Automakers race to control next-gen battery technology
WOBURN, Mass. – Already far behind Asian manufacturers in building electric car batteries, US automakers and their suppliers are racing to develop a new generation of cheaper batteries that can store more energy and recharge faster.
It’s a global competition with huge economic consequences for automakers, small battery startups and car buyers, who in a few years will be choosing from a dizzying array of electric cars using different types of batteries as the era of combustion engines is receding.
The chemistry of batteries – a technical subject that used to be the domain of engineers – has become one of the hottest topics of discussion on the boardrooms of General Motors, Toyota, Ford Motor and Volkswagen, as well as at the White House.
With financial and technological support from the government, these giant companies are hosting startups working to re-battery so they won’t be left behind by the industrial revolution sparked by the electric car.
Automakers’ ability to master battery technology could help determine which companies thrive and which are overtaken by Tesla and other electric car companies.
Batteries will help determine the price of new cars and could become the defining feature of vehicles. Like the megapixels on cameras or the processing speeds of computer chips that consumers once obsessed over, battery characteristics will be the criteria by which cars and trucks will be judged and purchased.
“This will be the new brand differentiation going forward – the battery in electric vehicles,” said Hau Thai-Tang, product platform manager and chief operating officer at Ford. “So we are making a huge effort.”
Batteries, of course, will also play a pivotal role in the fight against climate change by helping to steer 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 takes off. Companies need to figure out how to make batteries cheaper and better. Today, batteries can represent between a quarter and a third of the cost of electric cars. And most of these batteries are made by a few Asian companies.
Even Tesla, the main producer of electric cars, relies on Asian suppliers and seeks to bring more manufacturing in-house.
President Joe 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 has been forced to temporarily close its main electric vehicle plant in Germany after fighting cut off supplies of parts made in western Ukraine.
Auto giants such as Stellantis, which owns Ram and Jeep, lavish money on startups such as 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 money bags, are developing a battery that can charge faster, hold more energy and be less likely to overheat than current batteries.
“Money can come and go,” said Factorial co-founder Siyu Huang, who began experimenting with battery technology as a graduate student at Cornell University. “We want to provide the safest battery and change the way people live.”
The most immediate change to come concerns the constituent elements of the batteries.
Most lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles are based on nickel, manganese and cobalt. But some automakers, including Tesla and Ford, are considering using batteries in at least some vehicles that use lithium iron phosphate, which is popular in China.
These LFP batteries, as they are called, cannot store as much energy per pound, but they are much cheaper and last longer.
Tesla plans to offer LFP batteries in electric vehicles with shorter ranges and lower prices. Ford plans to use them in some trucks sold under its Ion Boost Pro brand for fleet owners.
“It could be delivery, it could be plumbers, electricians, landscapers who work in a specific geographic area,” said Thai-Tang, the Ford executive.
Ford partners with South Korea’s SK Innovation to manufacture its batteries, but it hopes to bring much of that manufacturing to the United States, Thai-Tang said. “It will reduce some of the geopolitical challenges as well as logistical costs.”
Ford’s new F-150 electric pickup, which hasn’t gone on sale but already has 200,000 reservations, will rely on batteries with a higher percentage of energy-dense nickel, also made by SK Innovation.
Tesla said in February it had already built 1 million cells for its next-generation “4680” battery that it has started using in its Model Y crossovers. CEO Elon Musk said the battery would have 16% more energy. battery life due to its distinctive honeycomb design. “It’s hard until it’s found out, then it’s easy,” he said in 2020.
GM says its Ultium battery cell needs 70% less cobalt than the cells used in the Chevrolet Bolt electric sedan. The company has added aluminum to its battery. The GMC Hummer pickup, which GM recently started selling, is the first vehicle to have this battery.
GM, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Chem, is building a $2.3 billion battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio. It is one of 13 major battery factories under construction in the United States.
Batteries are already becoming important to automotive branding – GM is running ads for Ultium batteries. This adds to the imperative that they make sure these batteries are reliable and safe. GM had to recall the Bolt to repair a battery fault that could cause fires.
Many automakers want to reduce their dependence on cobalt, in part because it comes mainly from Congo, where it is mined by Chinese-funded companies or freelancers who sometimes employ children.
“It’s the potential violation of human rights, child labor or artisanal miners digging in very difficult circumstances – that’s the main concern we have,” said Markus Schäfer, a senior executive at Mercedes-Benz responsible for research and development.
The automotive industry is also concerned about nickel, as Russia is a major supplier of this metal.
A team of about 25 government scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory wants to take these innovations even further.
Conventional electric car batteries were set up alongside an experimental cobalt-free alternative. Scientists spend weeks loading and unloading them, measuring their performance. Ilias Belharouak, who runs the Oak Ridge Battery Manufacturing Center, said the goal is to halve battery costs, increase range beyond 300 miles and reduce charge times. 15 minutes or less. (Current batteries typically take 30 minutes to 12 hours to charge depending on car and outlet.)
Despite this frenetic activity, the automotive industry could struggle to meet the demand for new batteries because the world cannot extract and process all the raw materials needed, especially for lithium, said Andrew Miller, director of the operating at Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, which tracks battery and supply manufacturers worldwide.
“All the models that are announced, all the things these companies want to do over the next three years,” Miller said, “I don’t know where the raw materials are coming from.”