Friday, September 19, 2014

Should Chicago Lead the Charge on Batteries for Electric Cars?

In light of the confluence of events -- including the awarding of a MacArthur "genius" grant to a Chicago technologist, the recent news about a big electric car initiative in Nevada, and the giant climate march taking place in New York City tomorrow -- it seems like an appropriate time to make a modest proposal.

Right goal, wrong strategy

Tesla Motors recently announced that it has selected Nevada as the location for a massive production facility for batteries for electric cars.

TESLA "Gigafactory"
50 GWh in annual battery production by 2020,
Enough for 500,000 Tesla cars
Powered by renewable energy
Net zero energy factory

A cursory review of the press coverage of this initiative indicates that analysts, while acknowledging that some kind of high quality, low weight battery will be very important to the transition to electric cars, feel that Tesla is not being ambitious enough about their strategy. Instead of seizing the opportunity to push toward a breakthrough technology in energy storage -- one that would significantly improve performance of electric cars, thereby encouraging far greater user adoption -- they are merely trying to make their batteries a little cheaper by building a big facility and achieving economy of scale. (Not incidentally, part of that strategy is to demand incentives from the host state.)

(See, for instance, "Richard Florida Slams Tesla's Nevada Battery Factory Deal" in Business Insider.)

Perhaps the opportunity remains for other players, in other locations, to make a truly strategic play in energy storage for electric cars?

Nanotechnology: could it be the key?

The announcement of this year's crop of MacArthur Foundation genius award winners included several Chicago-area recipients, including Northwestern University professor Mark C. Hersam. Hersam is an expert in nanomaterials.

This reminded me of something I was thinking about after hearing about the Tesla deal but before (honestly!) the MacArthur announcement: If you really wanted to produce some breakthrough batteries for the next generation electric cars, you would use some really advanced nanotech.

(See "How can nanotechnology improve batteries?"on

This is just a hunch, mind you, but perhaps a single walled carbon nanotube
forest -- like the one shown in the scanning electron micrograph above --
could be of assistance? (More at "Challenging the consensus on nanotube
on the Chemistry World website.)

By the way, the Chicago area -- and particularly Northwestern University -- is an important center of nanotechnology research and development. For instance, read about the International Institute for Nanotechnology at NU. They're sponsoring an international nanotechnology symposium on Thursday, October 9, 2014 in Evanston.

"It's the cars, stupid!"

In thinking about what Chicago would focus on at the time of the NYC Climate March, I  previously suggested that we would benefit from attending to the contribution that car traffic makes to the climate crisis, and to alternatives such as rail.

Consistent with that suggestion, and recognizing that we need ecological forms of automobile transport as well as rail, I propose that Chicago make a concerted push to become the focus of the electric car business.

Not incidentally, Chicago is well-positioned geographically for automotive business. While the auto production landscape has been changing rapidly both within the U.S. and globally, the map below from a 2005 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago report gives a sense of the relative geographic distribution of the companies in the auto supply chain.

Concentration of automotive parts suppliers in the U.S. Midwest.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

So . . . what are you waiting for, Chicago? How about grabbin' a stake in the electric car biz?

Related posts

Chicago and its surrounding region have so much going for it . . . but it's a dinosaur when it comes to moving beyond automobile transportation. We have decent mass transit within the city itself, but the mass transit in the Northern Illinois region needs to be much better managed.

(See A Modest Proposal for September 20-21: "It's the cars, stupid!" )

What if we had a massive region in the heart of the country pushing back against the war-crazed conventional wisdom of "more weapons," "more consumption," and "more destruction of the environment"?

(See Another Modest Proposal: A Green, Demilitarized Midwest! on Scarry Thoughts)

Other related links

October 28, 2014 - "Argonne battery roadshow aims to connect with industry" by Julie Wernau in the Chicago Tribune: "[W]hen scientists told automakers they planned to build a battery that would allow an electric vehicle to travel 500 miles on a charge, companies told them what they really wanted was a much cheaper battery that could propel a vehicle 80 miles on a charge. Such a breakthrough would allow plug-in extended range hybrid vehicles that switch to gasoline after a battery runs out to be reduced in price by more than $10,000."