EV Battery Technology: Racing for Breakthrough.

Battery technology is the new Bulls-Eye for companies striving to meet the growing appetite of the world of electric vehicles.

What are the major EV battery technologies now and what innovations are on the horizon?

Lithium-ion and lithium-iron phosphate, or LFP, currently dominate the EV battery landscape.  They have pros and cons in terms of scope, raw material prices and more.  Tesla (TSLA) uses lithium-ion and LFP batteries.  The emerging archival BYD (BYDDF) uses a special LFP battery.

Battery companies and automakers are increasingly investing in building cheaper, denser and lighter batteries.  New technologies run the gamut.  Some offer a new twist on incremental improvements to old battery chemistry.  Others replace the battery form factor or battery assembly for significant gains in performance or cost. In the near future, radically different chemistries and other big breakthroughs are expected to emerge.

For its next-gen Altium batteries, General Motors (GM) has tweaked lithium-ion chemistry to drastically cut costs.  Tesla’s new 4680 battery cell claims cost savings and other benefits through larger size and sophisticated engineering.  China’s CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer, offers even greater improvements to its new Kirin battery, partly integrated into cells.

Most inventive battery technology innovations can come from different players. CATL is working on sodium-ion batteries, but QuantumScape (QS), SES (SES), SolidPower (SLDP) and Toyota Motor (TM) are developing solid-state batteries. Both battery types are potential game changes but face technical hurdles.

“Batteries are the brand new gold rush for automakers,” stated Ram Chandrasekaran, a mobility analyst at Wood Mackenzie, who formerly laboured at Ford.

Better, more powerful batteries drive the adoption of electric cars.  Chandrasekharan said that a whole range of car platforms are being built around the battery, which not only provides power but also serves as a critical structural component in EVs today.

Battery Technology Race

To be sure, the race for battery technology is not just about electric cars.  The Battery  powers everything from smartphones and laptops to power drills.  The utility sector is a growing source of battery demand.

But there is a reason why car companies take the lead in this race: EVs have 80% lithium-ion battery demand, according to fuel research and consulting firm Wood McKenzie.

Woodmack says that by 2021, the supply of lithium-ion batteries will reduce demand in the agile EV market.  Battery Raw materials have jumped.  It will only intensify in 2022.

China, led by China, will take over 90% of the world’s battery manufacturing by 2021.  By the end of this decade, Wood MacKenzie Western expects that share to fall below 70%.

U.S.  And across Europe, dozens of battery plants are emerging by the end of the decade amid fears of lithium deficiency.  Companies seek to reduce geopolitical risk and reduce transportation costs because heavy EV batteries are expensive to carry.

On May 2, the U.S.  The Department of Energy announced $ 3.1 billion to increase production of advanced batteries, focusing on mining against processing and production facilities.  Another $ 60 million goes to finding second uses for used batteries.  The money comes from the 2021 Infrastructure Bill, passed in 2021.

 Types of lithium-ion batteries

Li-ion batteries come in two main chemistries: nickel-cobalt-aluminium (or NCA, used by Tesla) and nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC, used by other car manufacturers).  Lithium is the common denominator.

Lithium-ion batteries provide a higher power density, allowing battery-powered devices and vehicles to run longer before recharging.

In recent years, Western companies have refined NMC technology, in particular by increasing nickel to improve energy density and EV range, and making cobalt cheaper and less expensive.

With its new Altium batteries, General Motors has designed NCMA Chemistry, which adds aluminium to increase nickel and reduces cobalt by 40%.

Powered by completely massive, nickel-rich Altium batteries, the new Hummer EV delivers an estimated range of 350 miles.

GM calls the Hummer a “supertruck.”  It says new battery architecture and advanced technologies enable performance and off-road capabilities that traditional gas or diesel pickups cannot pull off.

 “If you’re doing your extreme Hummer work, you’re worrying about where you’re setting up the vehicle on the trail – you don’t have to worry. I’m in a certain gear or how to roll something without me going too far and hanging on the cliff,” said Tim Groove, GM’s head of battery and electrification.

 Cost cutting is GM’s No. 1.  1 is a priority, Grewe told IBD.  Batteries are one-third of the price of electric cars.  Making EVs affordable is key to their mass adoption.

 Lithium-ion V.  LFP batteries

 Over the past year or so, nickel and cobalt prices have skyrocketed, making the alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium iron or LFP batteries no longer use nickel or cobalt. Instead, they use iron and phosphate, which is abundant in the earth’s crust.

“In battery chemistry, the advantage of LFP is traditionally low cost,” said Chandrasekharan.  “However, they don’t have the same energy density as some other chemists.”

That trade-off is that in the U.S.  LFP is holding back on battery technology where people tend to drive large vehicles over long distances.

But the battery giants are advanced LFP chemistry, which now offers an acceptable range for a reasonable price.  Tesla and other automakers have switched to cheaper LFP batteries for lower-range electric vehicles.

In addition to low cost, LFP offers a longer life cycle and higher safety performance. This has made LFP the preferred chemistry for stationary applications, such as giant battery structures for utility-scale storage.

In 2021, nickel-based lithium batteries will have a 50% share in the EV and energy storage system markets.  But LFP will outperform nickel-based chemistry by market share by 2028, Wood McKenzie forecasts.

 China uses a special version of BYD LFP, which is marketed as a blade.  The company says long and thin blade batteries are less likely to catch fire even when severely damaged.

Persistent but unconfirmed reports suggest that LYP supplied blade cells to BYD Tesla.

 Tesla 4680 Battery

CATL’s new battery holds 13% more energy than 4680 cells (image: Panasonic)

The Battery companies say more innovations are on the way.  Tesla’s 4680 battery and CARL’s Kirin are the titles of the latest battery technologies and potential game-changers.

 4680 claims to improve 54% coverage, including 16% by cell design.  It claims to reduce battery costs by half.

 Form factor is a big part of innovation.  The cylindrical cell – 46mm wide and 80mm high – is five times larger than its predecessor, which means more space for active battery material and less waste for casing.  The new “Tables” design means better thermal management.

Inspired by fuel tanks in aeroplanes, Tesla also adopted what they call a “structured” battery pack.  The 4680 battery pack serves as a body structure, linking the front and rear lower parts, and exudes the familiar “skateboard” battery design.  Tesla said at an April 7 event that it would reduce the overall number of parts and the battery manufacturing footprint.

“The 4680 cell slots itself somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary,” Chandrasekharan said. Based on what is known or predicted about the 4680, they view the structural pack as the most innovative and exciting part of the equation, rather than cell chemistry or design.

Tesla offers a limited public view of 4680 cells and packs. Expects Musk Volume Production to End in the Third Quarter or Q4. The company is building 4680 batteries at home and is working with Asian companies including LG Energy Solution to measure production.

They need to get past significant technical issues, some analysts say.  Larger format cells get hotter – this problem the industry has been fighting for years.

CATL claims its new Kirin battery will outperform Tesla’s 4680, offering 13% more power with the same chemistry and pack size.  It features advanced “cell-to-pack” technology that eliminates the middle module stage in assembling batteries.

CATL said on May 5 that Kirin Battery, which was announced at the end of March, will be unveiled in the second quarter.  It is expected to come in both lithium-ion and LFP versions.

 It is unclear whether Tesla plans to offer 4680 cells with LFP chemistry.

Who is at the vanguard of battery generation? “Tesla certainly has some technologically advanced batteries but CARL has batteries at a price that is not currently compatible with Tesla,” Chandrasekharan said.  According to Seoul-based SNE Research, CATL, a Tesla supplier, accounts for 35% of global electric battery shipments in the first quarter of 2022.

Musk said in January that Tesla expects to convert backup power products for homes and utilities to LFP batteries.

 In stationary storage, the energy density requirements are low. In fact, companies expect to recycle used EV batteries with tons of juice for stationary applications, including backup power.

The future of battery technology

Battery companies continue to explore alternatives to powerful lithium-ion technology.  Last July, CATL unveiled its first-generation sodium-ion batteries for use across EVs and stationary storage, aiming to launch in 2023.

 In its early days, CATL said the sodium-ion battery would hold up well even in very cold weather and virtually eliminate the risk of fire associated with lithium-ion batteries.  It has attached advantages to innovations in battery chemistry.

Sodium batteries can also help with lack of critical battery material.  They do not use lithium, cobalt or nickel, which is expected to increase as EVs boom.

Like iron, sodium is cheap and abundant in nature.  However, sodium is three times heavier than lithium and does not match the energy potential of lithium.

Solid-state batteries can replace Li-ion

 In addition to sodium-ion, solid-state battery technology can replace lithium-ion cells.  Startups that develop solid-state batteries, called lithium-ion legacy tech, are reaching the limits of progress in energy density as demand for higher performance increases.

Solid-state batteries promise high power density and quick charging, along with low fire risk.  As a result, several auto giants have invested in QuantumScape, SES and Solid Energy.

The biggest difference with a solid-state battery lies within the electrolyte.  Li-ion batteries use liquid electrolyte, while their solid-state cousins โ€‹โ€‹use solid form.

But analysts predict it will be a long time before solid-state technology moves from battery labs to the real world.  So far, it has been hampered by issues of conductivity and instability.

“Quantumscape has but to illustrate how it may scale its generation and clear up larger technical challenges,” Deutsche Bank analyst Emmanuel Rosner stated in an April 12 note.

“Even if everything goes according to plan, the company is still several years away from mass production and monetization,” he said.

It is expensive to produce solid electrolytes.

The Road to 2030: Battery Factories, Supplies

Leading automakers want half of their vehicle sales to be electric by 2030.  Oslo-based Rystad Energy forecasts that as the energy transition accelerates, global battery supply will only meet 60% of the expected demand by the end of the decade.

This makes the quest for the Holy Grail more urgent – cheaper, simpler, better battery life.

Battery technology companies, in hopes of shifting gear from incremental to advancement gains, have cut their work.  Car companies continue to pour money into new battery plants and tech investments.

In the meantime, electric cars will continue to operate on lithium-ion or LFP battery cells, with costs likely to increase back and forth.

Some revolutionary battery technologies can be a decade or more away as solid-state cells.  Other promises, such as sodium-ion batteries, are close but come with drawbacks.

 “The importance of these investments cannot be underestimated,” said Riosad analyst Marius Foss.

  Sources credit -APARNA NARAYANAN

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