The award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists "for the development of lithium-ion batteries" this October fully demonstrates how important lithium-ion batteries are in a world striving to eliminate use of fossil fuels.
In China, the world's top manufacturer of new-energy vehicles (NEVs), one of the biggest uses for lithium-ion batteries is to power them.
However, compared with their fossil-fueled equivalents, NEVs still haven't found much favor with consumers, one of their concerns being their battery power unit.
Current batteries still cannot support an operating range anywhere near that offered in a conventional vehicle by a tank full of petrol. Consumers wonder whether battery improvement will help solve the problem.
To improve their power density has long been a desire of scientists, said Chen Wenjie, a professor of Beijing Institute of Technology, when speaking to a group of journalists at a scientific salon on Tuesday.
"Compared with lithium-ion batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries can achieve a higher power density," said Chen, whose team is developing a high-performance battery system using new materials to improve the power density, ability to be recycled and the overall safety of batteries.
He Hongwen, also a professor of Beijing Institute of Technology, agreed with Chen, adding that sound battery charging and discharge management will also contribute to a longer range.
Another concern holding back consumers from buying an electric vehicle is battery safety.
However, hazards can be resolved through improved battery materials and safety management, insisted He.
China has set up a three-level (automakers, local governments, national authorities) new-energy vehicle oversight system, and through this has acquired a great deal of first-hand data, according to He.
Besides, the auto industry is also working to improve electric vehicles' safety performance through online battery safety risk evaluation and safety alert control of dysfunctional individual batteries among other efforts, He added.
His colleague Chen believed that solid electrolytes are a promising replacement for the flammable liquid electrolytes in conventional lithium-ion batteries.
From Chen's perspective, battery safety can be enhanced through both better materials and improved battery structure and production techniques.
Another challenge that comes with the rapid development of the new-energy vehicle industry is the treatment of spent batteries.
The amount of spent lithium batteries from electric vehicles in China reached 6,000 tons in 2018 and the number is expected to reach 200,000 to 300,000 tons within three years, meaning there is an urgent need for an industrial solution to be found, according to Lin Xiao, member of the National Technical Committee 294 on Discarded Chemicals Disposal of Standardization Administration of China, on Tuesday's salon.
Spent batteries will cause pollution and other safety hazards if left untreated in cities and they must be recycled to defuse such risks, said Lin.
Over the past decade, the price of battery has dropped by 90%, meaning the price of metals used in batteries has come quite close to the cost of the batteries, Lin explained.
"By recycling spent batteries, enterprises can basically achieve profitability, but we need to find a mature industrial solution," Lin added.
Tuesday's salon is one of a series sponsored by the China Association for Science and Technology for scientists and journalists to address topics of common concern.