Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

In recent episodes, we’ve talked a lot about electric cars, but we haven’t really spent time talking about what makes them work- the battery. What are these batteries made of, and can we rely on them to get us where we need to go? 

We had Harrison Katz and Ashley Junger from our Possibly team look into this question. Welcome Harrison and Ashley!

Harrison Katz: Hi, Megan!

Ashley Junger: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, when I talk to people who are skeptical about electric cars, they often say something about the battery being a problem- either because of how it’s made or how far you can go on a charge. Are they right? 

Harrison Katz: Well, batteries in electric cars are definitely not perfect. 

Ashley Junger: For one. They’re expensive- if you look at the price of an electric car, a third of it goes to paying for the battery. 

Harrison Katz: Also, the greenhouse gases released from manufacturing a typical electric vehicle battery is equal to using a gas-powered car for 1-2 years.

Megan Hall: That’s a lot of money and a lot of pollution! Why are electric vehicle batteries so expensive??

Harrison Katz: To find out, we talked to Yue Qi, a Professor of Engineering at Brown University.

Ashley Junger: She says that current electric vehicle batteries are made from lithium, nickel, and cobalt. These metals are rare and hard to extract from the Earth, which contributes to both the cost and the greenhouse gas emissions. 

Yue Qi: If you look at the materials used, there’s some transition metals and oxides. The process to get them involves more resources.

Harrison Katz: Cobalt is the most expensive metal used in electric car batteries. It’s also used in cell phone batteries.

Ashley Junger: But it’s not just expensive- cobalt mines often use child labor and have extremely unsafe working conditions. 

Harrison Katz:: Because of that, electric car manufacturers are moving to use cobalt free batteries in their vehicles, and the United States Department of Energy has released a plan to eliminate Cobalt in batteries by 2030. 

Ashley Junger: That move alone would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fight human rights violations, and make batteries cheaper.

Harrison Katz: Speaking of, electric vehicle batteries have already been getting cheaper. In the last 30 years the cost of an electric vehicle battery has dropped by 97%.

Ashley Junger: And Yue Qi says, over that same period of time, the amount of energy that electric vehicle batteries can store has tripled. 

Yue Qi: The first commercialized lithium battery started in 1991 by Sony with two materials. The energy density was close to 100 Watt hour per kilogram. Our current batteries with the same materials can be more than 200 Watt hour per kilogram, probably reached about 300.

Megan Hall: What is a Watt hour per kilogram?

Ashley Junger: It’s a way of measuring how much electricity the battery can store. The higher the Watt hours per kilogram, the better the battery.

Harrison Katz: And the better the battery, the longer you can go without charging it. 

Megan Hall: So, an electric vehicle today, compared to one in 1991, can go about three times as far without stopping to charge?

Ashley Junger: Exactly! An electric vehicle in 1991 could only travel about 80 miles before needing a recharge. Today, that number is above 250 miles.

Harrison Katz: And based on recent battery breakthroughs, the amount of energy an electric battery can hold will keep improving. Researchers are now working to develop batteries with an energy density of over 500 Watt hours per kilogram. 

Megan Hall: Wow! That would be a massive improvement!

Harrison Katz: And things are changing so fast with this technology that you should expect some more updates from the Possibly Team soon. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Harrison and Ashley! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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