AHEAD OF THE PACK? BMW is developing 'super batteries' for their future electric cars which will give them a much extensive range of 500km. Image: Trevor Noble
Germany - Of all automotive brands, none are more synonymous with the engine as its anchor of marketing momentum than BMW.
The ‘Werke has an enviable heritage of impossibly smooth, impressively powerful engines. In a future where alternative powertrains will possibly eclipse the internal combustion engine, what does the trend of powertrain development signify for BMW?
One man who has the manage this issue is Ian Robertson, head of marketing for BMW globally and generally considered to be the most powerful Brit in the automotive industry. And yes, if you are a BMW SA fan-person, that name will be awfully familiar; Robertson oversaw BMW’s business locally from 1999-2005.
Robertson’s perspective is that the current technology curve is cause for hedging between hydrogen and battery power. It’s uncertain which will be the winning fuel formula, but consensus is that in a decade from now, the automotive market must decide on the fuel of our private transport future: hydrogen of lithium battery packs. What is not in doubt it would appear, is that both those ends will result in electric cars.
Smartphones make for better EVs
The diminishing return curve expected from investment in lithium ion batteries, has surprisingly not materialised. Instead, there have been tremendous advances in the capacity of lithium batteries recently, driven by Smartphone and wearable device demand. Although scaling to automotive use (powering up your iPhone is a bit less challenging than powering your i3) will take time, with durability testing the element to introduce most delivery lag to the market, the gains being promised are substantial.
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Petrol-power traditionalists have raged against battery cars, citing the poor energy density and trifling range. But now, those solid state hard drives which make your laptop immensely more usable are probably going to enable the technology to power your future BMW too. Swapping liquid electrolytes for solid, the lithium air battery has five-times greater efficiency than the batteries we currently know.
But there are issues. Lithium air batteries need absolutely pure oxygen to achieve their efficiency, and converting that element from gas to solid, requires massively inefficient phasing. Ju Li, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has devised an ingenious method of hermitically sealing the lithium air battery, with lithium superoxide (LiO2) trapped inside. This inherently unstable element is calmed by cobalt oxide resident in the battery’s structure, to induce the impressive gains Ian Robertson hopes will net the necessary energy density for future BMWs.
EVs with conventional internal combustion range
Gains of how much? The consensus is that an endurance of at least three times what is currently possible, will be required to counter both range-anxiety and criticisms that internal-combustion is still the only solution for long-distance driving markets outside of Europe. Of which South Africa is one. Expect lithium air battery BMWs to comfortable have a real-world range of 500km.
The technology is clearly available and BMW is certainly deploying massive capital investment to bring lithium air batteries closer to automotive production. Sufficiently scaling the technology, which is unstable, and consistently producing it in the numbers required to power a greater share of the more than 2m vehicles BMW sell per year, is the problem.
BMW says it’s delivery date for lithium air battery cars are 2026, although Robertson cautions against believing we’ll completely divorce from unleaded or diesel soon. “The internal combustion engine has a long way to go. We (BMW) will improve the efficiency and mate them to electric vehicles in many cases.”
Our suspicion is that the first battery powered M-cars will be chief beneficiaries of lithium air. We certainly hope BMW gets the chemistry correct with those.