Tesla is at the forefront of industrial battery technology research.
Electric cars are accelerating commercially. General Motors has already sold 12,000 models of its Chevrolet Bolt and Daimler announced in September 2017 that it is to invest $1bn to produce electric cars in the US, with Investment bank ING, meanwhile, predicts that European cars will go fully electric by 2035.
‘Batteries are a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will probably grow to many hundreds of billions per year,’ says Gregory Offer, battery researcher at Imperial College London. ‘There is an opportunity now to invest in an industry, so that when it grows exponentially you can capture value and create economic growth.’
The big opportunity for technology disruption lies in extending battery lifetime, says Offer, whose team at Imperial takes market-ready or prototype battery devices into their lab to model the physics and chemistry going on inside, and then figures out how to improve them.
Lithium batteries, the battery technology of choice, are built from layers, each connected to a current connector and theoretically generating equivalent power, which flows out through the terminals. However, improvements in design of packs can lead to better performance and slower degradation.
Lithium batteries need to be adapted for electric vehicle use. Image: Public Domain Pictures
For many electric vehicles, cooling plates are placed on each side of the battery cell, but the middle layers get hotter and fatigue faster. Offer’s group cooled the cell terminals instead, because they are connected to every layer. ‘You want the battery operating warmish, not too hot and not too cold,’ he says.
‘Keeping the temperature like that, we could get more energy out and extend the lifetime three-fold.’ If the expensive Li ion batteries in electric cars can outlive the car, he says their resale value will go up and dramatically alter the economic calculation when purchasing the car. ‘If we can get costs down, we will see more electric vehicles, and reduced emissions and improved air quality,’ Offer says.
Alternatives to lithium ion
Battery systems management and thermal regulation will allow current lithium batteries to be continually improved, but there are fundamental limits to this technology. ‘Lithium ion has a good ten years of improvements ahead,’ Offer predicts. ‘At that point we will hit a plateau and we are going to need technologies like lithium (Li) sulfur.’
Will Batteries Power The World? | The Limits Of Lithium-ion. Video: minutephysics
Li sulfur has a theoretical energy density five times higher than Li ion. In September 2017, US space agency NASA said it will work with Oxis Energy in Oxford, UK, to evaluate its Li sulfur cells for applications where weight is crucial, such as drones, high-altitude aircraft and planetary missions.
However, Li sulfur is not the only challenger to Li ion. Toyota is working to develop solid-state batteries, which use solids like ceramics as the electrolyte. ‘They are based around a class of material that can conduct ions at room temperature as a solid,’ Offer explains. ‘The advantage is that you can then use metallic lithium as the anode. This means there is less parasitic mass, increasing energy density.’
The carbon-fiber structure and Li ion battery motor of one of BMW’s electric cars. Image: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz
For electric cars, the ultimate technology in terms of energy density is rechargeable metal-air batteries. These work by oxidising metals such as lithium, zinc or aluminium with oxygen from the air. ‘Making a rechargeable air breathing electrode is really hard,’ warns Offer. ‘To get the metal to give up the oxygen over and over again, it’s difficult.’
Development in the area looks promising, with the UK nurturing battery-focused SMEs and forward-thinking research groups in universities. The latest investment plan envisages support that links across research, innovation and scale-up, as championed by Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
The Faraday Challenge – part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Video: Innovate UK
Introducing a programme to directly tackle this challenge ‘would drive improved efficiency of translation of UK science excellence into desirable economic outcomes; would leverage significant industrial investment in the form of a “deal” with industry; and would send a strong investment signal globally,’ says Walport.
Artificial intelligence (AI) – the ability of any man-made device to perceive its environment, identify a goal, and take rational actions to that end – can seem like a concept of science fiction. Recently, however, exponential growth in the field, with developments such as driverless cars, has made the prospect very real. The pace of change has led many to express concern about the dangers of artificial AI, although most of the potential benefits are yet to be realised.
A key aspect when trying to understand AI is knowledge of ‘machine learning’. Previously, software had to be ‘taught’ everything by the programmer, but this is no longer the case. DeepMind, one of the world’s leading groups in developing artificial intelligence, has seen considerable investment from high profile figures such as Elon Musk and has recently been acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
DeepMind claims to have developed software that mimics human imagination by considering the possible consequences of their actions and interpreting the results, ignoring irrelevant information. This allows the software to plan ahead, solving tasks in fewer steps and performing much better than conventional AI.
Could machines become better than humans?
There is plenty to suggest that AI, if managed correctly, could positively benefit society, tackling issues such as global warming and healthcare. On the other hand, sceptics argue that the developments in AI will drastically disrupt many industries.
A decade ago, truck drivers were thought to be irreplaceable; now, Tesla and many other companies are making autonomous self-driving cars a reality. The pharmaceutical industry may also see immense changes; incredibly complex computational biological models will soon be able to fully predict drug mechanisms and interactions, allowing for much better analysis and speeding up the currently painstakingly slow clinical trial process for new drugs.
Uber’s self-driving car being testing in Pittsburgh. Image: Rex
It isn’t only drivers that are at risk of losing their jobs. Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that, just like the industrial revolution lessened the requirement for manual labour, the AI revolution will create vast amounts of unemployable people as their skills become redundant.
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne from the University of Oxford predict that 47% of jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computer algorithms by 2033. Their list of jobs is striking – insurance underwriters, chefs, waiters, carpenters, and lifeguards are all at high risk of being superfluous. The displacement of human workers because of AI will be one of the key issues that policymakers and governments must consider going into the future.
Elon Musk, Founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla, Inc. Image: TED Conference
What could go wrong?
Facebook had to shut down its most recent AI system after it discovered that its chatbots were communicating between themselves in a new language that used English words but could not be understood by humans. Although the AI agents were rewarded for negotiating efficiently, they were not confined to just using English. The result was that they deviated from it and instead opted to create a language that was easier and faster for them to communicate, causing the social media giant to pull the plug on the system.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, has very strong views about the development of AI, famously stating that AI is an ‘existential risk for human civilisation’. He raises interesting questions about cybersecurity and malicious AI that may be exploited by hackers to destabilise the outdated and less intelligent software that often controls the electricity and water of the world’s cities.
Above: Musk in Conversation with Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because ‘if we’re reactive in AI regulation it’s too late’, he said. At the moment, the technology is far from the apocalyptic, self-evolving software that haunts Musk. But we are becoming more and more accustomed to AI in our daily life; for example, Apple’s Siri interpreting voice commands and Facebook’s targeted advertising system.
Hermann Hauser Image: Franz Johann Morgenbesser
SCI is running a Public Evening Lecture in London on Wednesday 25 October – Machine Intelligence: Are Machines Better than Humans? The talk will be given by Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, Acorn Computers, and ARM. It is free to attend, but spaces are limited. Don’t miss out – book your place here.