The bug to own an electric vehicle (EV) has caught on. Though the capital cost of an EV is nearly 30-40% higher than comparable internal combustion (ICE) model, the promise of saving on gasoline costs and contributing to a greener planet is an attractive proposition. As it is, the Tata Nexon EV has a waiting period of 6 months.
However, buyers are also learning there are serious downside issues, mainly the lack of charging and maintenance infrastructure. Those with independent homes have the luxury of installing a charging setup of their own; but when it’s a community of apartments and common parking facilities, there are multiple challenges.
More recently, there have been serious safety concerns after there were a series of fire incidents in EV scooters. A popular manufacturer, Okinawa Autotech, acknowledging battery problems, has recalled a batch of 3,125 two-wheelers. Though EVs still have a long way to go, the volume is galloping. There are 12 models in the EV passenger car segment on offer and growing;and cumulative sales tripled to 14,800 units in 2021. EV two-wheelers are more popular, and current March figures show sales were just short of 50,000 units– a 4-fold rise from a year ago.
As is usual, policy and infrastructure support trails the commercial launch of products. After the EV fires, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari has warned manufacturers of heavy penalties. An expert committee has also been set up, and will suggest remedial measures. Nudged by the confusion, the Niti Ayog has come up with a draft EV policy.
The draft policy is essentially focused on ‘battery-swapping’, which allows EV users to exchange discharged batteries for charged ones. This keeps vehicles running, and sidesteps charging as a delay factor. The battery, being at the heart of the EV system, the draft proposes to make it more affordable, the GST levy – currently pegged at a high of 18% – be brought down in line with other EV components that attract a rate of 5%. It also suggests setting up a network of swapping stations for batteries.
The swap arrangement is only workable with the smaller lithium-ion batteries and ,therefore, will be limited to two-wheelers or three-wheelers. The draft proposes GST benefits be extended to ‘fixed’ lithium-ion batteries too. It has also included safety measures on the agenda, and proposed a testing and certification process.
Considering the government has committed itself to doing away with the gasoline (ICE) engine by 2030, these efforts are not enough. A policy of making the EV cheaper and safer is required, along with building a network of charging and maintenance stations on a national scale. It is the government, in conjunction with the manufacturers, can achieve that scale. But will the legacy car makers allow it?
The lithium-sulphur option
It is therefore important that the hunt continues on how to make batteries cheaper and efficient. Then there are perception problems like ‘range anxiety’ – the fear of EV users that the battery may die on them in the middle of a ride. Though the lithium-ion packs are energy-dense, they are still quite heavy, large and clunky, making the EV inefficient. And as we have seen in recent cases of fire, the lithium-ion battery is a huge safety risk if it has a damaged cell. It can catch fire.
This search by scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia has come close to offering the lithium-sulphur battery as an alternative energy pack. Research showed the lithium-sulphur battery is environmentally safer, cheaper to produce, and more-energy dense, so maybe 3 times lighter than the traditional lithium-ion pack. The problem they encountered was it deteriorated quickly and died after 1-2 years.
This made it a commercial failure till the Drexel scientists began experimenting with changing the compounds in the battery’s cathode to slow down the chemical reaction that creates polysulfides when the battery charges and discharges. These crystals effectively take sulphur out of the electrode and ultimately cause a loss of capacity. In the process they made a huge discovery. They found a chemical phase of sulphur that stops battery degradation. Though still in an experimental stage, the lithium-sulphur battery will weigh a third of the equivalent lithium-ion batteries and have twice their lifespan. These packs can revolutionize transportation and make short haul flights, and large sea-faring boats go totally electric.
Much of the inputs for these batteries are freely available and accessing them will not require deep mining and damage to the environment. As we await the transition from discovery to mass marketing, the lithium-sulphur battery may bring us that much closer to a world of net-zero emissions.