Stephen Lambert explores impediments to electrification in relation to material, technological and supply chain barriers
Against the backdrop of a shift towards environmentally conscious solutions, both in the UK and globally, the development of electric vehicle (EV) technology is gaining considerable momentum. With the inevitable move to electrification in mobility already underway, there are still a few significant obstacles that need to be addressed before EVs can replace traditional fossil fuel vehicles. For example, there needs to be a comprehensive global effort to tackle impediments in relation to material, technological and supply chain barriers. Such efforts would be aligned with the collective initiative to reduce carbon emissions and support the roll out of EVs.
Looking ahead, the success of any EV technology will be contingent upon its efficiency. In the early days of EVs, companies were primarily focused on getting a vehicle to market. This made sense at the time as the decision for consumers was largely whether or not they wanted to buy a pure EV, a hybrid or a conventionally fuelled car. However, now that the market is maturing, manufacturers are having to differentiate their offering as consumers begin to ask not “should I buy an EV” but “which EV should I buy”. This is where efficiency comes into its own as a means of reducing charging times, improving performance and increasing range.
The advantages of silicon carbide
Given this challenge, silicon carbide (SiC) will prove to be a highly useful resource for its role in improving efficiencies in inverter technologies; inverters are key components that convert DC voltage from the battery into AC to power the electric motor. While battery and motor technology tend to get most of the credit when discussing the performance of EVs, it would be ill-advised to overlook the importance of inverters to the performance and efficiency of these vehicles.
SiC offers a number of efficiency gains over conventional inverters based around silicon IGBT semiconductors. Not only do SiC semiconductors occupy a smaller form, they also produce less heat and have lower sensitivity to temperature changes. SiC allows for smaller and lightweight inverters that require less energy to drive. While SiC is not new, the benefits it can bring to electrification have not yet been fully realised across the industry. As EV technology continues to develop, SiC will become increasingly valuable and intrinsically linked to the improvement of EV technology and the widespread consumer adoption of EVs.
It is likely that we will see the move to SiC happen alongside the move to 800v, which will bring significantly more gains in efficiency than just moving to 800v
The shift from 400v to 800v
The move from 400 volt (v) systems to 800v will aid the development of EV technology and encourage the growth of electrification. Through implementing an 800v-based architecture, vehicles will be able to operate with much faster charging abilities. As range anxiety and charging time is still a significant barrier to entry for consumers, this will drive the move towards 800v.
Whilst a move to 800v does produce some efficiency benefits, it is likely that we will see the move to SiC happen alongside the move to 800v, which will bring significantly more gains in efficiency than just moving to 800v. Gains in efficiency will reduce the costs of components, including the motor, cooling system and battery. This is hugely significant, as the battery is often the costliest component of an EV, and can account for as much as 50% of the total cost of a vehicle. SiC, along with the shift to 800v-based architectures, is vital in the transition to electrification.
The supply chain challenge
As consumer demand for EVs increases, there will be a growing necessity for an established supply chain to meet demand. Many economies comparable to the UK have recognised this demand and made the shift accordingly. It’s not surprising that there is more prominence being given to scaling up production given that EV batteries, and particularly the cells of which they are comprised, are steadily increasing in demand. Technologies such as the inverter, DC/DC converter, telematics, charger and the charging network, will all be pivotal in ensuring the success of EVs and the UK has to be prepared for changes in demand and use the knowledge and capabilities that it currently has to its advantage in order to create a solid supply chain and ensure the longevity of these technologies.
For battery technology, there is already a large focus on mass production, along with having a durable and efficient supply chain. Large economies are competing to have battery gigafactories opened due to the substantial number of employees required in order to achieve the desired outcomes. However, other technologies critical to the roll out of EVs (such as SiC semiconductors) aren’t yet seeing the same level of global competition for production facilities.
Some industry watchers believe that this is an opportunity that UK should be urgently addressing. The UK could prove an ideal platform for the development of innovative and high value technologies and as such needs to exploit the opportunity before it. In this context, those who plan ahead will be able to implement the transitions necessary to support the shift towards electrification.
As EV technology continues to develop, SiC will become increasingly valuable and intrinsically linked to the improvement of EV technology and the widespread consumer adoption of EVs
The Green Industrial Revolution
In context of the shift towards EV production, there is significant competition between similar economies. In order to leverage the situation, the UK will need to assert itself as a key actor in the electrification space to be able to support increasing consumer demand. The market may benefit from establishing a sustainable and efficient supply chain to ensure that it does not miss this opportunity. An important element of EV production is EV batteries and the power electronics that make EVs so desirable. The production of EV technology must be streamlined in order to aid the advancement of electrification in the UK, both to ensure the technology is adopted by consumers but also to ensure that the UK is a leader in developing and manufacturing.
The Green Industrial Revolution is underway and the UK needs to act fast in order to emerge as a strong player. According to the Ten Point Plan put forth by the UK government, this shift towards green technologies is projected to bring in £42bn (US$58.5bn) in private investment by 2030 to support innovation and growth. The UK is making a dedicated effort to pursue environmentally beneficial practices and innovate according to new standards. It is testament to the notion that a shift towards green technology could help strengthen the economy.
According to the Office for National Statistics, within the last 30 years, the UK’s GDP has increased by 75% while carbon emissions have decreased by 43%. During the Industrial Revolution, the UK capitalised on innovative solutions to modernise the country. Going forward, the UK may do well to focus on its strengths, which lie in advanced manufacturing and enabling technologies. Given that the UK has in-depth knowledge of technologies that can get the most out of performance, this is where the emphasis should be placed. In parallel to its influential role in the industrial revolution, the UK must understand its assets, and ensure that the infrastructure is in place to allow these technologies to enter the market.
About the author: Stephen Lambert is Head of Electrification at McLaren Applied and Chairman of AESIN (the Automotive Electronics Systems Innovation Network)