Five key questions about the sustainability of electric vehicle batteries

You have questions about electric vehicle batteries, we have answers.

As demand for both commercial and private electric vehicles grow, so too will the need to develop sustainable solutions for dealing with the lithium-ion batteries they use.

Here are five key questions to consider.

What are the options when electric vehicle batteries reach the end of their useful life?

A: As things stand today - and as seen in the infographic below - there are three basic options: dispose, recycle, or reuse. Recycling lithium, however, can be tricky. It is a highly reactive element. Recycling plants capable of handling lithium-ion batteries are in the early stages of development.

With the negative environmental implications of disposal, reuse is quickly becoming the most viable option from both an environmental and economic standpoint. 

A new term is developing for this option: second-life batteries. 

Cummins Second Life Batteries - Infographic
As seen in the infographic above, there are three potential options for a battery after it has reached the end of its original use.

What are second-life batteries?

A: Lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicle applications operate under extremely demanding conditions and will eventually degrade to a point where their total usable capacity and other performance requirements no longer meet the standards placed upon them. 

While no longer enough for use in electric vehicles, these batteries still contain a lot of energy. They may contain 70% to 80% of their initial capacity, which means there’s still a lot of energy that could be used in other ways. 

Second-life batteries are electric vehicle batteries that have been repurposed, or given a second-life, for use in another less demanding application such as stationary energy storage. 

Why are second-life battery solutions important for electric vehicle manufacturers?

A: Fortunately, there’s a little time as the electronic vehicle industry ramps up. But as the metaphorical stockpile of partially used batteries continues to grow, manufacturers will be expected to have solutions in place that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. 

Second-life batteries are an environmentally responsible solution because they extract additional usable energy that would otherwise go to waste. This solution also delays the recycling process, allowing procedures to be developed and improved. 

Second-life batteries are an economically sustainable solution because they create an entirely new revenue stream for manufacturers. When their batteries are no longer suitable for use in an electric vehicle, manufacturers can remanufacture them to suit less-demanding applications, then resell them. This additional link in the automotive value chain is expected to be worth billions of dollars within the next few decades. 

What does this look like in the real world? 

A: The most common application for second-life batteries is stationary energy storage. This is because the application demands relatively low current and energy density from the battery pack compared to the automotive applications they were initially designed for. 

Stationary energy storage is important because it allows energy to be captured for future use. As the world continues to prioritize the shift to renewable and diversified energy sources, the ability to store energy can make those sources more robust and less dependent on traditional energy sources to fill any voids in the grid. 
So, what could this look like long-term and at scale? Over the next few decades, the amount of second-life batteries in use as stationary energy storage will result in the ability to store several terawatt-hours of energy.

What’s Cummins doing to help?

A: Cummins recently announced a multi-year partnership with the University of California San Diego, and its battery validation lab to analyze viable business and technical approaches to effectively reuse and repurpose electric vehicle batteries.

Under the agreement, the college will perform accelerated testing, real-world application testing, and develop an outdoor second-life demonstration system comprised of Cummins’ Goodwood battery modules. The batteries, once fully developed, will be used in both school and transit buses. 

The collaboration will enable Cummins to acquire valuable data on the aging of its battery modules, test integration solutions for second-life battery systems, and validate stationary energy storage system performance under energy storage applications for the grid.

This collaboration marks one of the first testing programs devoted exclusively to the testing of commercial batteries for second-life battery applications. 

Cummins is determined to work with the electronic vehicle manufacturers who use its products to ensure lithium batteries can be handled in both environmentally and economically sustainable ways. 

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

The Future of Fleets: The four keys to electrification - Part 2

Electrified Power - Future of Fleets - Infrastructure

When it comes to battery electric vehicles, there are four keys to adoption within the commercial vehicle sector. In Part 2 of our four-part blog series, we look at the second hurdle a new technology must overcome: Infrastructure.

 

Much of the infrastructure required to practically use an electrified vehicle (EV) is already in place: roads, traffic lights, car parks and systems of vehicle registration are all agnostic as to how the vehicles they accommodate are powered. 

The way energy is delivered to vehicles, however, must change in tandem with the move to EVs, replacing the well-developed network of oil-based fuel delivery we currently rely on with charging points and a power grid that can support them. In this second preview blog of the ‘Future of Fleets’ whitepaper, we look at how work on infrastructure will enable electric commercial vehicle adoption. If you are reading this series for the first time, you can find part one here.  

Infrastructural capacity  

For a typical electric passenger car, fully recharging from a standard U.K. power outlet will take over 10 hours. For commercial vehicles, this level of downtime introduces significant costs – exacerbated by the fact that commercial vehicles are often larger and heavier, and therefore require larger batteries which take longer to recharge. 

For situations where a certain number of vehicle-hours is mandated by the operation, this downtime factor has a range of consequences for infrastructure design. If the vehicles are being charged at a centralized hub, for example, each vehicle needs a parking space for the period of charging. Here, halving the charging time of a vehicle means halving the physical space needed by the recharging infrastructure, as well as halving the number of charge points which need to be purchased and installed. 

The energy for EV recharging, of course, also comes from somewhere. EVs will get their energy either from on-site power generation, such as solar and wind power, or from the national grid. For energy companies, this represents a challenge as, especially at peak charging times, the overall demand on power stations as more vehicles become battery-powered increases. One solution to this will be to use smart charging solutions, which supply energy overnight, when the electricity demand from households and industry is lower. 

Widespread adoption of EVs offers a surprising benefit: the large capacity of vehicle batteries creates the possibility for vehicles not currently in use to help balance national power supply with demand, which will become increasingly important as less predictable renewable energy sources become a more dominant part of our energy mix. Making this win-win possible requires further collaboration between commercial vehicle operators, utilities, legislators and technology vendors. 

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series, in which we will discuss how the economics of fleet ownership affect electrification. 

Download the 'Future of Fleets' report (PDF)

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

The Future of Fleets: The four keys to electrification - Part 1

Electrified Power - Future of Fleets - Technological Maturity

When it comes to battery electric vehicles, there are four keys to adoption within the commercial vehicle sector. In Part 1 of our four-part blog series, we look at the first hurdle a new technology must overcome: Technological maturity.

 

The world’s power needs are changing. By the end of the 21st Century, we will not have the same reliance on fossil fuels. A growing number of fleets are looking to diversify how they power mobility and heavy industry.

Battery electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming viable across a broad range of applications, and the potential to transform commercial fleets is clear. What’s less understood is how we can plot a course for adoption of these technologies, bringing them into greater use in the commercial automotive sector, while maintaining productivity and prosperity.

In Cummins’ ‘Future of Fleets’ whitepaper preview series, we’ll look at the same four keys which made the internal combustion engine one of history’s most successful inventions – technological maturity, infrastructural capacity, economic reality, and regulatory surety – and outline how they must be considered as fleets diversify in the commercial vehicle sector.

Technological maturity 

The first hurdle that a technology must overcome if it’s going to be adopted for any given purpose is its ability to perform the task at hand. For the internal combustion engine, first developed in 1859, this meant providing at least as much energy output as a horse in an equivalent or smaller amount of space. Today, the physical ability of EVs to perform the task at hand needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

One technology has been the critical innovation which above all else has made modern EVs possible: the lithium-ion battery (Li-ion). Using batteries to provide power to a vehicle involves a key trade-off: movement over a large distance requires a lot of energy, but adding additional batteries also adds weight and volume, increasing the vehicle’s energy requirements even further. One of the key scientific challenges in creating batteries for vehicles, therefore, is maximizing the amount of energy they can hold in a given volume and weight; this is precisely what Li-ion batteries achieve.

As this progress continues, it will become possible to electrify more varied types of vehicles. Long-haul freight, for instance, demands a huge amount of stored energy, but adding additional battery units eats into the available storage space, making each journey less economically useful. By researching how we can store more power in a smaller space, we will enable new possibilities for electrification.

Technology is just one part of the electrification story, so stay tuned for more in part two of this blog series and download the full "Future of Fleets" whitepaper report below.
 

Download the 'Future of Fleets' report (PDF)

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Electrochemistry is for everyone

Let’s talk about electrochemistry.

It may not be rocket science, but it can sound pretty intimidating. Electrochemistry is the lifeblood of so much technology we use and depend on every day. Everything from a blood glucose sensor to water contamination detectors and even the galvanization of steel are brought to you by electrochemistry. Electrochemical reactions power everything that runs on a battery, too — whether it’s your smartphone or an electric vehicle.

Lithium-ion technology for electric vehicle batteries we use now were first developed from rechargeable batteries used in personal electronics. They’ve since evolved on a major scale and are now able to power huge machines, like on- and off-highway vehicles. 
If you’re interested in or involved in electrification, or just curious about why your everyday technology works, it’s important to understand how batteries work through electrochemistry.

Isn’t it ionic?

Battery packs that power large-scale technology are made up of individual battery cells. Every cell stores energy through chemicals. Each cell has two opposite terminals: the anode and the cathode. Surrounding the two terminals is the electrolyte: a conductive liquid that facilitates the flow of ions between the anode and the cathode.

For context, we’ll take a look at the science behind a lithium-ion battery. Most electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries. A lithium-ion battery stores positively charged lithium ions, in either the anode or cathode, depending on its charged state. When a lithium-ion battery is fully charged, it has most of its lithium ions stored in the (negative) anode.

To create electricity, the electrolyte helps positively charged lithium ions move from the anode to the cathode and electrons flow in the reverse direction through an external circuit. This produces electricity when the lithium ions interact with the terminals in a chemical reaction called a reduction-oxidation (redox) reaction. In a redox reaction, one atom gives up an electron and the other atom accepts it. 

The terminals are separated by a separator, which is made of a non-conductive polymer that is ionically conductive to allow Li-ions to pass through but is electrically insulative to prevent electrical short-circuits.

Electrochemistry information

We’ve got the power.

So, now we have electrical energy. But how do we harness it to power our phones, computers, vehicles and more?

First, the terminals are connected to an outside electron conductor, allowing electrons to flow from the anode to the cathode. Remember, this electron movement is electricity. The electricity passing through the conductor can then be intercepted and used to do many things. For example, in an electric motor, the motor is connected to the outside conductor, sitting between the anode and the cathode. The electricity powers the motor, and the electrons return to the cathode, completing the circuit.

The potential difference between a cell’s positive and negative ends (terminals) is also known as voltage. We also look at current, which the rate at which electrons flow through the circuit. The larger the voltage, and the greater the current, the more power the battery can deliver. Oftentimes, a larger device such as a car or truck, will use a battery with high voltage and high current to deliver the power to drive the wheels. With enough batteries, we can use electrochemistry to harness electricity needed to power devices of all shapes and sizes, from remote controls, to large off-highway excavators.

Electrified power is a promising solution for a number of challenges in transportation. Fully-electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions, creating cleaner air and a healthier environment. Electric vehicles also require less maintenance and can be equipped with advanced telematics and reporting capabilities. In its current state, electrified power has proven to be a promising solution for urban transit, delivery vehicles, passenger cars and more.

Thanks to advancements in battery technology, Cummins is making strides in the expansion of its electrified power offerings, which stand to benefit customers and the environment. By continuing to provide a world that’s always on with diverse power solutions such as electrified power, the company is helping create cleaner and more efficient roads, cities and systems — all thanks to the power of electrochemistry.
 

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Making a splash at NACV

Cummins hydrogen fuel cell truck
Cummins unveiled a heavy-duty demonstration truck with fuel cell and battery electric power at the 2019 North American Commercial Vehicle Show.

Drip. Drip. Drip. It may just be tiny droplets of water dribbling out of Cummins’ latest innovation, but it is making a big splash this week at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show (NACV) in Atlanta. Building upon a long history of innovation and delivering industry-leading solutions, Cummins is displaying the newest development in the powertrain of choice: hydrogen fuel cell power. 

Unveiling in a Big Way

After many months of behind the scenes work, which is really the culmination of more than 20 years of research and development around fuel cell technologies, Cummins has unveiled a heavy-duty truck with fuel cell and battery electric power. The zero-emissions class 8, 6x4 day cab tractor is a technology demonstrator suitable for vocational applications, including regional haul, urban delivery operations, port drayage and terminal container handling. 

Under the Hood

The truck was designed and integrated by Cummins in Columbus, Ind. and includes a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell from Hydrogenics, a recent addition to the Cummins family. The truck was designed for 90 kW fuel cell and is scalable in 30 kW or 45 kW increments up to 180 kW and has 100 kWh lithium-ion battery capacity. The truck has a range of 150-250 miles between filling up, but that range can be extended with additional hydrogen tanks, increasing the tank storage pressure or installing additional fuel cells to optimize management of the vehicle load factor. 

Cummins hydrogen fuel cell truck
Cummins' hydrogen fuel cell truck, pictured here, was designed and integrated by Cummins in Columbus, Indiana. 

Many of the critical components of the powertrain, including the PEM fuel cell, system controller, powertrain controls, wire harnesses and junction boxes, among others, were designed and developed by Cummins. Cummins has also integrated third party components into the system. 

The Look 

Some might be surprised by the overall look of the fuel cell truck – it doesn’t feature any Cummins red! Instead, the exterior truck branding prominently showcases water. The meaning behind this is twofold. First, when the fuel cell is running, the exhaust consists of air and water. Liquid water flows out from an outlet hose behind the side panels on the driver’s side. Second, hydrogen can be sourced from water using a process called electrolysis to produce electrical energy. The use of water, along with the Jeopardy-style answer of “Hydrogen is how.” to the question of “How does it work?” helps to distinguish the hydrogen fuel cell technology that is unique to the vehicle.

The second thing you’ll notice about the truck is the OEM, or more accurately the lack thereof. The truck was not a collaboration with an OEM partner and was deliberately designed to be OEM agnostic. The goal was to allow all OEMs customers and end users to envision how Cummins fuel cell power can enable their success. 

Without looking under the hood, the truck might look like any other truck, and in fact, the goal is to provide the same dependable performance as every other Cummins-powered truck. So, even though we never intend to manufacture the truck itself instead focusing on innovating the powertrain, having an OEM-neutral vehicle that showcases the art of the possible through a modern, innovative “package” is important to the overall positioning of the technology. 

The Team Behind the Innovation

To say this was a team effort would be an understatement. The truck was designed and built at the Cummins Machine Integration Center (CMIC) in Columbus. The facility supports global vehicle integration efforts for multiple business segments for on- and off-highway equipment and features a dedicated EV Lab for electrification work. More than 30 engineers and technicians, including a few from Hydrogenics who jumped in post-acquisition, and numerous suppliers had a hand in taking this from simply a concept, to a truck that could be driven onto the tradeshow floor.

The truck is a example of the collaboration between system engineering, technology leadership teams within Electrified Power and Cummins research and technology group and the technical operations team at CMIC which supports Cummins Southern Indiana fleet of 450 vehicles. 

Cummins hydrogen fuel cell truck

Looking to the Next 100 Years

Cummins’ strategy is to provide our customers with a range of power options, from advanced diesel and natural gas internal combustion engines to battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell solutions. In the long-run, the customers we serve will likely need more than one type of power, depending on their specific markets, applications and use cases. 

To this end, Cummins has made several recent announcements around fuel cells like the acquisition of Hydrogenics, a memo of understanding with Hyundai Motor Company to collaborate on hydrogen fuel cell technology across commercial markets in North America and an investment in Loop Energy, a fuel cell electric range extender provider. Developing the hydrogen fuel cell truck as technology demonstrator is a critical step in gaining valuable insights that are critical to continue developing the right solutions for the market and preparing for next 100 years. 

So, the next time you hear a drip or step in a puddle, take a minute to think about the possibilities. 

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

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