Powering Singapore's Drive To Net Zero Through R&D For Safer, Greener EV Batteries

By Dr Chiam Sing Yang, Deputy Executive Director, A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and Technical Director, Singapore Battery Consortium (SBC)

Powering Singapore Drive To Net Zero Through Greener EV Batteries
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You may have noticed more electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads in Singapore. EVs accounted for nearly 20 per cent of new car registrations in Singapore last year, almost double the 12 per cent in 2022, testament to their increasing global popularity.

This figure is likely to rise further in the coming years, as Singapore will stop registering internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from 2030 and phase them out by 2040, as part of its Green Plan to help achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Government estimates that if all local light vehicles ran on electricity, it would cut Singapore’s emissions by about four per cent.

However, concerns about how safe and sustainable EVs truly are, could impede the shift. Such concerns centre around the most significant component of EVs – their batteries. To encourage greater adoption, we should focus on research and development to make safer and greener EV batteries, such as innovation in their materials and design, and tapping on technology to enhance EV battery testing and recycling efforts.

Strengthening EV batteries' safety

While incidents of EV batteries catching fire make headlines, statistics show that the risks have been exaggerated. In fact, ICE vehicles are far more likely to go up in flames. A report based on global data showed that an ICE vehicle has 80 times greater risk of catching fire.

That being said, when lithium-ion batteries – which most EVs use – ignite, the fires are much harder to put out than petrol fires. They require more water to extinguish, can emit more toxic gases and can possibly reignite.

One way to improve EV battery safety is to explore safer alternatives to traditional lithium-ion batteries, which use flammable organic liquid electrolytes. NUS scientists have developed a sodium-ion battery that is less prone to fire than lithium-ion batteries, while just as long-lasting and reliable.

At the same time, it is also important to incorporate both passive and active protection in the battery pack design. EV battery packs can incorporate battery management systems to track and control parameters such as battery cells’ voltage, current and temperature, to make charging and discharging safer, reducing the likelihood of a fire.

A*STAR has collaborated with various institutes of higher learning to develop solutions to boost EV battery safety and performance. The Singapore Battery Pack Programme, a collaboration between Nanyang Technology University (NTU), A*STAR, NUS, and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), aims to advance battery pack designs for improved performance and safety. To prevent overheating issues, A*STAR is developing an immersion cooling system to enhance thermal management for EV batteries.

A*STAR has also collaborated with NTU and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) to create a cognitive digital twin of a battery pack, which can potentially tap on digital technology to give users a real-time overview of battery performance statistics and enable better battery lifespan estimation.

The new A*STAR Battery Test Facility, one of the largest of its kind in South-east Asia, offers an extensive range of battery testing equipment to support the development of safer, more reliable and sustainable batteries across public and private sectors. It enables performance and abuse testing to ensure that batteries can operate safely under both routine and stress conditions. These tests are important for compliance to standards and regulations, and critical for product makers to incorporate safeguards to mitigate failure conditions.

The hidden cost of EV batteries – and how to reduce it

While EVs are commonly considered to be ‘greener’ than ICE cars as they use electricity instead of fossil fuels, the reality is more complicated. Although EVs do not produce tailpipe emissions, which are emissions that result from fuel combustion, manufacturing them incurs a higher carbon footprint than that of ICE cars. A study has found that it takes a typical EV about 22,000km before it achieves carbon parity with an ICE vehicle, or break even in terms of carbon emissions over the vehicle lifetime.

One main reason is the energy-intensive process to produce the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs. Processes to mine and refine the critical minerals (e.g lithium, cobalt and nickel), create their electrode materials and manufacture the battery cells require large amounts of energy, causing substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

There are ways to shrink the batteries’ carbon footprint, including the use of renewables and advanced manufacturing solutions like the emerging dry battery manufacturing process. Battery recycling and repurposing are also important to reduce overall carbon footprint and in making battery production more sustainable. A*STAR’s EV Battery Testing and Disassembly Line helps to make battery recycling and repurposing more efficient by automating parts of the battery disassembly process, speeding it up by an estimated 50 per cent. Additionally, A*STAR is also developing an end-of-life battery health estimation system to better determine batteries’ suitability for recycling and repurposing towards the end of their lifespans.

With a strong talent pool and intellectual property protections, along with a well-connected research and industry ecosystem, Singapore can play a pivotal role in the growth of advanced battery technologies and move towards being a key hub for battery technology innovation, especially in Southeast Asia.

The potential economic benefits are immense: sales of EVs in Asia are expected to grow by 22 per cent every year on average between 2024 and 2028. Southeast Asia has announced battery cell manufacturing capacity of more than 50 GWh, which will help to meet the growing global battery demand.

Singapore Battery Consortium is working collaboratively with the ecosystem to advance battery technologies and capture value for the region. By coming together to explore new frontiers in battery technologies, we can accelerate the future of EVs for safer, greener transport.