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Why getting more EVs on the road is all about charging

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

The first time I took a road trip in an electric vehicle, I didn’t mind the charging very much. I wasn’t in a rush, and there was an In-N-Out Burger near the fast charger where I stopped. By the time I’d finished my fries, the car was pretty much ready to go. 

But a person can only eat so much fast food—if my journey had been much longer and I needed to stop more than once, the pit stop might not have felt quite so convenient. Especially when, by comparison, gas stations can get internal-combustion vehicles back on the road in just a few minutes. 

But fast charging might be getting even faster soon. Last week, the world’s largest EV-battery maker announced plans to make new battery cells that can charge nearly twice as quickly as the competition. It could be a big deal, as I wrote about in a recent story. But there’s more to charging than just batteries, so let’s dive into fast charging: Why is it so crucial, and what will it take to speed things up? 

Charging up 

Charging speed is “very important” for EV uptake, especially as EVs start to gain ground in the market against gas-powered cars, says Jiayan Shi, an analyst for BNEF, an energy research firm.

But despite its crucial role, things aren’t going so well in charging. A lack of reliable charging infrastructure is one of the main barriers to EV adoption, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Existing stations are still too sparse in many parts of the world, including major EV markets like the US and Europe. The state of fast chargers, the kind that can add up to 80% of a vehicle’s range in under 30 minutes, is especially rough. 

The US added about 6,300 fast chargers to its stock in 2022, bringing the total to around 28,000, according to the IEA. It’s a big number, but not nearly enough—by 2025, the country will need to quadruple the total number of installed chargers (including both fast and slow varieties) from 2022 levels to meet expected demand from all the EVs coming onto the roads, according to a report by S&P Global.

Things are going better in other parts of the world. Globally, about 330,000 new fast chargers were built in 2022, and nearly all that growth happened in China.

But even today’s fastest chargers still can’t come close to competing with a trip to the gas station. So in addition to getting more infrastructure built and keeping chargers reliably online, some companies want to speed up charging even more. 

Speeding up

So how fast could charging really get? What I find interesting about progress in this area is that it’s a bit of a dance between charger technology and battery technology. You need both to actually speed up charging times at all. 

Take Tesla’s supercharger network, the most established in the US. (I’ll note here that I interned at Tesla for a few months in 2016, but I don’t have any ties to the company today.)  

Tesla Superchargers installed today top out at 250 kilowatts of peak power. That’s pretty speedy—for some vehicles, it can translate to adding 200 miles (or 320 kilometers) of range in about 15 minutes.

The fourth version of the automaker’s chargers will reportedly have a higher maximum power output at 350 kW. But a more powerful charger doesn’t necessarily mean faster charging. While there are vehicles on the roads today that can charge at this increased power level, like the Lucid Air, Tesla doesn’t make any—not yet, at least. 

Managing a battery’s charging speed isn’t quite as simple as just connecting a more powerful plug. As a battery charges, there are lithium ions shuttling around inside. If ions in the battery are moving faster than they can make it into the electrode, for example, they can start turning into lithium metal, which quickly destroys the capacity of the battery and can shorten its lifetime.

So getting fast charging going is as much about battery chemistry as it is about charging infrastructure. And while many research efforts and technology announcements have been focused on boosting energy density—the amount of energy that can be packed into a battery of a given weight and size—there’s been a growing focus on charging speed recently, says Kevin Shang, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy.

That’s where recent news from battery giant CATL comes in. The company announced last week that its batteries could handle charging rates that would roughly double Tesla’s today. 

There are a lot of details that aren’t clear yet from this initial announcement—we don’t know what these batteries will cost, what their energy density will be, or how long they’ll last. But if the company can follow through on its promise to mass-produce these ultra-fast-charging batteries at the end of this year, it could mean a new era for EV charging. Check out the story for all the details.

Related reading

The US still needs to install a lot more chargers to take advantage of growing support for EVs, as I wrote earlier this year.

There’s been a long history of opposing technology in EV chargers in the US, but Tesla is gobbling up the competition, establishing its technology as somewhat of a standard.

Some companies still think that avoiding charging altogether and opting for battery swapping could play a role in getting more EVs on the road. 

Another thing

We’ve got a brand-new print magazine out! This issue takes on ethics, and it touches on everything from warfare to boardrooms. I’d highly recommend the cover story, an examination from my colleague Jessica Hamzelou about who gets to access experimental medical treatments. 

There’s also a range of stellar climate and environment stories inside, including a look at how drilling deep into ice in Antarctica could help scientists understand Earth’s climate cycles and this peek at how researchers want to save Venice from sinking—with salt marshes. 

There’s also a story about a company looking to use waste heat from computers to warm up water for homes, and a profile of Miami’s new chief heat officer, the first such official in the world. I hope you’ll give it a read. 

Keeping up with climate  

Dairy farms in Texas are a huge source of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas. This investigation peeks into just how massive the problem is, and how scientists are trying to track it better. (Inside Climate News)

We’ve come full circle, back to ships propelled by the wind. High-tech devices are being installed on massive ships to cut down on fuel consumption and emissions. One such vessel just completed the first leg of its maiden voyage. (Canary Media

New innovation hubs are popping up in unexpected places in the US, like Moses Lake, Washington. Here’s why legislation is helping this and other towns become hot spots for battery companies. (E&E News

Grid storage is crucial to helping reach clean-energy goals. But New York is having trouble with some installations catching fire. (Canary Media

→ Fire risk is why some companies are turning to alternative chemistries, like aqueous iron-based batteries. (MIT Technology Review

Officials will be discharging treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant this week. The plan is controversial, but officials say that all the water being released will follow safety standards. (Associated Press

Automakers are slipping behind on goals for electric trucks. While the largest manufacturers project that electric versions of their vehicles will make up at least half of sales by 2030, there’s a long way to go. (Bloomberg

→ Here’s why the grid is ready for fleets of electric trucks. (MIT Technology Review

Biogas producers are pushing methane from agricultural waste as a renewable fuel. But whether or not it can actually cut emissions is a bit complicated. (Grist)