The $1 Billion Prize to Build a Better Battery

by Curt S. Clifton and Larry F. Eisenstat, Dickstein Shapiro LLP

The U.S. government and X-Prize Foundation should offer a $1 billion prize to the person who develops an energy storage unit that can compete with gasoline in power density.

A gallon of gasoline weighs 6.07 pounds, has a volume of 230.99 cubic inches and contains 36.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. This is the base unit of energy production upon which the U.S. economy is built. There isn’t much sense in developing and deploying technology that would avoid our having to pay for gasoline unless and until this technology can compete on a kilowatt-hour basis.

With sales of some 20,000 plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) since late 2010, the PEV market is experiencing a slowdown. General Motors Co., for example, temporarily laid off 1,300 employees and halted its Chevrolet Volt production because of worse than anticipated sales. And nearly everyone expects the U.S. will fall far short of Obama’s million-PEV goal.

Batteries can’t store nearly as much energy as fossil fuels. Many policymakers hoped that, given the right information and incentives, this physical limitation wouldn’t matter much to most potential car buyers. They assumed people would change their driving habits. Policymakers figured if they built the market for EVs, the American public would change its gasoline-dependent culture.

Our addiction to fossil fuels, however, isn’t simply preference; it is an integral part of our economy. Gasoline has shaped the relative location of everything we do, including the distance from work and home, home and school, and the placement of retailers. It has taken more than 100 years to develop our gasoline-dependent infrastructure. The only way to create a gasoline alternative is to create a power source that can compete inside this infrastructure.

Lithium-ion batteries are not that power source. Most EV batteries carry between 16 to 24 kWh of energy in a single charge. The Tesla Roadster battery–the biggest and priciest PEV battery–carries 53 kWh. Remember, a gallon of regular gasoline contains 36.6 kWh of energy. That means the 10-gallon gas tank of a Honda Civic VX stores as much energy as seven Teslas, 15 Nissan Leafs or 23 Volts.

According to Motor Trend, a Chevy Volt can transport you about 35 miles on its 16-kWh battery. A Leaf can go about 75 miles on its 24-kWh model. Tesla says its $109,000 Roadster can go 245 miles between charges. But a 1993 Civic VX will take you more than 500 miles, and when you need to refuel, you can do so in minutes.

Not so with a PEV. Motor Trend reported that, leashed to a 208-volt charger, the Volt takes about four hours to fill its 16-kWh battery and the Leaf takes about seven and a half hours to fill its 24-kWh model. At a typical household current, those times are closer to 10 and 20 hours, respectively. Thinking about charging your Tesla from the wall? At Tesla’s advertised 5-miles-of-range-per-hour charge rate, that’ll take closer to 48 hours. The value of a breakthrough in battery technology will mean billions of dollars to the economy and will revolutionize the auto industry and every economic sector that uses electric power.

Current PEV batteries offer the best long-term means for competing with gasoline today, but they’ve reached the upper limits of chemical battery capacity. We must find a new construct that does not have a physical limit beneath our functional necessity.

The X-Prize Foundation would be the perfect partner in this effort. The foundation has created and managed large-scale, high-profile, incentivized competitions to solve problems deemed impossible. It also has worked with the public and private energy and automotive industries to develop production-capable vehicles that compete on a gasoline-equivalent basis.

Curt S. Clifton joined Dickstein Shapiro in 2008 as a senior legislative advisor to the public policy and law practice. Reach him at cliftonc@dicksteinshapiro.com or 202-420-3366.

Larry F. Eisenstat is the head of Dickstein Shapiro LLP’s energy practice. Reach him at eisenstatl@dicksteinshapiro.com or 202-420-2244.

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