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January 3, 2023


Electric Vehicles
Electronics & Systems
The Basics
Nadim Maluf

My graduate research at Stanford covered nanometer-scale technologies for silicon integrated circuits (ICs), at a time when micron-scale was state of the art. It was a precursor to the technologies we take for granted today to run our smartphones and computers.

Upon my graduation, the nearly-unanimous advice I received was to abandon a career in silicon ICs and, instead, complete post-doctoral research in Japan. Silicon Valley, I was told, was moving east. Semiconductors made of materials from groups III-V were displacing silicon as the new material of the future. Nothing was more terrifying to a new graduate.

Yet, as 2022 comes to an end, the geopolitical fight is over who gets to control the next nanometer-scale silicon fabrication facilities. This is not to say that III-V semiconductors were a failure. Au contraire, III-V devices are at the core of lasers, RF-circuitry and high-power devices. These are important markets and applications, yet silicon remains the undisputed king of computation.

How did that happen? What did the expert pundits of that era miss? What can we learn in making predictions for the future?

It is true that III-V materials have superior properties compared to silicon. But silicon had two advantages:

  1.  Never under-estimate the power of the incumbent
  2. Never under-estimate the power of software

Silicon manufacturers kept gradually improving their offerings and lowering the cost of manufacturing, making it very difficult for competing semiconductor materials to threaten silicon. Moore’s Law proved very powerful. Additionally, rapid progress in software took advantage of scaling laws enabling new applications, unforeseen a few decades ago, such as powering the internet, advanced graphics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving, to name a few.

There are many parallels between the battery and semiconductor industries, and, thus, lessons to be learned for the future. Incumbent lithium-ion battery manufacturers are scaling manufacturing at an unprecedented pace. Battery manufacturing output will grow 20X in this decade, from 265 GWh in 2020 to nearly 5,000 GWh in 2030. The cost of manufacturing lithium-ion batteries has dropped exponentially from $1,200 /kWh in 2010 to about $100 /kWh in 2022, and will continue its decline over the coming decade.

This brings me to my prediction for 2023: Software will increasingly become key to advance the state of the battery, in similar ways software brought computation to the fingertips of every human being.

What can software do?

Software can significantly expand the performance envelope of lithium-ion batteries. Take, for example, driving range. Software can add about 10% to the accessible energy in a battery, thereby increasing the vehicle driving range by the same proportion. For calibration, 10% is the equivalent of two generations of batteries!

As we look into a future of batteries everywhere (in your car, in your home, in the grid), software is the only tool that will manage the optimal flow of energy between these nodes. It will manage the batteries in fleets of electrical vehicles and commercial trucks. Software will ensure that your vehicle battery will not degrade abnormally if you use it to power your home (what is known as vehicle-to-grid, or V2G). It will also guarantee that your battery warranty will be good for many years, on and off the road. Software will be the backbone to the charging infrastructure so you don’t fret the next charging stop.

Storing energy was always a technology priority for past civilizations. Early humans mustered thermal energy by controlling fire. Romans were the first to store and distribute water to control hydraulic potential energy (e.g., turning wheels). In the industrial revolution, combustible fuels became ubiquitous – and as we know now, at a significant cost to the environment. In more recent history, we learned to store even bigger amounts of water in dams to power electric turbines. The sustainable storage of electrical energy is the next technology frontier: the battery is its gate, and software is its key.

Nadim Maluf is an engineer, entrepreneur, and disruptive technologist who is reinventing the foundations of energy storage and mobility. He is the Co-founder and CEO at Qnovo, a battery intelligence software company engineering better experiences and products for a more resilient future.

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