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Summary:

While I’m an avid reader of Thomas Friedman’s op-eds, I have to quibble with his weekend article, where he repeats the Moore’s Law for batteries argument. Even if lighting a fire under entrepreneurs, investors and engineers is good for advancement of greentech, let’s be realistic.

Electric Car Battery Glut Looms on the Horizon

I’m an avid reader of Thomas Friedman’s column, first and foremost because he’s been the most successful at elevating the greentech business discussion to a main stage, i.e. the New York Times op-ed section. But I have a slight quibble with this weekend’s column, specifically, the section where he writes:

Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars  — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.

I guess God is going to have to save us, because there’s not currently a Moore’s Law for batteries, and I’m doubtful that we’re going to ever hit a Moore’s Law-style pace of accelerated progress and lowered costs for batteries. Yes, batteries will come down in price and become smaller, but at nowhere near the same speed — and with a lot less progress — as to be able to be compared to Moore’s Law. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every two years. The result is that over 40 years later, semiconductors are cheap and powerful enough to be embedded into everything from our bus passes to our library books, and the platform of personal computing has delivered our current always-on Internet-based society.

To set up the expectation that we could create a Moore’s Law for batteries if we tried really, really hard is disingenuous; it reminds me of the Hollywood movie where if the little kid just wishes hard enough she can bring her divorced parents back together, or her dead cat back to life. I think they call this Faith with a capital F in some circles.

Battery innovation doesn’t work on faith; it’s driven by chemistry and science. The entire problem with battery innovation and the path for electric vehicles is that over an entire century, batteries have not really improved all that much. As comedian and car enthusiast Jay Leno pointed out to me a couple of weeks ago, his 1906 Baker electric car has about the same battery range as the next-gen EVs that are just hitting the market. Bill Gates, at an event earlier this year, also expressed the same sentiment: “Batteries have not improved hardly at all. There are deep physical limits.”

During his talk, Gates actually directly debunked the notion that batteries and other energy technologies will follow a Moore’s Law-type path (the solar industry has also been trying to say there’s a Moore’s Law for solar for years). In essence, he said, we’ve been fooled by the rapid success of IT, and “there are things that just don’t move forward.” The pace of chips and IT innovation “is rare,” said Gates. In other words, a Moore’s Law pace of increasingly lower costs at such a fast rate isn’t likely to happen for a lot of other tech and science sectors.

Sorry to burst the bubble of anticipated progress for green technology, but a charming and articulate entrepreneur like Shai Agassi often has a lot of slogans that sound good and will help advance his startup Better Place. We shouldn’t just repeat and confirm them ad nauseam.

For more research on cleantech financing check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Image courtesy of GM.

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  1. Katie:

    As always your observations and comments are very accurate and focused. Could not agree with you more with the rate of change of battery technology. Some technology changes evolve and one can see and sometimes predict the pace of those changes. In others changes in technology happen by a unpredictable break-through. With batteries unless there is that quantum leap in technology innovation, Moore’s Law will not help !!!

  2. Great article. Need more of this realism in the world of alternative energy where common sense is optional.

    Simply think about what Moore’s law is – cutting more smaller things (transistors etc) from the same physical space. Energy storage is not this at all, in fact the opposite – trying to store more “stuff” in smaller places- you just don’t have the room!

    Maybe if we cut energy up smaller, we’ll get more of it! (note to the common-sense-lacking: that was a joke)

    But then again… maybe I could get a grant to study applying Deflate/LZW compression to energy, and actually shrink it. It sounds fancy, so you know it would get funded.

  3. Your analysis is missing some important stuff. The original comment is talking about “battery cost per mile”. This value is affected by more than “battery technology”. It is also affected by the manufacturing technologies involved in building the battery, and also by economy of scale, and also supply/demand, and also efficiency of supply chain, and also etc. In any case, I’m no expert on batteries but it seems to me that a couple of years back, I was reading about “$1000/kwh”, and then I was reading about “$600/kwh”, and now recently I was reading about “$400/kwh”. I’ve also read about lithium/air batteries that talk about a potential 3X increase in energy storage. Again, I’m not an expert on batteries, but at the moment, I’m not having trouble believing that the “battery cost per mile” is dropping significantly, and will continue to drop significantly in the future, due to a whole list of reasons.
    I guess we will see. People write articles like this all the time.

  4. Battery technology has been doubling in capacity in a straight line (on a log chart). It’s just that it doubles every 10 years, and has for the last 30 years. Based on conversations I’ve had with those in the battery industry, they foresee density doubling again – in 10 years. So there you have it. Moore’s law for batteries proven over 40 years: capacity doubles every 10 years.

    That’s not much if you try and hook it up to electronics that is doubling every 18 months.

  5. Katie, you are SOOO wrong!

    I suppose if we ever get some experts in integrated circuit fabrication looking at energy storage problems, we might have the type of innovation we are seeking in energy storage. Oh wait….that might already be under way.

  6. Thank you for the reality check. In this “new energy” environment there are far too few of them.

    Having said that, I hope there is Moore’s Law for fusion reactors, because I’m really looking forward to hooking up a Mr. Fusion to my DeLorean.

  7. Your right on the money Katie! Unless we find a whole boat load of “unobtanium” battery tech is not advancing as fast as some think. Yes, the costs to produce will come down over time as demand increases, but the general chemistry doesn’t really scale.

    To think that the first electric vehicle was in operation over 100 years ago. Imagine where we’ll be 100 years from now.

  8. I agree with this comment. batteries are controlled by chemistry. Bulk densities is the limiting factor. I have studied electrochemistry and batteries have been near their limits for the past century. There have been attempts to make batteries like the sodium sulphur batteries. Fairly successful but extremely dangerous in collisions. Products such as high density capacitors might give some improvement but even they will have physical limits. Hydrocarbon fuels have the highest energy density of inexpensive and safe materials we have found and will be powering our future for some time to come. Fuel cells may provide a better solution but way down the road. Another 150 year old technology.

  9. EV Battery R&D, as with cell phone battery R&D – quite obviously I would have thought, is driven by demand. Why don’t EV traction batteries already have a track record of amazing leaps in energy density? Because there has been zero market/demand for it.

    The EV1 was originally developed based on Standard Lead Acid batteries, yet even at the minuscule volumes that car was being made, GM had a need to find something better and soon found a guy working in NiMH batteries and energy density jumped forward by just the second generation of the vehicle.

    The scale of demand for EV traction batteries this time around is an entirely different order of magnitude and in response so are the R&D budgets.

    Just one example, Nissan haven’t even delivered their first Leaf yet and they have battery cells in the pipe line with DOUBLE the energy density. These are due to be available in Leafs by 2015.

    Here’s a quick run down:
    Zinc-Air 2x energy density
    Metal-Air-Ionic 10x ” ”
    Carbon Nanotubes 10x ” ”
    Lithium Air 100x ” ”

    There are also Supercapacitor batteries, Atomic batteries the list goes on. Previously there really was no application for these levels of mobile energy storage density, now there is!

  10. Glad you wrote this. When I read Friedman’s column, I was like, WTF? As you said, battery technology is driven by chemistry, not Silicon…

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