Europe and the US can challenge Asia for dominance of the battery market, and therefore electric vehicles, according to Steven Chu, former US energy secretary.
“The battery will be the central part of the car; if you have a better battery, you will have a better car,” Chu told the TBB conference in Paris.
“The question is who is going to own that. What China has done for solar and many technologies is economy of scale; a $5bn factory is more profitable than a $0.5bn factory.”
China, said Chu, has also made huge improvements in automation and quality control, which is “crucial” when it comes to battery storage, “where things can go wrong.”
However, he said innovation will be the key battleground.
That is, “coming up with the best ideas, and how to translate that into low cost batteries, the lowest cost with exquisite quality control … so Europe and the US should not rule itself out.”
He cited South Korean electronics giant Samsung’s fire issues with batteries as a cautionary tale.
Samsung had very few phones “catch fire out of many millions,” said Chu. “It almost sunk the company. It turned out to be a quality control issue,” he suggested, “[it] pushed a little too hard to get higher and higher energy density.
“Ultimately, after you have engineered [the battery] to death, you want to go to a different design. This is where US and EU scientists are probably going to have a better than level playing field,” said Chu. “Sheer invention will be needed in addition to economies of scale.”
Chu, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics, also spoke about his ambitions for lithium sulphur metal batteries at the TBB conference, which he believes could make EVs as cheap as even “modest combustion engined cars.