Carmakers race to control next generation battery technology

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Carmakers race to control next generation battery technology

WOBURN, Mass. – Already far behind Asian manufacturers in making electric car batteries, US automakers and their suppliers are racing to develop new-generation batteries that are cheaper, can pack in more energy and charge faster. can do

It is a global competition with huge economic consequences for automakers, small battery start-ups and car buyers who will in a few years choose from a dizzying array of electric cars that use different types of batteries as the combustion engine era wanes. goes.

The chemical makeup of batteries – a technical topic that used to be the province of engineers – has become one of the hottest topics of discussion in the corporate boardrooms of General Motors, Toyota, Ford Motor and Volkswagen, as well as in the White House.

With financial and technical support from the government, these giant companies are embracing start-ups working to remake batteries so that they don’t lag behind the industrial revolution sparked by the electric car.

Automakers’ ability to master battery technology could help determine which companies thrive and which ones overtake Tesla and other electric car businesses.

Batteries will help determine the price of new cars and may become the defining feature of vehicles. Like the megapixels on cameras or the processing speed of computer chips that consumers once looked up to, the characteristics of batteries will be the criteria by which cars and trucks are judged and bought.

“This is going to be the new brand differentiation going forward – batteries in electric vehicles,” said How Thai-Tang, Ford Motor’s chief product platform and operations officer. “So we’re making a big effort.”

Of course, batteries will play a central role in the fight against climate change by helping to move cars, trucks and the power sector away from oil, coal and natural gas.

Automakers are taking a crash course in battery chemistry as demand for electric cars grows. Companies have to figure out how to make batteries cheaper and better. Today, batteries can make up a quarter to a third of the cost of electric cars. And most of those batteries are made by some Asian companies.

Even Tesla, a major maker of electric cars, is relying on Asian suppliers and is seeking to bring more manufacturing home.

President Biden this month encouraged companies to move more of the battery supply chain to the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the strategic importance of such efforts. Volkswagen was forced to temporarily close its main electric vehicle factory in Germany after the fighting disrupted supplies of parts made in western Ukraine.

Auto giants like Stelantis, which owns Ram and Jeep, are spending the cash on start-ups like Factorial Energy, which has fewer than 100 employees in an office park in Woburn, near Boston.

Factorial executives, who have stopped returning calls from automakers offering bags of money, are developing a battery that can charge faster, hold more energy and run hotter than current batteries. may be less likely to occur.

“Money can come and go,” said Factorial co-founder Siu Huang, who began experimenting with battery technology as a graduate student at Cornell University. “We want to deliver the safest batteries and change the way people live.”

Top Biden administration officials have said they want to help, acknowledging that the United States has done a poor job of capitalizing on domestically made battery technologies. Many of those inventions have given rise to a large industry in China.

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The Department of Energy is considering funding companies that manufacture batteries or supply parts or critical minerals needed to make them. The agency already has at least 10 pending applications seeking a total of more than $15 million to support these battery-related projects, according to an agency tally.

The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, said last month that the failure to innovate hurt his hometown, South Bend, Ind., which was once home to Studebaker, which went out of business in the 1960s.

“Innovation is central to the past, present and future for our auto industry, and we see an opportunity right now for America to lead the electric vehicle revolution,” he said.

The most immediate change is coming to the building blocks of batteries.

Most of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles rely on nickel, manganese and cobalt. But some automakers, including Tesla and Ford, are moving to use batteries in at least some vehicles that rely on lithium iron phosphate, which is popular in China.

These LFP batteries, as they are known, may not store as much energy per pound, but they are much less expensive and last longer.

Tesla plans to introduce LFP batteries into short-range, low-cost electric vehicles. Ford plans to use them in some trucks sold to fleet owners under its Ion Boost Pro brand.

“It could be delivery, it could be plumbers, electricians, landscapers who work in a certain geographic area,” said Ford executive Mr. Thai-Tang.

Mr. Thai-Tang said Ford is working closely with Korea’s SK Innovation to manufacture its batteries, but expects most of its production to be in the United States. “This will reduce some of the geopolitical as well as some of the logistics cost challenges.”

But LFP battery is not a complete solution. Teslas using these batteries can drive only 270 miles on a single charge, compared to about 358 miles for similar models powered by nickel and cobalt batteries. Also, when the temperature drops below freezing and takes longer to charge, the LFP battery may lose some of its power.

Ford’s new electric F-150 pickup truck, which hasn’t gone on sale but already has 200,000 reservations, will rely on a battery with a high percentage of energy-dense nickel made by SK Innovation.

Tesla in February said it was It has already built one million cells for its next-generation “4680” battery that it has begun using in its Model Y crossover. The automaker’s chief executive Elon Musk has said the battery will have 16 percent more range due to its distinctive honeycomb design. “It’s hard until it’s discovered, and then it’s simple,” he said in 2020.

GM claims that its Altium battery cells require 70 percent less cobalt than the cells used in the Chevrolet Bolt electric hatchback. The company has mixed aluminum in its battery. The GMC Hummer pickup, which GM recently started selling, is the first vehicle with a battery.

GM, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Chem, is building a $2.3 billion battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio. It is one of at least 13 large battery factories under construction in the United States.

Batteries are already becoming increasingly important to auto branding – GM is running ads for Altium batteries. This adds to the imperative that they ensure that these batteries are reliable and safe. GM had to recall the Bolt to fix a battery fault that could have caused the fire.

Many automakers are eager to reduce their reliance on cobalt because it mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is mined by Chinese-financed companies or freelancers who sometimes employ children.

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“Whether it is a possible violation of human rights, child labor or artisanal miners digging in very difficult conditions – that is our major concern,” said Marcus Schaefer, a senior executive at Mercedes responsible for research and development.

The auto industry is also concerned about nickel, as Russia is an important supplier of the metal.

A team of about 25 government scientists at Oak Ridge National Lab wants to take these innovations further.

Conventional electric car batteries have been installed next to an experimental cobalt-free option. Scientists spend weeks charging and discharging them, measuring how they perform. Elias Belharouk, who runs the Oak Ridge Battery Manufacturing Center, said the goals were to cut battery costs by half, extend their range beyond 300 miles, and cut charge times to 15 minutes or less. (Current batteries typically take 30 minutes to 12 hours to charge, depending on the car and outlet.)

Some of this work will be funded by $200 million by the Department of Energy allocated to seven national laboratories late last year. The department will host a “virtual pitchfest” next month where battery designers present ideas to scientists, government officials and industry executives.

Factorial Energy and other US start-ups, such as Solid Power and QuantumScape, aim to revolutionize the way batteries are manufactured, not just replace their ingredients. Batteries today rely on a liquid solution for the electrolyte that allows the flow of electricity between the various components.

Solid-state batteries do not contain a liquid electrolyte and thus, will be lighter, store more energy and charge faster. They are also much less likely to ignite and, therefore, require less cooling equipment.

Most of the major car makers have bet big on solid state technology.

Volkswagen has put its money on QuantumScape, based in San Jose, Calif. BMW and Ford are betting on Solid Power based in Louisville, Colo. GM has invested in Solid Energy Systems, which arose out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is based in Singapore. ,

But it’s not clear how soon solid-state batteries will arrive. Stelantis has said it expects to introduce mass-market vehicles with those batteries by 2026, but executives at other companies say the technology may not become widely available until around 2030.

Whichever carmaker first introduces solid state batteries will have a huge advantage.

Ms. Huang of Factorial said it was not unusual for her and her business partner, Alex Yu, to work all night in the race to achieve technical benchmarks.

She is inspired, she said, by memories of the polluted air she breathed while growing up near Shanghai. “Our company’s founding mission is to strive towards a fossil-free future,” said Ms. Huang. “That’s what I try in my life.”

Eventually, Factorial, in which Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai have also invested, wants to build factories around the world — an ambitious goal considering the company just moved into a second floor.

In a series of laboratories, workers dressed in white coats and intense expressions test prototype cells.

Despite this frenzied activity, the auto industry may struggle to fill demand for new batteries because the world cannot mine and process all the raw materials needed specifically for lithium, said Andrew Miller, chief operating officer of Benchmark Minerals Intelligence. Said, which tracks battery manufacturers and supplies around the world.

“All the models being announced, everything that companies want to do in the next three years,” Miller said, “I don’t know where the raw materials are coming from.”

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