On November 20, 2021, AAIA was honored to have renowned speaker Dr. Zhongwei Chen. Dr. Chen is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, he is Canada Research Chair Professor at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Chen brought audience a highly engaging talk named “The Future of Electric Vehicles – Battery and Fuel Cells” which was an excellent overview of global trends in technology, industry and market of electric vehicles (EV) and battery technologies.

Market Trends for EV

Carbon Neutral has been one of the hottest discussion topics since 2020. Recently, the three major jurisdictions contributing to carbon emission — China, US and EU — all pledged grand goals on carbon peak, emission reduction, and carbon neutrality. The transition from fossil-based energy to renewable energy is harbinger of the third energy revolution.

There were two energy revolution in human history. The first energy revolution was marked by usage of coal, which led to broad application of steamers and trains. The second energy revolution came with discover and use of liquid and gaseous fossil energy (petroleum and natural gas), which fueled application of engines and automobile. The third energy revolution comes along with evolution of automobile industry; battery is the power source for electric vehicles and drives technology development in renewable energy, mainly represented by hydrogen and electricity. Therefore development of electric vehicle is accompanied by development of renewable energy storage technologies. It is estimated that market size of batteries for renewable energy storage is 100 times of batteries for electric vehicles. The huge market size is marked by significant investment opportunities. In past one year, major battery companies, for example BYD and Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), have invested multi-billion dollars to expand production capacity.

To meet the carbon reduction and neutral goals, the replacement of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICV) by EVs is inevitable. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by battery electric vehicles (BEV) using clean energy (solar, hydro, wind or nuclear) and hydrogen fueled vehicles are estimated to be 1/3 and 1/5 of emission from ICV, respectively. In fact, BEV was first introduced in 1899 by Thomas Edison, approximately same time as ICV, but quickly outperformed by ICV on capacities such as cruising mileage and speed. It was not until 1997, when Toyota marketed hybrid powered Prius, that the concept of battery electric was re-introduced to automobile industry. The first commercial pure electric car was Tesla’s Roadster (on market 2008); the first fuel cell car was Toyota Mirai Future (on market 2014). The global EV market size has grown into 78million cars per year, and it is estimated to grow significantly in 2022, after the chip shortage resulted from COVID. Considering that the sale of EV only accounts for 4% of total automobile market in 2020, the growth of global EV sales will be rapid and strong in future many years. It is expected that EV market share will account for 86% of global automobile market by 2060.

The stock market also signal the optimistic outlook on EV market. Founded in 2003, Tesla successfully IPO in 2010, and introduced Model X to market in 2015. In 2017, Tesla’s market value surpasses Ford Motor Company and General Motor Company, became the most valuable US auto company. In 2019, Tesla’s super factory was established in Shanghai, which followed by introduction of Model 3 in 2020. In the same year, Tesla’s market value surpassed Volkswagen and Toyota, became the world’s most valuable car company. As of September 2021, Tesla stock market value is ~$750 billion, which tripled market value of Toyota (~$250 billion). While in terms of manufacturing, in 2019, Toyota sold 10.7 million vehicles and Tesla sold nearly 367,500 EVs. On fuel cell vehicle market, Nikola is an interesting example. Nicola debuted fuel cell powered semi truck prototype in 2017, announced business model to loan the semi truck to trucking companies. IPO in 2020, market value of Nikola achieved as high as $14 billion while the company produced no real semi-truck at all. The optimism of investors fueled market value growth of Tesla and Nikola.

Industry Trends for Battery and Fuel Cell

In the future ten years, electric battery, hybrid battery, and fuel cell are the mainstream technologies for auto industry. Elon Mask claimed “fuel cell is fool cell”, while Toyota CEO regarded fuel cell is “the ultimate drive of new energy cars”. Whose opinion makes more sense? From Elon Mask perspective, overall efficiency of energy conversion (from production well to tank and from battery to wheel) for EV can achieve 70%~90%. While for hydrogen cell car, energy conversion include more steps (from energy production to electrolysis, compression/liquefaction, transportation, fuel cell to wheel) and the overall efficiency rate is only 25%~35%. Traditional fuel car’s overall fuel efficiency rate is only 13%. In terms of fuel production efficiency and overall efficiency, EVs possess the greatest advantage.

So why did Toyota CEO advocate hydrogen fuel cell cars? EV uses Li-ion battery, which is a closed system and its capacity is pre-decided by amount of Li and other chemicals the battery contains. Hydrogen cell, although also employs electrochemical reactions, is an open system; the oxygen is inspired from air, hydrogen is inspired from tank, therefore the energy density of hydrogen cell is much higher than that of electric battery. This means hydrogen fuel cell cars have longer cruising mileages. For example, the first pure hydrogen fueled car, Toyota Mirai, has 1000km mileage/tank, and is less sensitive to temperature changes than Tesla. Other advantages of hydrogen cell car include fast tank filling (3min per tank fill), no pollution, and higher endurance.

Overall, electric battery and hydrogen cell are suited for different market segments. Most EVs will be passenger cars, and most fuel cell vehicles (FCV) will be commercial vehicles. Because emission of commercial vehicles account for 80% of all vehicles’ emission, urgency of replacing commercial vehicle with FCV is high and the impact to environment is significant. Battery and fuel cell therefore have different development goals. For electric battery, technology developments are aiming higher energy density, longer life, lower cost and higher security. In coming few years, price of Tesla Model 3 will be comparable to traditional cars.

Research Trends

Research in battery technologies, including in my laboratory, is towards higher energy density. In near term future, Li battery will remain mainstream for low cost and high efficiency, sodium battery also has potential. In med-term future, solid state battery has attracted more attention and research focus on new generation of materials. In long term, fuel cell will be critical direction of development; hydrogen is not only energy storage conduit, also a future energy source to replace fossil energies. The research on hydrogen fuel has higher strategic status than other battery materials.

The research of my team, the Applied Nanomaterials and Clean Energy Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, focus on different aspects of advanced electrochemistry energy. The research directions of my lab during past twenty years also reflected trends in renewable energy industry. During the Bush administration, DOE resources focus on hydrogen and fuel cells; from Obama administration to 2020, the policy and resources were more supportive to electric batteries and electric cars. After 2020, hydrogen and fuel cells are considered goods of strategic significance holding potential to replace fossil fuels. Our battery research projects include high energy density Li battery, quasi/all solid state battery, metal air battery. Our hydrogen cell projects include catalyst and membrane electrode materials.

The solid state battery research in my laboratory focus on solid state electrolyte, the key component of solid state battery. Our research on organic (polymer) electrolytes design/optimization has potential to 

lead to electrodes with high flexibility and tolerance to high temperature.

Hydrogen fuel cell is composed of membrane electrodes, gas diffusion layers, and bipolar plates, made from materials include catalyst, electrolyte membrane, carbon paper, and bipolar plates. The cost of materials accounts for most of fuel cell cost, and the cost varies at different manufacturing levels. At high manufacturing rate (over 500k fuel cell systems/year) and low manufacturing rate (1000 fuel cell systems/year) catalysts account for 40% and 26% overall production cost, respectively. This is due to the fact that current fuel cells mainly use platinum-based catalysts, which are expensive. Therefore low-platinum and platinum-free materials are main focus for catalyst R&D. For bipolar plate, leading materials are represented by Ballard graphite plate and Toyota metal plate. Metal plates are more portable and less expensive, better suited for passenger car application; graphite plates have higher power density, better suited for commercial vehicle. For proton exchange membranes, market is dominated by few companies include Dow, DuPont, Gore. Gas diffusion layer (carbon paper) are mainly manufactured in German, Japan, and North America.

The fuel cell catalyst research in my laboratory has demonstrated that low platinum and platinum-free materials, after synthesis parameter and structure optimization, can significantly enhance their capacity and stability. Next generation catalyst will be designed on nanocluster level, nanoparticles level and single atom level.


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