Book House The Lead

Electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries: On how lithium provides underpinnings for a sustainable future

An electric car at a charging station. (Picture courtesy: Inc 42)
  • The book “Now That We’re Here: The Future of Everything” by Akshat Tyagi and Akshay Tyagi is a generalist guide about navigating the future.

  • The hyperconnected world that once seemed futuristic is now here. By covering cross-disciplinary themes, the groundbreaking, genre-defying and utterly mind-bending collection of essays in the book will help us prepare for the future here and now.

  • A playful mix of social science and technology, these essays on Data, Design, AI, Behavioural Economics and other important themes provide a peep into what’s coming.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from the chapter “Sustainability: Don’t Break the Planet”, and describes how lithium batteries may be the keystone of the energy transition, facilitating the decarbonization of the transportation sector.

One solution for making solar viable at all times are lithium batteries. These rechargeable batteries are so ubiquitous in our daily life, from laptops to phones to now even cars and houses, but are still a pretty recent innovation. Most traditional cars that run on petrol or similar hydrocarbon fuels use an internal combustion (IC) engine. This works because hydrocarbons are a very dense store of energy. Just a litre of petrol will take you kilometres in a car that on its own weighs a ton. Previous ‘lead-acid’ batteries were too heavy for the energy stored in them to be able to move the vehicle and their own weight forward at acceptable mileage. The electric-car revolution is backed by lithium batteries being energy-dense enough to be able to drive a car. The Nobel Committee recognized this impact by awarding the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three people responsible for developing and advancing the technology.

But lithium batteries are not 100 per cent green. They create carbon emissions in production and then need to be disposed of carefully when they can’t be recharged any more. An interesting solution to save energy that is as efficient as lithium batteries but has lower carbon emissions is gravity. Essentially, you put something at a height when you have excess energy, and then you drop it when you need your energy back and capture the released energy with a turbine. A turbine is a device that gives out energy when rotated, and almost all of our energy, with the exception of solar, is made this way. Dams work on gravity, but there are new solutions that use this. For example, one solution involves lifting heavy cement blocks with the help of pulleys on top of one another, forming a tower. Then when you need energy, you drop them and convert the rotation of the pulley to electricity.

Transport is one of the top-three sectors of carbon emissions worldwide, with vehicular transport being a part of it along with aviation and shipping (water). Only in a dense city like Delhi does vehicular pollution start to stare right back at you.

So what about electric cars?

An average electric car with a mileage of 15 kWh/100 km will release 14.25 kg of CO₂ per 100 km when being charged by electricity coming from an Indian coal power plant. Most BMWs release under 120 gm/km or 12 kg of CO₂ per 100 km! Smaller cars with better mileage will emit even less. This is because our coal plants are inefficient as compared to those in developed countries. Electric cars don’t make sense unless our grid is low-emission as well. A study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) shows that electronic vehicles (EVs) in India produce only 10 per cent less carbon as compared to internal combustion engines (ICEs).

But even at the same level of pollution electric cars are better because the carbon emission happens at a single point (the coal power station) as opposed to the millions of tailpipes in traditional cars. This makes it easy to capture the carbon. Like we often have pointed out in the book, many things are solved easily in production rather than consumption. Delhi’s coal power-plants have already been ordered to install FGD (flue gas desulphurization) units which filter out the most harmful SO2 gas, but that still leaves carbon. For that, we need to switch out our grid to carbon neutral completely, but that will take at least two decades on an optimistic timeline. And it will require a massive push from the government. In late 2019, Delhi became the first state to launch a comprehensive EV policy and has started to set up electric charging points across the city.

But until that happens, consider an electric scooter. Even though two-wheelers like bikes have better mileage than cars, most non-carbon vehicular emissions in India come from the inefficient two-stroke ICE engines of two-wheelers. These pollutants are not only warming but also carcinogenic. The aforementioned Delhi EV policy purports to solve this by requiring delivery companies to switch their two-wheeler fleet to at least 50 per cent electric in the next few years. Add to this the fact electric cars are expensive compared to equivalent ICE models. Teslas will be priced even higher in the luxury segment when they arrive, making them out of reach of the majority of Indians. And hence the authors are especially excited about Ather Energy, a start-up that believes that two-wheeler EVs are more important for India and has launched its first model in the country. They hope an electric scooter is bound to find wider adoption than prohibitively expensive electric cars.

Just like nuclear, the government spends the bulk of their money at the wrong end of the pipeline, in giving tax subsidies. They should rather invest directly at the innovation end. The FAME-II tax subsidy shaves off about Rs 27,000 off the price of an Ather scooter as opposed to Rs 22,000 in the previous policy, reducing the cost to Rs 1.23 lakh. Akshay has been waiting to buy his Ather scooter for years, and early adopters like him are unlikely to care about marginal price reductions. In fact, the author pre-booked a pricier variant of the scooter on the day of its launch, even before its price was revealed! The government could instead take the additional 5k subsidy and invest it in battery research that could in turn reduce the real cost of the scooter, doing away with the need for a subsidy.

And if they do indeed want to go the tax-free route, they should go all out. Tesla has been unable to set up shop in India due to rigid regulations. The government should expedite the launch of Tesla as it might spur innovation in lower-tier electric cars.

Apart from EVs, there are other alternatives to ICEs as well. Honda has famously been showing off their hydrogen fuel cell tech ever since Akshay was born (about ten years before Akshat was), trying to tell everybody that its adoption is right around the corner. But the truth is that it is nothing but a PR exercise for the company. Hydrogen fuel cells are a form of energy storage, not production, competing with lithium batteries, not IC engines. The energy will have to be made elsewhere. A fuel cell works by combining hydrogen gas filled in a tank with oxygen freely available to produce water and energy. The problem is how do you get the hydrogen in the tank in the first place. You have to electrolyze water to break it into hydrogen and oxygen, and this reverse process consumes electricity. About 30 per cent of the energy is lost in converting water to hydrogen gas. You then need more energy to pressurize the hydrogen into liquid form. Transporting the hydrogen causes further energy losses as compared to the electricity grid, where energy losses are pretty low. You lose further energy while converting the hydrogen back into water. Batteries of course don’t work at 100 per cent and create waste at the end of their life cycle, but the efficiencies are much better. So, yeah, decades from now, when our energy use and supply will be 10x of what it is now, and sustainability will trump capital efficiency thanks to surplus energy due to fission and fusion, hydrogen cells might make sense as an energy store over batteries. But not today. No matter how much recycled aluminium Apple uses in its MacBooks, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco still has twice as many trillion dollars in valuation and makes its money digging oil.

In public policy terms, renewables are both good and bad for governments. Governments own all the coal and oil of the country and make a ton of money by selling them. There’s a reason the Middle East is rich, and the Indian coal scam was such a huge hit in the news. But the sun’s rays and the winds that roam the surface of our planet are free for everybody, so the more a country switches to renewables, the less money a government makes. The flip side is that a lot of wars on this planet have been fought over these hydrocarbon reserves. Look at the recent Syrian crisis created at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS. ISIS was able to afford its endeavour only through capturing oil wells and selling the crude oil to other nations via black markets. If we switch away from oil to a resource most countries have in bounty we take away much of the economics of war (even though wind and sunshine aren’t the same everywhere, they are a lot more widely distributed then fossil fuels). And if a future terror attack involving drones lights up Aramco’s oil field on fire, India’s electricity bills won’t be impacted. All in all, the short-term revenue loss will be more than compensated by the independence a nation will achieve.

Excerpted with permission from Now That We’re Here: The Future of Everything, Akshat Tyagi and Akshay Tyagi, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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