Steven Chu: Lithium metal sulphur batteries will make EVs cheap


Steven Chu, the former United States Secretary of Energy, and co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics, believes lithium metal sulphur batteries will make electric vehicles as cheap as even “modest” combustion engine cars.

Chu, now a professor at Stanford’s physics department, is part of a team working on lithium sulphur batteries. Chu thinks the chemistry could change the game for transport.

Whereas other materials to make batteries are “very expensive, we have sulphur coming out of our ears,” said Chu. “The oil companies have to put it somewhere, so if you can make a battery out of sulphur, it is a very big deal – lighter, smaller.”

If Stanford’s work, led by Dr. Yi Cui, is successful, “we think a sulphur battery that lasts 15-years that is half the weight could put EVs in the hands of anyone that could own a car,” said Chu. “It could be cost competitive with even a modest internal combustion engine car.”

“It is inexpensive, with better density. Lower resistance means you can charge four times faster, which means you need less cooling, which means reduced weight. That enables a smaller battery and cheaper car,” said Chu. “So this is the goal – sulphur is nearly free, whereas cobalt, manganese and nickel are not.”

Chu was speaking at a conference organised by InnoEnergy. He was asked whether such disruptive technology could be commercially acceptable, given the sunk costs made by battery manufacturers, automotive companies and others in current technologies.

Chu said reinventing the wheel is not required.

“Yes, it is a different manufacturing process, but when you go from manganese cobalt batteries to a sulphur battery … there is some commonality.” He likened it to carmakers, which have “exactly the same assembly line, but many different models. So with batteries [in that vein] I don’t think it will be ‘locked in’… So I am not really worried about sunk capital.”

Boost carbon price, or we’re stuck

In a wide ranging panel session, Chu, who is on the board of a company that aims to capture CO2, said the economics of “pulling CO2 out of the air” will not stack up until carbon prices are perhaps times higher than current EU ETS rates. Using sequestered carbon (known as carbon capture usage and storage, or CCUS) also has a cost.

“To make something useful and economically competitive [from captured carbon] is hard,” said Chu.

“Until there is a price on carbon [of that order], nobody is going to pay for it.”

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