We didn’t use gravitational time dilation to figure out what you’ll be using in the future. On display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show were several manufacturers’ mock-ups of the smarter home and car. At the heart of it all was a little piece of technology that will change the way we consume energy and power our devices: the lithium-ion battery.
The car you will drive
A hovercraft. Well, that’s how Nissan LEAF owner Tom Franklin describes the feeling of driving his new electric vehicle (EV).
Just one year ago, the $100,000-plus Tesla Roadster was pretty much the only EV available to U.S. consumers. In 2011, we now have the LEAF, Chevy Volt, and Ford just topped off the list with the announcement of its new Focus Electric.
Today, EVs are novel. In 10 years, they’ll be commonplace. In fact, China announced last week that it’s preparing for its EV market to triple by 2020, with 40 million cars on the road. Here in the U.S., the growth will steadily rise as well, as the Department of Energy has unloaded $99.8 million into The EV Project, a program working to expand the deployment of EVs.
“Through The EV Project, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of consumer interest in electric vehicles, and fully expect the number of EVs on the road to continue to increase each year. We expect to see 1.5 to 3 million EVs on the road by 2021,” said Jonathan Read, CEO of ECOtality, a leader in clean electric transportation and storage technologies and partner of The EV Project.
But with EVs comes a chicken-egg scenario: will we need better infrastructure that supports more charging stations in order to really push these vehicles mainstream? Or, will more EVs need to be purchased in order to make more charging stations feasible?
The EV Project has already distributed 15,000 stations in 16 cities across six states. By 2021, that number will reach the millions.
“[We] anticipate that nearly 1.8 to 4.5 million electric vehicle charging stations will be deployed outside restaurants, malls and commercial locations across the country, including DC Fast Charging stations alongside major transportation corridors,” said Read. “The deployment of a rich charging infrastructure—the main goal of The EV Project—will encourage consumer EV adoption.”
The heart and soul of the EV is the lithium-ion, aka the mack daddy of rechargeable batteries. Panasonic, the leading manufacturer of battery cells for electronics, has shifted its focus on creating these batteries for cars, and its recent $30 million partnership with Tesla will only spur on the development of next-generation battery cells designed specifically for EVs.
“Together in our partnership with Tesla, the goal is to promote awareness of partnerships that can advance technology and drive down the costs of energy systems that go into making EVs, like the lithium-ion,” said Peter Fannon, vice president of Corporate and Government Affairs for Panasonic.
But lithium-ion in EVs is a different animal when it comes to charging your car at home, the office or on the go. Managing the primary source of this energy – the power grid – is already on the minds of manufacturers.
“We’re working with NIST’s Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, who develops the standard in which the industry can follow to implement smart grid effectively,” said Fannon. “In the future, there will be contributions back to the grid, everything from individuals generating more power and selling it back to the grid, to sizable sub-stations and systems. As of now, all of those standards are moving forward quite well.”
The home in which you will live
It’s an arms-race between the major manufacturers to put out a “smart home.”
The presentations on the show floor displayed homes that pretty much think for themselves – a washing machine that turns on during lowest energy hours, or an oven that downloads recipes (LG is really working on this). The best part? You will be able to control all of these things from your smartphone or tablet.
Toshiba is developing its Home Energy Management System (HEMS), which will monitor and forecast your home’s energy output in real-time numbers. Essentially, all of the appliances, electronics and climate control will be powered by a rechargeable battery that stores energy generated from solar power or fuel cells.
“In the future there will be chips in your appliances, fridges and washing machine communicating back to you so that you can track each individual appliance. You can then take certain steps to reduce your power consumption,” said Craig Hershberg, director of environmental affairs for Toshiba.
Accessibility will be key to efficiently running your home. While you will have an easy-to-use display panel on the wall of your home, you will also be able jump on your laptop, tablet or phone for easy control.
“Through a rechargeable battery, your home will be able to store any of the energy you might have gotten from a solar panel to be used later in peak hours when you’re going to pay more for electricity,” said Hershberg.
The battery to which Hershberg is referring is the SCiB rechargeable battery, which has a 6,000 charge-discharge cycle, and 90 percent of its capacity is charged in just five minutes. Toshiba claims that this battery’s product life increased by three to five times, compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Panasonic’s Eco Ideas House functions like Toshiba’s HEMS concept. Except for one major difference: Panasonic’s HEMS system went on the market in 2009 in Japan, making it the world’s first commercially available household fuel cell system. So far, Panasonic has sold approximately 2,000 units for about $35,000 after Japanese subsidies.
According to Toshiki Shimizu of the Panasonic Corporation’s Fuel Cell Project, one unit can reduce an average household’s CO2 generation by one-third, or 1.5 tons per year, and reduce primary energy consumption by 4,500kWh per year. Panasonic aims to expand production to 600,000 units per year by 2020 in the U.S.
“We expect that home storage batteries will have a sizable role to play in the not too distance future in storing energy from solar voltaic systems and fuel cells that are becoming more practical and financially effective for homes,” said Fannon.
But even with government subsidies, the current fuel cell system won’t provide the payoff that many consumers need in order to make the purchase worthwhile. According to Fannon, streamlining production of these systems to allow for a better return on investment is Panasonic’s primary goal over the next 10 years.
“Right now, it takes about 15 years to recoup the investment, so it cannot yet be a ROI-slam-dunk investment for everyone,” said Fannon. “But over the next few years they will become more efficient, and as volume goes up, the price will come down.”
The device that will power it all
Your smartphone, the laptop you’re using now, even your DSLR camera all use a lithium-ion battery. But with the influx of new technology that lithium-ion supports, will these batteries need to be consistently modified in order to keep up? Dana Barka, senior manager of marketing communication for Call2Recycle, said it’s the old-age supply-demand scenario.
“Batteries are constantly changing to meet demands. Businesses and consumers want faster, lighter, long-lasting, cheap batteries, so the battery technology must evolve,” she said. “What results is a chicken-egg effect: batteries are evolving because of product demand, and when the batteries evolve, products change or improve.”
The good news is that these types of batteries are recyclable, and their valuable metal content is easily recoverable, namely cobalt, nickel and some other residuals. As for those models that we’ll be using 10 years down the road, Barka said recycling programs are likely to progress alongside battery innovation.
“Existing recycling programs will evolve to meet the demands of recycling, and Call2Recycle is certainly recycling more and more lithium-ion,” she said.
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Amanda Wills is the Managing Editor of Earth911. You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaWills.
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