EV History Part IV: 200 Years Later, Batteries Remain the Weak Link of EVs

Craig Farrand, Zondits guest, 10/19/2022

When Robert Anderson strapped a non-rechargeable battery and motor onto a carriage nearly 200 years ago (arguably driving the first EV) it also started a scientific frenzy to determine how to extend the life of batteries used for transportation.

And here we are, two centuries later, and the frenzy continues — with cutting-edge technologies being explored to provide the longest EV range possible, while lowering costs. For the most part, much of the focus is on lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. Yet even Li-ion has sub-versions: nickel-cobalt-aluminum (or NCA, used by Tesla) and nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC, used by other carmakers).

Researchers are currently exploring ways to increase the nickel content — which, according to experts, improves energy density (and range) — and decreasing cobalt content, which is “scarce and expensive.” General Motors, for example, added aluminum to increase nickel and dramatically reduced cobalt content in its new Ultium batteries, cutting costs by 40%.

In fact, driving much of the experimentation is the fact that the world is beholden to China for either EV batteries or the raw materials needed to build them. According to most estimates, China controls about 75% of the market for lithium, cobalt and nickel. Not only because those minerals are mined in China, but also because the country owns stakes in mining projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.

“Today’s battery and mineral supply chains revolve around China,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in July. “China produces three-quarters of all lithium-ion batteries and is home to 70% of production capacity for cathodes and 85% of anodes (both are key components of batteries). Over half of lithium, cobalt and graphite processing and refining capacity is located in China.”

This means that companies like CATL (never heard of it? few have) have an iron grip on an already strained global battery supply chain. Who is CATL? This Chinese company alone supplies more than 30% of the world’s EV batteries to companies like Tesla, Kia and BMW. But the story doesn’t start and stop with China: IEA projects that the global market for lithium will grow “more than 40-fold by 2040,” with demand for nickel, cobalt and graphite likely to be 25-times higher than it is today. And Russia is home to about 20% of the world’s high-grade nickel.

Put in geopolitical terms, the raw materials we need for today’s EV batteries are in large part controlled by our two biggest rivals: China and Russia, which benefit from the rising costs of those materials. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act includes a provision that to qualify for tax credits, the components used in EV batteries must not have been “extracted, processed, or recycled by a foreign entity of concern.” Like China and Russia.

It’s also why President Biden issued an executive order that invoked the Defense Production Act to shore up a domestic supply chain of critical minerals like lithium, nickel and cobalt for EV batteries. The problem with meeting those requirements, however, is that there’s only a single nickel mine in the U.S. — in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (about 500 miles north of my front porch) — but that’s set to close in 2025. And two lithium mines have been proposed in Nevada, but the plans are being opposed by environmental and tribal groups. Besides, according to experts, it takes about a dozen years for a mining project to get approval and begin operations.

To at least mitigate the situation, some scientists are focused on lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. Instead of nickel or cobalt, they use common (and abundant) iron and phosphate. “Among battery chemistries, the advantage with LFP has traditionally been lower cost,” said Ram Chandrasekaran, a mobility analyst at Wood Mackenzie who formerly worked for Ford. “However, they don’t have the same energy density as some of the other chemistries.”

Nevertheless, the University of Texas is working on a lithium-ion battery that doesn’t use cobalt as a cathode; instead, it uses nearly 90% nickel, as well as aluminum and manganese. Others (like CATL) are working on sodium-ion batteries, while still others are developing solid-state batteries. “Batteries are the new gold rush as far as automakers are concerned,” Chandrasekaran said.

Of course, EV battery breakthroughs seem to be announced around the world almost every other day, such as graphene aluminum-ion battery cells that its inventor says can charge 60 times faster than the best Li-ion cells and can hold three times the energy of the best aluminum-based cells. And that’s just a single example: The list of so-called “breakthroughs” is “breathtaking.”

For example, there are structural component batteries in which the car itself is the battery, with carbon fiber as the negative electrode and lithium iron phosphate as the positive. Then there are seawater batteries being developed by IBM that extract materials from the oceans. (IBM is working with Mercedes-Benz on the technology.) And if water’s not your thing, the University of California Riverside is working on technology that uses sand in order to create pure silicon to achieve three times better performance than current graphite-based lithium-ion batteries. (They’re getting funding from Daimler and BMW.)

Another company is developing a graphene battery that it says will offer a range of 500 miles and can be recharged in just a few minutes, and will charge and discharge 33 times faster than Li-ion batteries. Then there’s an experimental car that recently drove 1,100 miles on a single battery charge. How? It used aluminum-air battery technology that uses oxygen from the air to fill the battery’s cathode.

The list continues, with researchers not only exploring new battery types, but also new charging techniques, such as charging your battery while driving, using Wi-Fi or literally through the air via ultrasound waves. And if futuristic “Robo-Cop” sci-fi is your cup of tea, one start-up is developing a charger that uses biological semiconductors — and could theoretically charge your EV in 5 minutes and offer a range of 300 miles.

Now, everyone in the battery business knows that speeding up the charging process can damage a battery and reduce its lifespan, but a research team at Idaho National Laboratory recently reported that they’ve designed a way to do so in 10 minutes or less with no harmful effects. Reporting their results to the American Chemical Society (ACS), the researchers said the solution was in tailoring “the charging protocol in a way that optimizes speed while avoiding damage for the many different types of battery designs currently used in vehicles.”

So far, “we’ve significantly increased the amount of energy that can go into a battery cell in a short amount of time,” said Eric Dufek, Ph.D., who presented his team’s findings. “Currently, we’re seeing batteries charge to over 90% in 10 minutes without lithium plating or cathode cracking.” And the truth is that unless you’re taking a road trip, getting to 90% capacity more than gets you around town.

Still, why not just pull up, pop out one battery and replace it with another? In China, the NIO carmaker has been doing just that: It has installed EV battery swapping stations across the country, in which drivers pull in and their EV’s discharged battery is automatically exchanged with a fully charged replacement. According to reports, the process takes as little as 3 minutes.

So, are all these “breakthroughs” too good to be true? Some say yes.

“You don’t have to be in the field long to hear the phrase Liar, liar, battery supplier,” said Charlotte Hamilton, chief executive and co-founder of battery startup Conamix.

Indeed, so “Wild West” is the landscape, that venture capitalists invested almost $18 billion around the world last year into startups that support the transition to EVs, according to PitchBook. One Chinese EV battery maker got $1.6 billion alone.

“People like a breakthrough, but when we write papers, we try to avoid using these kinds of words,” said Xin Li, a researcher at Harvard University whose team recently published a paper on a new kind of higher-capacity solid-state battery in the scientific journal “Nature.”

“There are too many battery ‘breakthroughs’ in my opinion in the past 5 years,” Li said, “and not many can be implemented in a commercial product.”

But all it takes is one “breakthrough” to be successful enough to change the EV battery world forever.

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