In this interview, Matthew Beecham talked with Jay Chmelauskas, President, Western Lithium USA Corporation. Western Lithium is a chemical company developing a new source of lithium to supply the battery industry with molecules of lithium.  As lithium batteries become the de facto technology for electric transportation, the company expects a step shift in demand in the next several years.  

It appears that lithium-ion batteries are well suited to electric vehicles in respect of high energy content.  What further advances could we expect with this technology for automotive applications?  

The Nissan Leaf that I am currently driving has a lithium-ion battery with a range that is more than adequate for the bulk of my commute and general activities as a family of four living in Vancouver.  We expect two technological advances with batteries in the next generation of vehicles.  First, improved manufacturing technology to reduce the cost of production and thereby support larger batteries in vehicles to extend range.  Secondly, improved chemistry and design of both the cathode and anode to increase energy density, thereby extend range and possibly reduce charging time.

While the cost of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars is falling, there is some way to go.  As we understand it, the cost of such batteries is approximately US$600 per kilowatt hour compared to US$250 per kilowatt hour for laptop batteries. Can batteries for electric vehicles get that low?  

We expect the automotive sector to follow a similar price decline for larger scale automotive lithium-ion batteries due to economies of scale, innovation and competition.  

I guess that once the price falls, the emphasis will be on delivering higher energy density which could lead to smaller batteries? 

I predict that batteries will get larger in order to compete better against combustion engine vehicles for long haul trips, and eliminate ‘range anxiety’ which is a perception that exists with many potential new electric car purchasers.

Whichever way you look at it, EVs remain expensive despite government grants being offered (here in the UK) yet still give motorists range anxiety with just 100 miles between charges. What needs to happen to EV batteries to improve this situation?  

As a Nissan Leaf owner, range anxiety is quickly forgotten and the positive attributes of a clean, cheap, smooth, fast, quiet driving experience generates tremendous satisfaction for the driver.  That makes any preconceived ideas a moot point.  With the energy savings on gasoline,  improved driving experience and other characteristics such as never needing to go to a gas station, the value of an electric car can be justified for many drivers today.    

As we understand it, most hybrids with moderate to significant powertrain hybridisation use a NiMH battery.  While such batteries offer a reliable power source for hybrid cars, the potential for enhancement is limited. As far as batteries for HEVs are concerned, how do you think the market will evolve?  

The market will evolve towards plug-in hybrids and then to full electrification.  The NiMH battery does not have the energy density or economical competitiveness to be a viable technology for the next generation of electric/hybrid vehicles.