Award-winning battery pioneer Akira Yoshino at Tesla, Apple and the electric future

Akira Yoshino, co-winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with lithium-ion batteries, can take credit for the revolution in the automotive and technology industries.

Li-ion batteries provided the first serious competition in a century for fossil fuels and transportation combustion engines. Now an honorary member of Asahi Kasei, the Japanese chemical company where he worked for nearly 50 years, Yoshino sees more disruptions as transport and digital technology becomes an industry, sharing lithium battery technology.

Yoshino spoke with Reuters about the next generation of batteries for electric vehicles, the potential for shared autonomous electric vehicles that can charge themselves, the prospects for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the possibility that Apple could lead the convergence of automotive and information technology industries in future mobility.

Here is an edited transcript:

Reuters: What technical innovations—in design, chemistry and materials, even processes—can keep lithium ion the dominant EV battery chemistry, and for how much longer?

Yoshino: There are two main areas of innovation that would be key. One would be new cathode materials and anode materials. The second would be the system where the EV is used. In other words, how people will use EVs and how they load and unload them.

Reuters: Are you talking about people who use electric vehicles in different ways? In other words, not owning vehicles, but paying for the use, for example, by sharing a ride?

Yoshino: Yes, I think the biggest potential is in sharing. If autonomous electric vehicles can become practical, it will make a big change in the way people use vehicles.

Reuters: How long will it take for wireless charging of electric vehicle batteries to become a reality, whether via the roadbed, vehicle solar panels, or some other means?

Yoshino: Basic wireless charging technology is not a problem. The problem is how to apply this in a practical system. There are two possibilities. One is cars that are parked in a certain location where wireless charging is available. The second is while the car is in motion. It probably won’t be on all roads, but on certain roads where it’s available, it might be possible.

If you think about autonomous electric vehicles, the vehicles will know when they need to be charged and, on their own, just go to the charging station. This kind of situation might be practical sooner than you think.

Reuters: Toyota and Honda are selling a small number of fuel cell electric vehicles, but the hydrogen infrastructure to support fuel cells seems to be around for many years.

Yoshino: With the fuel cell vehicle, there are technology and cost challenges, but you can overcome them. If you think about the longer term, 2030 to 2050, autonomous shared vehicles will emerge. Hypothetically, an autonomous vehicle could be powered by a gasoline engine, it could be electric, it could be a fuel cell. It doesn’t matter what the power source is. But he needs to replenish his energy somehow. If the vehicle cannot do this automatically without human intervention, the system is kind of meaningless. The same would happen with gasoline or hydrogen.

In this sense, the electric vehicle is one that can automatically replenish its energy. If you think about the Roomba vacuum, it circles around the room and recharges itself. If Roomba needed a person to “fill the tank,” no one would want to buy Roomba.

Reuters: What else should we know about the future of mobility?

Yoshino: Right now, the auto industry is thinking about how to invest in the future of mobility. At the same time, the IT industry is also thinking about the future of mobility. Somewhere, someday, with the auto industry and the IT industry, there will be some kind of convergence for the future of mobility.

Tesla has its own independent strategy. The one to look for is Apple. What will they do? I think they might announce something soon. And what kind of car would they advertise? What kind of battery? They probably want to get there around 2025. If they do, I think they’ll have to announce something by the end of this year. This is just my personal hypothesis.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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