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EV battery technology explained

How does EV battery tech work?

Sure, the world of EVs might seem all new and slightly alarming to those who deeply understand how internal-combustion-engined cars work, but trust us, it’s not that hard. If you’ve ever had a mobile phone, or a laptop, you’ve dealt with batteries and recharging already. Just imagine your laptop with wheels and electric motors, and seats, and a boot and… well, you get the idea.

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs, or EVs), hybrids and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) all use electricity that’s stored in a battery pack (so called because of the hundreds of individual battery cells packaged into modules or pockets) to power an electric motor.  

There are several electric car battery types, however, and the batteries used in electric cars are a little more complicated than, say, the double-A batteries used to power up your TV remote control. 

Typically the most common electric car battery is lithium-ion - Tesla car batteries are lithium-ion - and they are rechargeable, designed for a high kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity and come with a high power-to-weight ratio, as well as specific energy and energy density. 

Types of batteries used in electric vehicles

Lithium-Ion Battery 

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A lithium-ion car battery is the current industry norm for EVs, but superior technology is always being researched and developed, so its reign as the go-to battery for EVs isn’t necessarily guaranteed long-term. 

Before there was a lithium battery for cars, the technology was chiefly designed for use in consumer electronics like laptops and mobile phones. 

Due to their high energy density and long cycle life, the lithium-ion car battery has become the leader in regards to electric car battery types.

 Lithium-ion batteries are made of carbon and highly reactive lithium, which can store a lot of energy.

Lithium-ion batteries are relatively sensitive to temperature, so the battery unit is conditioned to maintain an optimum operating temperature regardless of the environmental temperature that’s happening outside. 

If you’re wondering what batteries most major EV manufacturers use in their EVs, it’s this one (both the Nissan Leaf battery type and Tesla Model 3 battery type are lithium-ion, for example). 

Nickel-Metal Hydride Battery (NiMH) 

This type of electric vehicle battery is typically used in hybrids - cars with both an electric motor and internal-combustion engine - such as the Toyota RAV4 PHEV.

Nickel metal hydride batteries use hydrogen to store energy, with nickel and another metal (such as titanium) keeping a lid on the hydrogen ions. 

NiMH batteries are currently less expensive than lithium-ion batteries, but they are also larger and heavier, which can adversely effect the car’s performance. 

They’re also able to hold around the same amount of energy as lithium-ion batteries, but the latter can be charged and discharged at a more rapid rate. 

Research has shown that they can be long-lasting and still operational after 160,000km and more than a decade of driving, but they do also suffer from poor efficiency, high self-discharge and poor performance when the weather turns cold. 

Lead-Acid Battery

EV battery types come in several flavours, including your old-school lead-acid batteries. 

Their popularity stems from being high-powered, inexpensive, safe and reliable, but there are some notable downsides too: poor performance in cold weather, a short life span and low specific energy being the three big ones. 

Storage capacity for lead-acid batteries decreases with lower temperatures, and diverted power to run a heating coil in an EV can reduce the efficiency and range by a whopping 40 per cent.

Sodium-Nickel-Chloride Battery

Also known as a ZEBRA (Zeolite Battery Research Africa Project) battery, these are less commonly used in EVs. 

The ZEBRA is a rechargeable molten salt battery using common materials like nickel metal and the sodium and chloride from conventional table salt.

They last for a few thousand charge cycles, but they have electrolytes that need to be heated to a toasty 270 degrees Celsius, which causes energy wastage and issues in relation to long-term charge storage. 

What’s a new type of battery for electric cars?

As researchers and developers continue to refine electric car battery technology, a number of new variants of EV batteries are in the works. 

The Lithium Vanadium Phosphate Battery (LVP) is a proposed type of lithium-ion battery that uses vanadium phosphate in the cathode, resulting in a safer and longer-lasting battery. 

A lithium-air battery is one that can theoretically lead to electrochemical cells with the highest possible specific energy, but significant advancements in electrolyte development will be requited before they are commercially available. 

The lithium-sulphur battery is expected to one day supersede lithium-ion batteries due to its higher energy density and reduced cost, although problems leading to a low life-cycle of the battery have currently held up widespread implementation. 

Lithium-ion batteries may also one day be replaced by the aluminium-ion battery, due to the fact they can be produced at a low cost and their energy storage capacity is higher than other metal-based batteries. 

A solid-state battery is one that replaces the liquid found in lithium-ion batteries with a solid electrode or solid electrolyte, like ceramics or solid polymers. They have higher energy densities and are safer, but they are also currently very expensive. 

They do potentially offer faster charging and a longer cycle life, however, so development on these as a potential replacement for lithium-ion batteries continues. 

How long do electric car batteries last?

We’ve answered the question “what are electric car batteries made of?”, but what about battery longevity? 

This is a tricky one since how often you use your EV, how often you charge the vehicle and the power that you’re using to charge it with all impact the battery’s overall life. In short, there are a huge number of variables.

A reasonable prediction for battery life, however, is 10 to 20 years, which is a considerable improvement on the life expectancy of batteries in non-electric cars. 

Most car manufacturers offer five to eight-year warranties on EV batteries, so placing the prediction at the more conservative end of the scale might offer a more realistic answer in relation to the battery’s expected life cycle. 

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