You May Remember 2020 as the Year the ‘Super-Battery’ Became Real

Tesla, VW, QuantumScape, and GM are vying to produce the norm-shattering battery first

After years of fitful development, doubt, miscues, and embarrassments, the humble battery seemed — in 2020, finally — to vault within reach of the promise that entrepreneurs since Thomas Edison and before have had for it.

In a key development, the cost of lithium-ion batteries is now near $100 per kWh, an inflection point that would give electric vehicles (EVs) cost parity with their gasoline-driven competition, according to BloombergNEF, a renewable energy research group. At the same time, multiple teams of researchers report a breakthrough in a new type of battery — a long-sought anode containing pure metallic lithium. The breakthrough has ignited a fierce contest among major automakers GM, Toyota, and VW to be first to bring EVs containing such super-batteries to market first. The middle of the decade has shaped up as a collision point between the carmakers and Tesla, which is carving out its own path to the super-battery.

Yesterday, yet another big name was reported to be entering the contest: Apple has plans to debut an electric driverless vehicle as early as 2024, according to Reuters.

As an illustration of the mania, look no further than Wall Street, where at least eight advanced battery and EV companies either went public this year or are in motion to do so in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, traders have driven up Tesla’s share price seven times this year; yesterday, the company was listed for the first time on the S&P 500. In other trading, the shares of QuantumScape, a startup metallic lithium battery company, rose 28.7% and another 10.6% after hours. Wards Auto, an industry website, called the whole scene an “EV investment craze,” a bubble bound to pop.

That may be true, but it is also a coming of age for the battery, which was invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta and only now appears on the cusp of obtaining transformational performance. If the current path continues, lithium-ion batteries might bring a wholesale change not only to transportation, but also finally enable renewable power sources such as solar and wind.

Whether we are, in fact, entering an age of mass-market EVs is not a sure thing. What we have seen so far is a marked supply-side signal — lots of companies wanting to make and sell EVs containing super-batteries. But on the demand side, we mostly have niche buyers who fit in the green category or are seeking a sort of status by driving around in an EV. That’s what makes cost parity the EV’s proving ground — it will tell us whether people, now given a good price, want electric cars.

The surge of activity seemed to reflect the “Tesla effect” — both the pressure felt by all major automakers not to be made obsolete by Elon Musk’s company and a centripetal force drawing in startups hoping to copy Musk’s feat. For GM, VW, and the others, going all in for EVs — obsessively and at full throttle — now seems a matter of survival. “Anyone who isn’t up to their neck in EVs is pretty much toast,” Sandy Munro, a leading auto industry consultant based in Michigan, told me.

Musk set the tone for the year in September with “Tesla Battery Day.” In a tour de force resembling the best shows put on by Apple impresario Steve Jobs, Musk laid out a road map that he said would cut the cost of Tesla batteries by half while giving them five times the energy, 16% more range, and six times more power.

Experts think that Musk already has a vast head start in batteries. But the kind of cuts he described could give him a cost of $55 to $60 per kWh, a dramatic plunge that would be very, very hard for others to match any time soon.

Among the steps Musk proposed to get there was more than doubling the size of his batteries to what he calls the “4680,” a cylinder measuring 46 millimeters in diameter and 80 millimeters in height. It’s a move that would cut costs by improving energy density, increasing range, and eliminating expensive steel. The number of individual batteries would be reduced from 4,416 to 960 — a whopping drop in all sorts of unnecessarily occupied vehicle space. “You can get a higher current without increasing the temperature and you get lower impedance,” said Kurt Kelty, vice president of automotive at Sila Nano, a battery startup, and the former long-time director of battery technologies at Tesla. “You can get current in and out of the cell faster.”

A problem is that internal heat rises with size, a potential redline since that could lead to explosions. Tesla’s resolution was to lop off the metallic tabs that normally stick out of both ends of the battery. Removing them would push the heat to the bottom of the cell and from there out of the battery pack.

Musk also found cost savings outside the battery — by eliminating thousands of individual parts, for example, by uniting the entire rear and front end into separate large casts of aluminum. “That is going to get rid of a third or more of the body shop,” said Munro. “This is a huge transformation. Elon Musk isn’t screwing around.”

According to the Reuters report, Apple’s plans for taking on Tesla and the others is an electric, driverless vehicle. The effort, begun in 2014, has been hard for Apple because the natural strategy would be for it to lean on its strength — design and software — and partner with a carmaker that would make the actual vehicle. Only, the thinking in the car industry is that much of the profit in EVs and driverless vehicles will be derived largely from software, such as data, onboard services, and updates. Apple is known for the high slice of the profit it demands, and no carmaker would be likely to willingly cede the biggest share of the pie. Apple, it has been assumed, would find it difficult to find a carmaker partner.

Apple declined to comment. But the Reuters report said Apple might have finally struck a deal with a carmaker.

A central breakthrough of the Apple vehicle, according to Reuters, will be the battery. As its chemistry, Apple may use lithium-iron-phosphate, or LFP, which delivers relatively low density but is cheap and safer than the other main chemistries. That fits with the six-year history of Apple’s attempts to create an electric car. In 2015, Apple reached a settlement with A123, an LFP pioneer that claimed that the iPhone giant had poached five of its main battery engineers. All five are still at Apple, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Earlier this month, I coincidentally spoke with one of the five, Don Dafoe, about general battery advances. He did not respond to a message yesterday but in the December 1 conversation, Dafoe said that, when he was working at A123, it was developing a tabless system similar to Tesla’s that it called “Infinitab.” He said that a number of other companies had also worked on the idea but that no one had figured out how to scale it up. He said that if Tesla managed to do so, it deserved credit for the breakthrough. Musk, Dafoe said, “has tended to speak things into existence. It drives the engineering team to make it go.”

After years of an almost timid EV promotional style, GM came out swinging this year. It introduced Ultium, a battery system that is right on the state-of-the-art cutting edge — a formulation that twins high nickel content with low cobalt, known as “NMC 811.”

It announced the release of two flagship EVs next year — the 350-mile Hummer supertruck and the Cadillac Lyriq. And it threw itself into the scrum for the mid-decade super-battery propelled EV.

GM’s R&D division has set up a competition between two teams to power the super-battery. The contest is for whether the anode — the negatively charged electrode — will be made of metallic lithium or silicon, said Tim Grewe, director of GM battery cell engineering.

Both materials provide a substantial jump in energy, but for different reasons have not yet worked. Silicon’s problem is that it expands four times during the charge-discharge process and tends to shatter the battery. With pure lithium-metal, spikes known as dendrites form on its surface and short circuit the battery, sometimes causing fires.

GM’s silicon team, working with South Korea’s LG Chem, is attempting to build it to be almost 100% silicon, and has already achieved hundreds of charge-discharge cycles with its test cells, Grewe said. He declined to say precisely how many cycles. But most leading silicon anode companies are aiming at a composition closer to 50% of the electrode once you take into account inactive material that surrounds the silicon.

Most surprising is the metallic lithium effort. Grewe said the team is using liquid electrolyte, which researchers have largely avoided since metallic lithium is highly combustible when in contact with moisture. But Grewe said GM is using three redundant safety mechanisms including a protective coating over the anode, and that the team has already achieved 500 cycles, sufficient for 100,000 miles of driving in a 300-mile car. “It’s an incredible breakthrough by GM’s R&D,” he asserted.

At the moment, most of the betting is on Tesla. Some experts favor VW, which is gambling the company itself on winning EV dominance. But look for a death grip since, for many, losing could mean a gigantic and possibly existential blow. Will Paxton, a battery expert with Ford’s Greenfield Labs, the carmaker’s research center in Silicon Valley, said Ford’s next EV — the Mustang Mach-E SUV — is a “clean sheet,” built from the ground up as an EV. Ford is an investor in Solid Power, a competitor in the contest for the metallic lithium-based battery. Paxton said the Mach-E “will be the example of how the major automakers can compete against the startups.” It will, he said, “stack right up against the Tesla Y.”

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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