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Dear Friedman: There Is No Moore’s Law for Batteries

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.

22 Responses to “Dear Friedman: There Is No Moore’s Law for Batteries”

  1. I wish that I knew the secret to how Shai Agassi can get so many to drink his Kool-Aid and believe his story. While such a system may benefit the company that owns it, and the government partner that subsidizes it, it would be wholly unfavorable to the consumer themselves. It comes close to eerie to see government entities (such as the City of San Francisco) jump on the PBP bandwagon, without even realizing they are entangling the fundamental citizen right of mobility to a corporate enterprise. I don’t think any of us would like our vehicles owned by Exxon, for which we pay a monthly rent, would we? PBP is no different.

    What makes the whole thing particularly sad is that the same technology could be applied in such a way that would require no such massive corporate-government encumbrances. Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). A smaller (affordable) battery pack is supplemented by a small IC-engine which allows for extended range without the massive battery swapping infrastructure. The engine can be powered by gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or any number of synthetic fuels.

    PHEVs have an inherent advantage over full-EVs in that they do not have to carry around the extra batteries needed for nominal range requirements, and do not require long periods for recharge (or battery swapping). These advantages are valid even if the rarely-used fuel is completely synthetic in nature, so they are not tied to the oil economy as some might suggest.

    Any advancements in battery technology also move the PHEV advantage ahead along with the EVs, so I don’t see how EVs will ever catch up.

    PBP represents a move towards socialism in the worst sense of the word; not to provide an overall benefit to the citizen, but to add a vector of control and encumbrance that is not even the most efficient way of solving the problem.

  2. Evan Thornley

    Sure the physical parameter progress in batteries is less than what’s seen in semi-conductors, but be careful not to under-estimate the combined economic impact of cumulative improvements across multiple parameters on the all-important metric of cost-per-kilometer.

    The big changes we are seeing in life-cycles, for example, dramatically improve the amortised capital cost per kilometer. You could see no change is size, weight, power or cost of a battery, for example, but if the life goes from 2,000 full discharge cycles to say 5,000 or even 7,000 full discharge cycles, the amortised cost per kilometer just plummeted. Now I doubt we’ll see life cycle levels continue to multiply like that, but we only need to see these types of improvements for the economics of batteries to leave gasoline in the dust.

    When you combine them with the actual improvements in size, weight, power and cost (which has declined 8% year-over-year historically), the economic improvement potential is radically disruptive.

    Evan Thornley,
    Better Place Australia

  3. Rudolpho Amenius

    Katie: You rock! Of course Moore’s Law (more properly an observation) is one of the most misunderstood statement in history. It is miscorrectly applied to batteries (Shai’s Law), LED (Haitz Law), Solar Cells, and legions of other technologies where it doesn’t hold water. Chips are built in 2-D layers. If you can scale the photo lithographic (printing) process linearly every 2 years you get a square law improvement in the size and performance of the circuits. There is no corresponding physical process to improve batteries or LED’s at this rate. Often when a new technology gets hot people observe a temporary “Moores” curve and incorrectly extrapolate. As soon as the inefficiencies of the underlying techniques are worked out and there is no more low hanging fruit – the geometric improvement falls back to arithmetic improvement. The astounding thing about Gordon’s observation is that is has held valid for nearly 40 years. Other “Moore” phenomena without an underlying physical basis for sustained doubling quickly fade to much slower improvements. Also note that Moore adjusted his time constant from 18 months to two years. The time constant is critical. So yes there will be a halving of BatteryCost/Mile but with a time constant measured in a dozen years of so.

    Two bad we can’t scale electrons by just printing them.

  4. In a complete system (including motor etc.), gasoline only beats batteries by around 3x, which you can easily see in vehicle ranges today, ~120 miles for EV and ~350 for gas. While gasoline doesn’t represent a hard upper limit on chemical energy storage, it’s crazy to think we’ll get 10x (let alone 100x+) improvement in battery chemistry. High explosives are only a few times more energy-dense than gasoline. Probably the main reason batteries improve so slowly is that nobody wants to see them turn into firecrackers.

    As for alternatives to batteries, a fuel cell would likely use ethanol or methanol, both of which store less energy per volume than gasoline. Today’s batteries store 20x the energy of supercapacitors, so capacitors have a looong way to go just to catch up. There is no Moore’s Law for alternative technologies either.

    The reality is that batteries don’t need to get 10x better for EVs to be practical. It’ll take decades to build a national infrastructure for sustainable (solar/wind) electric energy generation/distribution and for EVs to capture a majority market share. Over that much time we’ll see improvements in many technologies that will contribute, from more efficient electric motors to lighter weight materials for the rest of the car, maybe even laws requiring cars to get lighter over time so we don’t have to fear having our small EVs crushed by SUVs.

    Shai Agassi is promoting his plan to use government money to buy/own the battery packs in EVs, then have his company rent the battery packs back to EV drivers. On the scale of 10 million cars, at $3000 per battery pack, that’s some $30 billion in capital required, let alone the cost of installing his $100k pack-swapping robots in gas stations everywhere. He’ll stand to make billions of dollars in private profits from public money. You can expect him to say whatever it takes to try to pull that off.

  5. Moore’s law was nothing more than an observation about a trend that occurred between 1958 and 1965 which caused Moore to predict that the trend would last for 10 more years.

    He was wrong.

    It lasted until now and predictions about it’s demise occur every now and then.

    The simply point about energy storage is that we don’t know what breakthroughs await and how rapidly they can be improved upon.

    What we do know is that a TON more money is now flowing in this field and it would be E X T R E M E L Y unusual if the relatively small amount of money spent previously on energy storage research could muster the same results as MUCH MORE FUNDING today.

    See the point?

    My personal prediction is we will definitely have an advancement that will at least for a brief spell give us energy storage gains on par with Moore’s law.

    I do not think the trend will last as long as it did for transistors for the reason the other poster here mentioned about abstractions and the relative simplicity of transistors vs energy storage.

    But i could be wrong…

  6. I only partially agree, as noted in a comment earlier Moore’s Law is about trying to store more stuff in a smaller space. The CPU is all about putting more electrons on the same size or smaller processor.

    Although I do agree currently there is no Moore’s Law in the battery department, to say it won’t happen is just as disingenuous as to say that it will.

    Of course in the long run, who cares? Just so long as we progress. Why does everything have to be done fast and have to be done now. Maybe taking our time to improve battery life might keeping us from making mistakes that can cost us in the long term.

  7. According to the article, Thomas Friedman is really quoting Shai Agassi (Project Better Place). Shai should REALLY know better, and undoubtedly does. But Shai also knows that snake oil doesn’t really cure ailments, but sells it anyway…..

  8. Katie,

    You are quite correct. It should be pointed out to Mr. Friedman that what a transistor DOES (stores a 1 or a 0) is essentially an abstraction; they store information. It’s much easier for an abstraction to increase in size every 18 months according to Moore’s Law. Not so easy with a battery, which has to store energy. Last I saw, energy is not an abstraction.

    FWIW, Amory Lovins made the same mistake, and was similarly chastised.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Where Friedman has lost the plot is:

    He’s suggesting the US needs to be in competition with China in EVs yet at the same time suggesting an Chinese manufactured car with Chinese manufactured batteries with a little bit of locally sourced power electronics, The Coda, is buying American. HUH?

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. Domenic Armano

    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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. Ramana Gogula


    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 !!!