Of all rechargeable battery technologies in the world, lithium ion battery technologies are the most suitable for electric vehicles at the present time due to their high energy storage capacity and moderate power ratings. These technologies are rapidly becoming mainstream due to their increasing global deployment in electric vehicles, and within residential/commercial energy storage systems. Historically, lithium ion batteries have been enabled by the mobile device sector, which has driven their development towards high energy, but low power applications.

The further development of these battery systems to provide higher energy and maximise their power ratings safely and reliably continues to be researched around the world by both major industries, e.g. LG and Tesla, and academic research institutions. Through these efforts, such battery technologies will continue to improve; however, considering that lithium ion batteries are high energy devices, issues on safety are real. Robust and appropriate standards around the battery technology and the battery management systems need to be developed. It should be noted that the battery standards around the world vary greatly, so developing standards suitable for Australia is vital.

An obvious question regarding battery technologies is what is the future of batteries of electric vehicles?

Noting that it takes 20-30 years of development before technology translation between concept and product occurs, it is safe to conclude that lithium batteries will constitute the major type of technology over the coming decades. Issues around potential scarcity of lithium around the world should not be a major concern within this time-frame. Such issues need to be considered through innovation on new battery technology for future energy systems, which Australia has potential to be a major contributor in.

Importantly, the current lithium battery iteration, those based on a complex mixture of transition metals within the cathode, provide sufficient energy and power needs for the development of electric vehicles. The concurrent development of the electric vehicle market and battery technologies will see the progressive reduction in costs, improved mileage, and enhanced uptake over time.

This is evident through all major car manufacturers, e.g. Tesla, Volvo, Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW, now offering EVs to the market already. It is anticipated that by 2040 the sales from EVs are going to increase to ~40% from the ~1% currently. The price of batteries is expected to rapidly decline from values that currently range in the ~500 USD/kWh down to the targeted 100 USD/kWh. Scaling is critical to achieve this. With China currently having 217 GWh of planned and existing lithium ion battery production capacity, some 5 times larger than the US, this will likely be achieved in the coming decade.

The adoption of electric vehicles in Australia will continue to grow; however, for any new market there is a natural tension between supply and need. As has been demonstrated around the world, the role of Government should be to provide the framework to remove this “chicken or egg” situation through incentives for the uptake of electric vehicles. This has been done successfully in the solar cell sector here in Australia.

One thing that we learnt from that uptake is better planning is needed to understand the local energy demands and changes across the electricity network. These planning processes need to start now for electric vehicles because they are inherently tied to the planning processes of electricity market participants, including the generators, transmission and distribution companies, retailers, and the various auxiliary function providers like AEMO, AER, etc.

Electric vehicles will provide an additional complexity to the energy market by providing portable energy storage units. However, this is a potential opportunity that needs to be unpacked in great detail because it has the potential to lower energy prices, drive electric vehicle adoption, stabilise our electricity grids, and create new businesses, if done well. Dedicated research programs/institutes that bridge electricity and transport markets together to develop optimised systems solutions to such challenges is required.

A key opportunity that exists in electric vehicles is that it provides a common platform across resources, manufacturing, energy and automotive sectors. As evidenced from above, the connection to the energy markets is evident. In terms of resources, Australia is among the top 5 major or producers for most energy technologies in the world! The increase in the use of batteries will certainly provide a lift for the Australian resource economy, particularly those that deal with Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel and Manganese.

Focussing on innovation around the discovery and processing of these ores within Australia will create new opportunities to generate and use intellectual property, particularly in processes for purifying & accumulation of these components. Pilot plants linked to dedicated research infrastructure would have the most value in these instances. Processing of all ores is heavily linked to energy use and so has been largely deployed to other countries with low cost energy over the past two decades. This scenario may change through the exploration of low cost renewables and associated novel business models. These options should be carefully explored and incentivised because they leverage from a strong ore processing skill-base in Australia, which is something that we must nurture and protect for the foreseeable future.

Beyond this, a natural question is: should we be manufacturing EVs or components (such as batteries) for EVs in Australia? Given that the major manufacturers are already rolling out products and that technologies for producing them are rather mature, it may be too late for Australia to enter this venture with a leadership role and the beneficiaries of such endeavours may actually lie outside our country. Therefore, we would need to be selective about this opportunity, identifying & supporting areas of strength instead of joining the mass-manufacturing bandwagon – an area where Australia is unlikely to be successful in. Areas of strength lie in development of IP, protection and nurturing of emerging energy storage technologies and integrated systems for electric vehicles developed in our innovation system so that we are better prepared for the next-generation of technologies required for the EV market.

With the emerging issues around waste facing Australia, the adoption of EVs in the Australian economy will certainly also contribute to this problem by contributing to a growing second-hand battery market. Avoiding the costly shipping and transport costs of batteries from discarded products will require better means to re-use and re-cycle the large amount of batteries being decommissioned in the coming years. For this, developing new technologies & intellectual property on battery re-cycling and re-use could become a new opportunity for the knowledge-intensive & smarter Australian economy.

In summary, electric vehicles will slowly emerge as a natural competitor to combustion engine vehicles in the coming decades. Whilst there is a potential opportunity to develop large-scale manufacturing facilities in Australia for batteries and electric vehicles, there is a real question of cost-competitiveness across these, which needs to be further explored.

A clearer opportunity lies in leveraging the strengths we have in our innovation and intellectual capability, by finding and developing niche markets. These should be focussed on ore discovery and processing, new battery development, and end-of-use/recycling of high energy batteries.

Dr. Jacek Jasniek and Prof. Mainak Majumder, both from Monash University recently submitted this letter to the senate select committee on electric vehicles