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For EV battery makers, it’s go small or go home

When you can top a battery pack off in five or 10 minutes then it doesn’t really matter too much what that range is

11 July 2022 - 14:53 By Nick Carey and Paul Lienert
The Mercedes Vision EQXX has made headlines with its ability to travel more than 1,000km on a single charge, but smaller batteries mean cheaper prices and therefore more people can afford EVs.
The Mercedes Vision EQXX has made headlines with its ability to travel more than 1,000km on a single charge, but smaller batteries mean cheaper prices and therefore more people can afford EVs.

In the race to go electric, carmakers have focused on range to ease consumer anxiety over charging infrastructure, but battery makers are already working on the smaller, longer-lasting and cheaper batteries of the future, which also charge quicker.

While carmakers today chase market leader Tesla, seeking to build cars that can travel 482km or more between charges, battery start-ups expect range will matter less as public electric vehicle (EV) chargers become ubiquitous. In the quest for smaller batteries that charge extremely quickly, the start-up firms are experimenting with materials such as silicon-carbon, tungsten and niobium.

The battery is an EV’s most expensive part, so true fast charging, coupled with widely available chargers — a lack of charging infrastructure is seen as slowing broader adoption of EVs — would allow automakers to build cars with smaller batteries at more affordable prices, yet boost profit by selling more vehicles to a broader audience.

“Early adopters at the higher end of the market wanted bigger battery packs and longer range because they could afford it,” said Sai Shivareddy, CEO of Nyobolt, a start-up developing niobium oxide anode materials for batteries that can charge in minutes. “For more cost-sensitive mainstream adoption, you need smaller battery packs ... but with the same experience as today (with fossil-fuel cars) where you can fill up in five minutes.”

China dominates global EV battery production and companies such as Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) are developing batteries to go farther on a single charge.

Carmakers in China have rolled out small, low-cost EVs such as the Wuling Hongguang Mini — which even with recent battery price rises still sells for about $6,500 (R110,000). The car is a joint venture of SAIC , General Motors and Wuling Motors.

Western start-ups such as Cambridge-based Nyobolt and Echion Technologies or Woodinville, Washington-based Group14 Technologies are working on electrode materials to bring super fast-charging batteries to market.

According to start-up data platform PitchBook, EV battery technology investments jumped more than sixfold to $9.4bn (R160bn) in 2021 from $1.5bn (R25bn) in 2020 as carmakers focused on the future.

“We are in the larval stages of battery development,” said Lincoln Merrihew, vice-president at data analytics firm Pulse Labs.

Going small could also ease looming battery material bottlenecks as EV demand soars, while using less cobalt and nickel where China dominates refining and processing.

Another benefit is carmakers could claim sustainability wins using less harmful materials in EVs and emit less CO2 manufacturing them.

“Re-engineering the vehicle to minimise the size of the batteries, since that’s so expensive, is going to be a game changer,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said at a conference in June. The US carmaker, he added, wants “the smallest possible battery for the competitive range” in its next generation of EVs starting in 2026.

Others are squeezing more efficiency out of existing batteries, as Mercedes-Benz has done with its EQXX prototype with a range of 1,000km.

More affordable EVs

Fast charging today is limited by EV batteries’ ability to absorb power quickly. Fast charging can shorten batteries’ lifespan or overheat them, so most EVs limit charging speed to protect them.

At Nyobolt’s headquarters, Shivareddy charges four batteries in about three minutes and plugs them into a robotic vacuum that busily cleans the floor behind him as he speaks.

Niobium is a stable metal often used to strengthen steel — the world’s largest deposits are in Brazil and Canada. Used in anodes or cathodes, start-ups such as Nyobolt and Echion say niobium can handle superfast charging while lasting many years longer than today’s batteries.

Nyobolt is focusing on high-performance racing EVs and Shivareddy said it would take years of validation before carmakers are ready to use its batteries in mass-market models.

A few miles from Nyobolt, Echion’s niobium anodes are initially for commercial EVs like mining vehicles that operate continuously and will need fast charging.

CEO Jean de La Verpilliere said Echion’s goal is to have batteries ready for passenger EVs by 2025.

“Smaller batteries mean cheaper prices and therefore more people can afford EVs,” he said.

Brazilian mining company CBMM dominates niobium production, has invested in Echion and other start-ups and is testing niobium with others including battery materials company Nano One, Toshiba and Volkswagen Caminhoes e Onibus, a Brazilian subsidiary of Volkswagen’s trucking unit Traton.

Rogerio Marques Ribas, head of CBMM’s battery programme, said though niobium’s energy density can be up to 20% lower than some contemporary batteries, “we can bring maybe three to ten times more life and more safety while charging in minutes”.

“Raw materials will be a bottleneck for batteries,” Ribas added. “In the near future people will ask, why have a big battery pack?”

‘The market-decided range’

Niobium is not the only material start-ups are exploring.

Group14 Technologies makes silicon-carbon anode material that enables lithium-ion batteries to hold up to 50% more energy. The company raised $400m (R6.8bn) from investors in May.

Testing Group14’s material, Mercedes-backed battery maker StoreDot has charged batteries to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. Group14 CEO Rick Luebbe said its anode material could offer a fast EV charge in five minutes.

“When I can top my battery pack off in five or 10 minutes ... then it doesn’t really matter too much what that range is, whether it’s 241.4km or 482.8km,” Luebbe said.

Michigan-based start-up Our Next Energy (ONE) has developed its Gemini “dual chemistry” battery featuring a standard Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) traction battery with a second “range extender” battery using more advanced and expensive chemistries, providing low, medium and high range options.

“The market ultimately decides the right level of range,” said CEO Mujeeb Ijaz.

According to industry data, the average American car drives less than 48km per day. In Europe, the average is less than half of that.

Isobel Sheldon, British battery company Britishvolt’s chief strategy officer, said as EV owners realise they are paying for more than they need, the market will demand less range.

“As the market matures, people will start to ask why I am paying thousands ... for a battery I’ll never use,” she said. “Most car use to is to drive to the shops, go and see friends or drop kids at school, not to drive to Monaco.”

— Reuters


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