It may not be long before drivers across the globe are pumping their cars full of electricity instead of gas. According to the International Energy Agency, if governments and businesses around the world come together to promote electric vehicle (EV) adoption, 250 million EVs could be on the road by 2030 and account for 30 percent of all vehicles sold.
Whether adoption picks up over the next decade as people expect, or even if it takes longer, at some point EVs will overtake internal combustion engine (ICE) cars as people’s preferred ride. It has to--numerous countries around the world have pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and the only way to get there is to get gas-guzzling vehicles off the road.
“This is where we’re moving with urgency,” says Peter Votruba-Drzal, director of global research and product development, automotive, industrial, and mobility at PPG, a global paints and coatings manufacturer that creates coatings that go inside both traditional and electric vehicles. “You see companies announcing new EVs every day, including pickups. It’s definitely coming.”
Improving Battery Technology
While progress has been made in this sector - eight EV models can now drive for 200 miles on a single charge, according to myev.com - there’s still a lot of work to be done before these cars fill freeways across the country.
First of all, creating an electric vehicle powertrain, the part of the car that includes the engine, is still expensive. According to automotive consultancy Munro & Associates, 51 percent of an EV’s cost is concentrated on its powertrain, compared to 18 percent for ICE vehicles. That gap must close, he says.
Secondly, for EV adoption to really take off, these cars have to drive for as long as ICE cars before requiring a fill up, says Votruba-Drzal. That’s around 300 miles per charge.
These two issues come down to batteries, which have come a long way but still need to be improved before EVs go mainstream. Currently, the industry is working on a variety of different battery technologies.
“When you look at the overall cost of the vehicle, the cost of the battery pack and the range of the battery are the two areas that the industry is working on,” he explains. “Some of that comes by scale, but a lot of it comes from the battery cell technology itself.”
Creating Better Coatings
Creating an efficient battery, though, is about more than stacking cells together or tweaking chemistry. It also requires a number of coatings, adhesives, and sealants that go into an electric car’s powertrain to deliver the reliability and performance expected from automobiles.
One main focus area for PPG is the battery binder, which is the material in the battery coatings that holds lithium-containing active battery materials together. Traditionally, this part was made with an environmentally harmful solvent called N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP). PPG, however, found a way to create a solution that’s just as effective but is safer, says Votruba-Drzal.
The coating allows manufacturers to produce lithium-ion batteries at a lower cost per kilowatt and increase their energy density.
Keeping batteries from overheating is also key to EV performance. Everyone knows that if a cell phone sits in the sun for too long, it shuts off. The same thing can happen with an electric car, which wouldn’t be ideal in the middle of a highway. PPG’s coatings technologies can help batteries maintain the right temperature.
“The lifeblood of that electric vehicle is the thermal control system,” he says. “You have, essentially, a neural network of thermal control that allows you to move heat in and out of the battery system, so it’s always running at optimal performance. Our functionality helps with that.”
Of course, there’s more to the car than batteries, and PPG, with decades of automotive industry experience behind it, is creating new coatings and using existing ones for exterior and interior purposes, too. For instance, its products for consumer electronics, like anti-glare technology that’s usually applied to cell phones and laptops, is being implemented on the large touchscreens found inside electric cars; while paints used to make traditional cars look attractive are now being used on EVs.
With an increasing number of EVs sold every year, innovations in this sector are moving quickly; it’s required to develop and commercialize coatings solutions in less than 18 months these days, he says. In addition, with each manufacturer building EV cars in different ways, PPG customizes all kinds of products to satisfy their many customers. All of that makes this area of the automotive industry exciting to be in.
“It’s very satisfying to watch the development cycle move quickly and enable commercialization of EV powertrains,” says Votruba-Drzal. “We’re always trying to stay in front of the industry and create a sustainable competitive advantage. That’s exciting.”