From The Mobilist Inbox This Week

Not so fast for EVs, LFP’s comeback, tinkering with lithium sulfur

Each Wednesday, The Mobilist highlights reader articles on Medium, comments, and updates.

About that fait accompli: Across the world of electric vehicles and batteries, the accepted wisdom is that Americans — and motorists everywhere — are on the cusp of a big switch. En mass, they are about to discard their long-cherished combustion vehicles and adopt EVs. Last week, though, I profiled Toyota chief scientist Gill Pratt, who said, Not So Fast. Pratt said the Japanese carmaker expects motorists to continue to demand all sorts of vehicles, and that Toyota’s plans are to serve these many markets. Some Mobilist letter-writers agreed with him, but most did not.

On the former side, here is Nadav Gur:

“The story is one of practicality. My plug-in hybrid gets me 700 miles per tank AND can take me from California to Utah or Mexico without necessitating long stops for charging. As long as I stay in town I can literally kiss gas goodbye. But if I want to go into Death Valley, I can still go there. As long as charging is slow and sparse, a plug-in hybrid is more useful for many.”

And this opposing view from Jonathan H:

“Some business decisions and viewpoints are biased due to the emotional resistance that some leaders feel at the scope of the work they are facing, especially when a wholesale disruptive change is before them. Toyota has one of the best transmissions and hybrid drivetrains in the market, but anyone who has looked at cars in the last several generations knows that the drivetrains in Toyotas have not received a generational update in many years. More than several of their SUVs still get poor gas performance. The Lexus brand also has aged significantly in just a few years. If you sit in a new model in 2021, it’s still a pre-2015 car.

“They couldn’t execute an iterative update on an established platform, now [that] EVs are an existential threat. Naturally they are promoting an aged hybrid drivetrain that’s battle-tested, but ultimately isn’t what will be driving customers to clamor for their products. Toyota will not fall into irrelevance, but this type of commentary is indicative of an evasiveness of corporate responsibility (and responsiveness to customer sentiment) that will leave a gap that many other car manufacturers will seek to fill. New EVs are fun to drive (more fun than a 15-year-old, gas-powered drivetrains).”

The comeback of LFP: Yesterday’s piece on the surprising comeback of much-denigrated LFP as a battery cathode triggered much conversation. Among the comments, Jon Regnart had this to tweet: “My one worry about this is [how] LFP capacity and production know-how has all amassed in China. This goes completely against the localization agenda. Therefore: are we gearing up for LFP investments in North America/Europe, or are we buying in cheap from China?”

… and what about another forgotten formulation? For the LFP piece, I was speaking with Bart Riley, who was a co-founder of LFP kingpin A123 a decade ago, and he told me about his newest venture. It’s Conamix, where he is chief technology officer. Conamix, he told me, is attempting to get a lithium sulfur cathode to work, since it would represent a 25% cost reduction from standard, high-end NMC811 while achieving superior specific energy density of 300 watt-hours per kilogram. The problem? Lithium sulfur’s cycle life is horrendous. Even after doubling the cathode’s performance, it’s still only at 100 cycles, Riley said. But Riley, one of the shrewdest technologists in batteries, says he’s found a compound that may finally allow lithium sulfur to go commercial.

Noting: Last year, LG Chem went public with a lithium-sulfur formulation for long-duration drone flights, paired with a lithium-metal anode.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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