These Batteries Will Be Too Pricey For Most, But Will Charge Up In Six Minutes

If you’re driving a Formula E race car, these niobium tungsten oxide anodes are for you

If electric vehicles are going to crack the mass market in a big way, an article of faith is that ordinary motorists — at least in the industry’s early mainstream years — must be confident they can charge up when they want, and do so fast. That means a speed somewhere at the high-end of their accustomed gas station experience — say 15 to 20 minutes for 80% charge. No one is yet offering such rates, but that’s the goal.

Which is what interested me in Nyobolt, a startup co-founded by Clare Grey, a long-time leading battery researcher at the University of Cambridge. Grey is pioneering an anode that “in principle can charge up in one or two minutes,” she told me in a video chat from Cambridge. “It’s pretty straight-forward. No smoke and mirrors.”

If Grey can successfully scale up and commercialize the anode, made of an exotic material called niobium tungsten oxide, she will establish a new standard for the fast-charging of electronic devices, vehicles, and industrial equipment. The material, known as NWO for short, is expensive compared with graphite, the current anode material of choice — a battery containing an NW0-based anode could cost twice or three times ordinary lithium-ion. And hence, even if commercialized, it won’t revolutionize EVs any time soon. But it still would open up the world of possibilities in a long-laggard industry that is suddenly undergoing much fast advancement.

In a battery, the anode is the negative electrode. When a battery is charged, the anode becomes the receptacle for lithium ions. When you unplug and begin to use your phone or drive your EV, the ions shuttle to the positive electrode, called the cathode, only to do a return journey to the anode when you plug back in.

Often, it is limitations involving the anode that hinder fast charging. Simply put, graphite can’t absorb lithium as fast as some people would like. Worse, lithium often will build up around the anode, thus making it even harder to charge fast.

Grey’s work with NWO builds on discoveries in her Cambridge lab by a researcher named Kent Griffith, at the time one of her Ph.D students, explained in a 2018 paper in Nature. The breakthrough was that NWO, if formed into a structure with tunnels, allowed for the storage of large quantities of lithium in a superlatively stable anode allowing for unusually fast rates of charge. While one to two minutes is a possibility, the sustainable charging time is six to 12 minutes, the rate that other parts of the battery can tolerate without undue degradation.

Mark Newman, a former battery analyst with Sanford Bernstein and now Nyobolt’s chief commercial officer, said the resulting battery seemed almost indefatigable. In an industry in which 1,000 charge-discharge cycles is the standard for EVs, NWO “can go even higher than 10,000 cycles,” Newman told me. Among target customers is the Formula E racing industry, vehicle fleets, and warehouse robots — any business that needs to charge up and get back to work fast without waiting around.

Last year, Grey raised $1 million for the company, and in February she attracted a Series A round of $10 million and came out of stealth. In between, the company shed its original name, CB2Tech, after seeing that internet searches went to the Crate & Barrel web site.

On Wednesday, the renamed Nyobolt opened a Boston office, its first U.S. presence, as Grey works to scale up the material from small, multi-layer pouch cells.

The EV industry as a whole is building out fast-charging infrastructure in the U.S., Europe and China. Ordinary motorists seem likely to tolerate 20 and even 30 minutes of waiting time, as long as they can shop a bit or get a bite to eat. But there will be a niche that can’t wait and can afford to pay a premium to be in and out. “It’s where you can tolerate the price and need high rate,” Grey said.

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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