Batteries for Hybrid and Plug-In Electric Vehicles

Photo of a lithium-ion battery.

Most new plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles will use lithium-ion batteries (above) rather than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in many hybrid electric vehicles.

Energy storage systems, usually batteries, are essential for electric drive vehicles, such as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs).

Types of Energy Storage Systems

The following energy storage systems are used in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs).

Lithium-Ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are currently used in most portable consumer electronics such as cell phones and laptops because of their high energy per unit mass relative to other electrical energy storage systems. They also have a high power-to-weight ratio, high energy efficiency, good high-temperature performance, and low self-discharge. Most components of lithium-ion batteries can be recycled. Most of today's plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries, though the exact chemistry often varies from that of consumer electronics batteries. Research and development is ongoing to reduce cost and extend their useful life cycle.

Nickel-Metal Hydride Batteries

Nickel-metal hydride batteries, used routinely in computer and medical equipment, offer reasonable specific energy and specific power capabilities. Nickel-metal hydride batteries have a much longer life cycle than lead-acid batteries and are safe and abuse tolerant. These batteries have been used successfully in all-electric vehicles and are widely used in hybrid electric vehicles. The main challenges with nickel-metal hydride batteries are their high cost, high self-discharge and heat generation at high temperatures, and the need to control hydrogen loss.

Lead-Acid Batteries

Lead-acid batteries can be designed to be high power and are inexpensive, safe, and reliable. However, low specific energy, poor cold-temperature performance, and short calendar and life cycle impede their use. Advanced high-power lead-acid batteries are being developed, but these batteries are only used in commercially-available electric drive vehicles for ancillary loads.

Ultracapacitors

Ultracapacitors store energy in a polarized liquid between an electrode and an electrolyte. Energy storage capacity increases as the liquid's surface area increases. Ultracapacitors can provide vehicles additional power during acceleration and hill climbing and help recover braking energy. They may also be useful as secondary energy-storage devices in electric drive vehicles because they help electrochemical batteries level load power.

Recycling Batteries

Electric drive vehicles are relatively new to the U.S. auto market, so only a small number of them have approached the end of their useful lives. As a result, few post-consumer batteries from electric drive vehicles are available, thus limiting the extent of battery-recycling infrastructure. As electric drive vehicles become increasingly common, the battery-recycling market will likely expand.

Widespread battery recycling would keep hazardous materials from entering the waste stream, both at the end of a battery's useful life, as well as during its production. Work is now under way to develop battery-recycling processes that minimize the life-cycle impacts of using lithium-ion and other kinds of batteries in vehicles. But not all recycling processes are the same:

  • Smelting: Smelting processes recover basic elements or salts. These processes are operational now on a large scale and can accept multiple kinds of batteries, including lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries. Smelting takes place at high temperatures, and organic materials, including the electrolyte and carbon anodes, are burned as fuel or reductant. The valuable metals are recovered and sent to refining so that the product is suitable for any use. The other materials, including lithium, are contained in the slag, which is now used as an additive in concrete.
  • Direct recovery: At the other extreme, some recycling processes directly recover battery-grade materials. Components are separated by a variety of physical and chemical processes, and all active materials and metals can be recovered. Direct recovery is a low-temperature process with minimal energy requirement.
  • Intermediate processes: The third type of process is between the two extremes. Such processes may accept multiple kinds of batteries, unlike direct recovery, but recover materials further along the production chain than smelting does.

Separation of different kinds of battery materials is often a stumbling block for the recovery of high-value materials. Therefore, battery design that takes disassembly and recycling in mind is important to the success of battery recycling. Standardization of batteries, materials, and cell design would also make recycling easier and more cost-effective.

See the report from Sandia National Laboratory: Technical and Economic Feasibility of Applying Used EV Batteries in Stationary Applications.

Battery Swapping

For long-distance travel, where fast charging is not available, battery swapping might be a solution. Tesla Motors has developed battery swap infrastructure so drivers can pull into a station and exchange a depleted battery with a fully charged one in less time than it takes to fuel a conventional vehicle. Use of battery swap stations requires a vehicle that has been designed with a swappable battery pack.

More Information

Learn more about research and development of batteries from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's energy storage subsite and the U.S. Department of Energy Vehicle Technologies Office's energy storage pages. Also, learn about the advanced battery projects for electric drive vehicles funded by the U.S. Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.