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Published on October 12th, 2017 | By: April Gocha, PhD

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It’s electric: Shifts in the auto industry are driving new challenges and new opportunities for materials markets

Published on October 12th, 2017 | By: April Gocha, PhD

[Image above] Credit: Eneas De Troya; Flickr CC BY 2.0

 

 

It takes a lot of momentum to entirely shift an industry as gigantic as the worldwide automotive market. Lately, that market produces some 22 million cars annually, and its leading manufacturers each generate annual revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars range.

 

An industry that large has fingers that reach far and wide into other sectors and other markets, and even has the weight to influence policy, politics, and society in general—its shear size alone is powerful, and profits only help underscore that power.

 

And yet, this industry is undergoing some major shifts moving forward. All the signs are there, and new technology is ready for a takeover—the automotive industry is leaving the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels in the rearview mirror. We’re speeding towards an electric car future.

 

This isn’t just a forward-looking market prediction. Automaker after automaker has announced plans recently to strategically shift towards an electric future. These changes represent dramatic shifts in the companies’ business strategies, something that’s not necessarily easy to execute even if backed by really compelling evidence.

 

Most recently, GM—one of the world’s top automakers, with 10 million cars sold in 2016—announced that it’s swiftly steering towards an electric car future. The company is introducing two additional electric models in the next year, with plans to add 18 more models by 2023.

 

Just imagine what that means in terms of the amount of money, time, and effort the company is devoting to shifting its engineering and manufacturing efforts for a whole slate of new car models that rely upon an entirely different technology than the tried-and-true internal combustion engine. Wow.

 

And this isn’t just about offering electric options in addition to its established platform of fossil fuel-powered vehicles—the shift is part of the GM’s move towards an entirely “zero-emission future.”

 

A whole slate of other automakers, large and small, have announced that they have similar intentions for a future driven by electric cars. So this is big—industry-wide big.

 

There are many factors driving this shift, but one of the most influential is new policies that demand a cleaner, greener future. Inspired by the dire consequences of global warming and the negative health effects of air pollution, countries around the globe are quickly adopting policy stances to outright ban new vehicles powered by gas and diesel.

 

But beyond the drivers influencing these changes, however, there are some important factors that are actually enabling this shift to take place. And at the heart of those are materials science and engineering.

 

Some of the biggest factors that have limited adoption of electric cars in the past have centered around price and range concerns, both of which now have viable and continually improving solutions.

 

Like our phones, laptops, and other electronic devices, electric cars need to plug in to recharge. Whereas the infrastructure to supply gas and diesel to internal combustion engines is extensive and widespread (when was the last time you worried about finding a gas station to refill your tank?), electric charging stations are still relatively few and far between.

 

The situation is steadily improving—there are reportedly more than 16,000 electric charging stations across the U.S. and about as many in the U.K., although a new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates the charging station networks need to keep growing to meet anticipated demand from the predicted increase in electric cars on the road—and to further reduce barriers holding back this clean technology.

 

Plus, another factor helping solve the range problem is the incredible amount of materials science research and engineering development on batteries and new battery materials, particularly for lithium-ion batteries, over the past few decades.

 

These advances have steadily increased the power density of batteries, providing more power packed into a smaller package, and ultimately allowing storage and provision of enough power to reduce some of the limitations that have previously held back electric vehicles. The Tesla Model S has a reported range of 335 miles, and you can expect that the boom in electric vehicles will push max ranges even higher over the coming years. Just last month, Samsung reported it has developed an electric car battery with a range of more than 400 miles.

 

Further improving battery technology and removing more of the performance barriers have continued to increase consumer adoption of electric vehicles, which ultimately cycles back to reduce cost of the batteries, the technology, and the products themselves—initiating a positive feedback look that creates the momentum that has the power to change an entire industry.

 

Yet more momentum is still needed, because the cost of buying an electric vehicle remains prohibitively expensive for many.

 

Of course, a shifting market indicates shifting demand for the raw materials that enable that market. And when it comes to lithium-ion batteries, the primary method of energy storage used in electric cars thus far, some of the biggest material considerations are lithium, cobalt, and graphite—all of which can be visualized in a great Visual Capitalist infographic on Business Insider.

 

The boom in electric vehicles is predicted to cause the lithium-ion market size to explode in terms of capacity demand, from 15.9 GWh in 2015 to 93.1 GWh estimated in 2024—a whopping 21.7% annual growth.

 

But what does that mean for the materials behind the tech?

 

Lithium prices have already drastically risen over the past few years, although supply isn’t predicted to be an issue yet. World lithium reserves are plentiful, with 75% of resources located in the lithium triangle of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. It’s more a matter of those countries stepping up their efforts to match mining operation output to meet the element’s demand. Still, that’s easier said than done.

 

Another critical component for batteries is cobalt, an element with more than half of its supply currently coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country’s instability and poor human rights track record is leaving companies, investors, and analysts most worried about this element meeting its soaring demand.

 

Whereas lithium supply is predicted to be able to meet demand, the future of cobalt supply is much more tenuous. It’s telling that VW, one of the world’s leading automakers, is taking strategic steps to secure its future cobalt sources.

 

Plus there’s the question of graphite for battery anodes, most of which is currently supplied by China. If rare earths are any indication, past experience says that a raw material market dominated by the country is going to be subject to supply and pricing challenges. And the graphite anode market is expected to triple in size over the next few years, driving prices up by 5.3% annually.

 

So there are a lot of moving parts that will influence how this story plays out over the coming years. Whatever happens, however, is sure to mark a time of profound change in the automotive industry.

 

Ceramic and glass materials have long had a place in this extensive market—so how will the opportunities and challenges for these materials shift with the changing market?

 

Watch out for the upcoming December issue of the ACerS Bulletin for an in-depth look into existing and emerging markets for ceramic and glass materials in the auto industry.

 

 

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