential part of the future green energy mix.

As public awareness of climate change grows, the emergence of BEVs as the dominant mode of road transportation is right around the corner. Car manufacturers are preparing for the market’s tipping point, predicted by Bloomberg to be 2025, when the purchase price of a BEV is around the same as that of an equivalent petrol or diesel car. Once this happens, and we see the rollout of technologies to increase the distance between recharging and to reduce the time taken to recharge, along with the further growth of the charging infrastructure, BEVs will become the preferred option for drivers – an essential step change for people and planet.