April 12, 2024

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The EV Battery Wish List

Electric cars barely existed in 2010, when the Tesla Model S was still a glint in Elon Musk’s eye. Now more than 20 million EVs girdle the globe, according to BloombergNEF—and that count is expected to nearly quadruple to 77 million by 2025. A battery will be the high-voltage heart of each of those 77 million electric vehicles, and by far their most expensive component, setting off a worldwide race to ethically source their materials and crank up production to meet exploding demand.

EVs may have seized a record 5.8 percent of the United States market in 2022, according to J.D. Power, and could approach 11 percent of the global market this year. But experts still believe that better batteries, and many more of them, are a key to EVs reaching a market tipping point, even as Reuters projects automakers spending a whopping $1.2 trillion to develop and produce EVs through 2030.

IEEE Spectrum asked five industry experts to gaze deeply into their own crystal balls and outline what needs to happen in the EV battery space to wean the world off fossil-fueled transportation and onto the plug. Here’s what they said:

Emad Dlala, Lucid Motors, vice-president of powertrain

Upstart Lucid Motors hasn’t built many cars, but it’s built a reputation with the record-setting, 830-kilometer driving range of the Air Grand Touring Performance sedan. That range is a testament to Lucid’s obsessive pursuit of efficiency: The Air uses the same 2170-format cylindrical cells (supplied by Samsung SDI) as many EVs, but ekes out more miles via superior battery management, compact-yet-muscular power units and slippery aerodynamics.

Sophisticated chassis and battery design gives new life to “lesser” chemistries—especially lithium iron phosphate that’s the hottest thing in batteries around the world—that would otherwise be uncompetitive and obsolete.

One might think Lucid would call for every electric model to cover such vast distances. Instead, Lucid leaders see a bright future in cars that aim for maximum efficiency — rather than range per se — via smaller, more-affordable batteries.

Lucid’s latest Air Touring model is its most efficient yet on a per-mile basis. Now the world’s most aerodynamic production vehicle, with a 0.197 coefficient of drag, the Air Touring delivers an EPA-rated 7.44 kilometers from each onboard kilowatt hour. Yet propelling this full-size luxury barge still demands a 92 kWh battery aboard.

With all that in mind, the company is developing its next generation of batteries. Extrapolating from company targets, a future compact-size Lucid—think the size of Tesla Model 3 or Model Y—could decisively downsize its battery without sacrificing useful range.

“Our target is to improve efficiency even more,” Dlala says.

“If we do a 250-mile car, we could have a battery that’s just 40 kWh,” or less than half the size of the Air’s. That’s the same size battery as a relatively tiny, base-model Nissan Leaf, whose lesser efficiency translates to just 240 km of EPA-rated driving range.

Such compact batteries would not just save serious money for manufacturers and consumers. They would require fewer raw and refined materials., allowing automakers to theoretically build many more cars from a finite supply. That pack would also weigh about one-third as much as Lucid’s beefiest current battery. The upshot would be a chain of gains that would warm the heart of the most mass-conscious engineer: A lighter chassis to support the smaller battery, slimmer crash structures, downsized brakes. More useable space for passengers and cargo. All those savings would further boost driving range and performance.

This grand design, naturally, would demand an attendant burst of charger development. Once chargers are as ubiquitous and reliable as gas stations—and nearly as fast for fillups—“then I don’t need 400 miles of range,” Dlala says.

All this could grant the ultimate, elusive wish for EV makers: Price parity with internal-combustion automobiles.

“That combination of efficiency and infrastructure will allow us to create competitive prices versus internal combustion cars,” Dlala says.

Ryan Castilloux, geologist, founder and managing director of Adamas Intelligence

Castilloux says that game-changing EV battery breakthroughs have to date been rare. Yet EV batteries are still central to automakers’ calculus, as they seek a sustainable, affordable supply in a period of explosive growth. In a marketplace starving for what they see as their rightful share of kilowatt-hours, smaller or less-connected automakers especially may go hungry.

“Everyone is competing for a limited supply,” says Ryan Castilloux. “That makes for a lumpy growth trajectory in EVs. It’s an immense challenge, and one that won’t go away until the growth slows and the supply side can keep up.”

“In recent decades, it wouldn’t have made sense to think of an automaker becoming a processing or mining company, but now with scarcity of supplies, they have to take drastic measures.”
—Ryan Castilloux, Adamas Intelligence

A battery industry that has succeeded in boosting nickel content for stronger performance, and cutting cobalt to reduce costs, has hit a wall of diminishing returns via chemistry alone. That leaves battery pack design as a new frontier: Castilloux lauds the push to eliminate “aluminum and other zombie materials” to save weight and space. The effort shows in innovations such as large-format cylindrical batteries with higher ratios of active material to surrounding cases—as well as so-called “cell-to-pack” or “pack-to-frame” designs. BMW’s critical “Neue Klasse” EVs, the first arriving in 2025, are just one example: Large-format cells, with no traditional cased modules required, fill an entire open floorpan and serve as a crash-resistant structural member.

“That becomes a low-cost way to generate big improvements in pack density and bolster the mileage of a vehicle,” Castillloux says.

That kind of sophisticated chassis and battery design can also help level the playing field, giving new life to “lesser” chemistries—especially lithium iron phosphate that’s the hottest thing in batteries around the world—that would otherwise be uncompetitive and obsolete.

“Things are moving in the right direction in North America and Europe, but it’s too little too late at the moment, and the West is collectively scrambling to meet demand.”

The drivetrain and battery of a Mercedes-Benz EQS electric vehicle on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz Group plant in Sindelfingen, Germany, on Monday, February 13, 2023. Krisztian Bocsi/Getty Images

The tragedy, Castilloux says, is that EV demand was anticipated for several years, “but the action is only happening now.”

“China was only one that acted on it, and is now a decade ahead of the rest of the world,” in both refining and processing battery materials, and cell production itself.

Tesla also got out in front of legacy automakers by thinking in terms of vertical integration, the need to control the entire supply chain, from lithium brine and cobalt mines to final production and recycling.

“In recent decades, it wouldn’t have made sense to think of an automaker becoming a processing or mining company, but now with scarcity of supplies, they have to take drastic measures.”

Dan Nicholson, Vice president of strategic tech initiatives General Motors; board member Society of Automotive Engineers

Automakers are racing to meet soaring EV demand and fill yawning gaps in the market, including building a homegrown supply chain of battery materials as well as batteries. In the United States alone, Atlas Public Policy tallies U.S. $128 billion in announced investments in EV and battery factories and recycling. That still leaves another blind spot: Charging infrastructure. Tesla’s dominant Superchargers aside, many experts cite a patchwork, notoriously unreliable charging network as a leading roadblock to mainstream EV adoption.

“Charging infrastructure is on our wish list of things that need to improve,” said Dan Nicholson, who helps lead General Motors’ new charger initiatives.

The 2021 U.S. Infrastructure Law is providing $7.5 billion to build a network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030. But rather than own and operate their own chargers like Tesla—akin to automakers running chains of proprietary gas stations—GM, Ford and others argue that standardized, open-source chargers are critical to convince more Americans to kick the ICE habit. Those chargers must be available everywhere people live and work, Nicholson said, and open to drivers of any car brand.

It will help if those chargers actually work: A 2022 study showed nearly 25 percent of public chargers in the San Francisco Bay area—itself a mecca for EV ownership—weren’t functioning properly.

Automakers and battery manufacturers are on board with multiple solutions, including the stunning rise of lithium-iron-phosphate cells in Teslas, Fords and other models.

To fill gaps in public networks, GM is collaborating with EVGo on a national network of 2,000 DC fast-charging stalls, located at 500 Pilot and Flying J travel centers, most along major corridors. To reach people where they live, including people with no access to home charging, GM is tapping its more than 4,400 dealers to build up to 10 Level 2 charging stations each, at both dealers and key locations, including underserved urban and rural communities. Nicholson notes that 90 percent of the U.S. population lives within 16 kilometers of a GM dealer.

In his role as an SAE board member, Nicholson also supports future-proof standards for EVs, connectors and chargers. That includes the ISO 15118 international standard that defines two-way communication between EVs and chargers. That standard is key to “Plug and Charge,” the budding interoperability system that allows drivers of any EV to plug into any DC fast charger and simply be billed on the back end. That’s how Teslas have worked since 2012, though with the advantage of a closed system that need only recognize and communicate with Tesla models.

Nicholson said GM is also seeking “uptime guarantees” with charging collaborators. That will allow drivers to see in advance if a charger is operational, and to hold a spot.

“People need to be able to reserve a station, and know it’s going to work when they get there,” he said.

Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst for North and South America, S&P Global Mobility

Despite an electric boom year in 2022, some analysts are downgrading forecasts of EV adoption, due to monkey wrenches of unpredictable demand, looming recession and supply-chain issues. S&P Global Mobility remains bullish, predicting that 42 percent of global buyers will choose an EV in 2030, within sight of President Biden’s goal of 50-percent EV penetration.

“That’s a lot of growth, but there are plenty of people who won’t move along as quickly,” Brinley said. Pushing EVs to a market majority will require stars to align. Brinley says the most critical key is a continued explosion of new EV models at every price point—including SUVs and pickups that are the lifeblood of U.S. buyers.

Regarding batteries, Brinley says ICE manufacturers with an existing manufacturing footprint, labor force and know-how could find an advantage over relative newcomers. The issue will be how well the likes of General Motors and Ford can manage the transition, from scaling back on ICE production to retraining workers — fewer of whom may be required to produce batteries and motors than ICE powertrains. In February, Ford announced a new $3.5 billion plant in Michigan to build LFP batteries, licensing tech from China’s CATL, currently the world’s largest lithium-ion producer.

“Some (legacy) automakers will use LFP for certain use cases, and solid-state in development could change the dynamic again,” Brinley says. “But for the time being, you need both batteries and engines, because people will be buying both,” Brinley says.

At some point, Brinley says, it’s a zero-sum game: A flat global market for cars can’t comfortably accommodate both types of powertrains.

“ICE sales have to come down for BEV sales to come up,” Brinley says. “And that’s going to make for a wild market in the next few years.”

Connor Hund, chief operating officer, NanoGraf

NanoGraf is among several start-ups wishing for not just longer-lasting batteries, but a stable, competitive North American supply chain to counter China’s battery dominance. The Inflation Reduction Act has spurred an unprecedented tsunami of homegrown investment, by requiring robust domestic sourcing of batteries and battery materials as a condition of EV tax breaks for manufacturers and consumers. That includes a $35-per-kWh tax credit on every lithium-ion cell produced, and a $7,500 consumer tax break on eligible EVs.

Connor Hund says NanoGraf aims to onshore production of its silicon-anode material at a new Chicago facility beginning in Q2 this year. The company, whose backers include the Department of Defense, claims to have created the most energy-dense 18650 cylindrical cell yet, at 3.8 amp-hours. The technology key is a pre-lithiated core that allows an anode silicon percentage as high as 25 percent, versus cells that typically top out at 5-to-7 percent silicon.

“There’s certainly room to boost the range of EVs by 20, 30 or even 50 percent by using silicon,” he says.

But whether it’s NanoGraf, or the drive toward large-format 4680 cylindrical cells led by Tesla and Panasonic, scaling up to mass production remains a major hurdle. NanoGraf plans enough initial capacity for 35 to 50 tonnes of its anode materials. But it would need 1,000 tonnes annually to crack the automotive space, with its now-bottomless appetite for batteries—at competitive cost with what automakers currently pay for cells from China, South Korea or elsewhere.

“It’s so cutthroat in that space, and there’s a scale you have to reach,” Hund says.

One wish is being granted: No one is waiting for a magic bullet in technology, including from solid state batteries that many experts now insist won’t be ready for automobiles until 2030 or later. Instead, automakers and battery manufacturers are on board with multiple solutions, including the stunning rise of LFP cells in Teslas, Fords and other models.

“There’s a shortage of all these materials, not enough nickel, cobalt or manganese, so companies targeting different consumers with different solutions is really helpful.”

Western countries have struggled to take a holistic view of everything that’s required, especially when incumbent solutions from China are available. It’s not just raw materials, anodes or cathodes, but the cells, modules, electrolyte and separators.

“You need companies onshoring all those components to have a robust U.S. supply chain,” he says. “We need everyone upstream and downstream of us, whether it’s the graphite, electrolyte or separator. Everyone is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Hund says safer batteries should also be on the industry wish-list, as high-profile fires in Teslas and other models threaten to sully EVs reputation or keep skeptical consumers on the fence.

“We can’t have batteries self-discharging at the rate they are now,” he says, especially with automakers gearing up around the world for their biggest EV invasion yet.

“Getting ahead of this now, versus pushing millions of cars onto the road and dealing with safety later, is very important.”

Update 14 March 2023: This story was corrected to reflect that Lucid’s Air Touring model carries a 92 kWh battery. (A previous version of this story stated that the battery’s capacity was 112 kWh.)

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