In October, a Tesla Roadster competing in Australia’s Global Green Challenge broke the world record by traveling 313 miles on a single charge. But while the news may temporarily relieve some cases of “range anxiety,” it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Even though the Obama Administration has already bet $11 billion on battery-electric vehicles, and promised to have a million electric cars on the road by 2015, substantial obstacles must be overcome before electric cars can compete with much cheaper gasoline-powered cars for market share. First and foremost, the cost of batteries energetic enough to power a car for long distances must be reduced.
Yes, the Roadster’s performance in Australia is reason to hope, but the record-breaking car only averaged 35 miles per hour. And let’s not forget that it currently retails at a hefty $109,000 — much of which is the cost of its 1/2-ton lithium-ion battery. By comparison, the Chevrolet Volt, set to be released in November 2010 and priced around $40,000 after tax credits (one component of Obama’s bet), can only go about 40 miles on a charge before its gas engine has to kick in.
Scientists, many funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), are exploring different options for improving the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, which are currently the most popular type of battery used in electric cars. This was the topic of a November seminar held at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Other researchers are investigating more energy-dense and potentially cheaper alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. Researchers in Japan have developed a nickel-lithium battery, which they claim could one day hold enough power for a range of up to 700 miles. And an Arizona-based start-up called Fluidic Energy just received a $5.13 million grant from the DOE to develop a “metal-air” battery that they claim has up to 11 times the energy density of the top lithium-ion technologies at less than one-third the cost.
Still, these technologies remain years from practical application, and until batteries get more efficient—and thus more affordable—gas guzzlers will continue to rule the roadways, whether we like it or not.