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

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CAMBRIDGE – In the race for electricity, automakers have focused on range to ease consumer anxiety over charging infrastructure, but battery makers are already working on the batteries of the future smaller, more durable and less expensive, which also load faster.

As automakers today sue market leader Tesla Inc, seeking to build cars that can go 300 miles (482 km) or more between charges, battery startups expect range to matter less as public electric vehicle (EV) chargers become ubiquitous. In search of smaller batteries that charge extremely quickly, startups are experimenting with materials like silicon-carbon, tungsten and niobium.

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The battery is the most expensive part of an EV, so true fast charging coupled with widely available chargers – a lack of charging infrastructure today is seen as a drag on wider EV adoption – would automakers to build cars with smaller batteries at more affordable prices, while boosting profit by selling more vehicles to a wider audience.

« Early users at the high end of the market wanted bigger batteries and longer runtimes because they could afford them, » said Sai Shivareddy, chief executive of Nyobolt, a startup developing oxide anode materials. of niobium for batteries that can be recharged in minutes. « For more cost-sensitive mainstream adoption, you need smaller batteries…but with the same experience as today (with fossil-fuel cars) where you can fill up in 5 minutes. »

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China dominates global EV battery production, and companies like Contemporary Amperex Technology Co (CATL) are developing batteries to go further on a single charge.

Chinese automakers have rolled out small, low-cost electric vehicles like the Wuling Hongguang Mini – which, even with recent battery price hikes, still sells for around $6,500. The car is a joint venture of SAIC Motor Corp Ltd, General Motors Co and Wuling Motors.

Western startups such as Cambridge-based Nyobolt and Echion Technologies, or Woodinville, Wash.-based Group14 Technologies, are working on electrode materials to bring ultra-fast charging batteries to market.

According to startup data platform PitchBook, investment in battery technology for electric vehicles increased more than sixfold to $9.4 billion in 2021, from $1.5 billion in 2020, automakers focusing on the future.

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“We are in the larval stages of battery development,” said Lincoln Merrihew, vice president of data analytics firm Pulse Labs. (Here is a graphic:

Going small could also ease looming bottlenecks in battery materials as demand for electric vehicles soars, while using less cobalt and nickel where China dominates refining and processing.

Another benefit is that automakers could claim sustainability gains by using less harmful materials in electric vehicles and emitting less CO2 while making them.

« Re-engineering the vehicle to minimize battery size, since it’s so expensive, is going to be a game-changer, » Ford Motor Co chief executive Jim Farley told a conference in June. The US automaker, he added, wants « the smallest possible battery for the competitive lineup » in its next generation of electric vehicles from 2026.

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Others derive more efficiency from existing batteries, as Mercedes-Benz did with its EQXX prototype with a range of 1,000 km (621 miles).


Fast charging today is limited by the ability of EV batteries to quickly absorb energy. Fast charging can shorten the life of batteries or overheat them, so most electric vehicles limit the charging speed to protect them.

At Nyobolt headquarters, CEO Shivareddy charges four batteries in about three minutes and plugs them into a robot vacuum that actively cleans the floor behind him as he talks.

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, startups like Nyobolt and Echion claim that niobium can handle ultra-fast charging while lasting many years longer than current batteries.

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Nyobolt is focused on high-performance racing electric vehicles, and Shivareddy said it will take years of validation before automakers are ready to use its batteries in consumer models.

A few miles from Nyobolt, Echion’s niobium anodes are initially intended for commercial electric vehicles like mining vehicles that run continuously and will require rapid charging.

CEO Jean de La Verpillière said Echion’s goal is to have batteries ready for electric passenger vehicles by 2025.

« Smaller batteries mean cheaper prices and therefore more people can afford electric vehicles, » he said.

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

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Rogerio Marques Ribas, CBMM’s battery program manager, said that although the energy density of niobium can be up to 20% lower than some contemporary batteries, « we can bring maybe three to ten times more longer life and more safety while charging in minutes ».

« Raw materials will be a bottleneck for batteries, » Ribas added. “In the near future, people will wonder why have a big battery? »


Niobium isn’t the only material startups are exploring.

Group14 Technologies manufactures a silicon-carbon anode material that enables lithium-ion batteries to hold up to 50% more energy. The company raised $400 million from investors in May.

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

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« When I can recharge my battery in five or 10 minutes… then it doesn’t matter what that range is, whether it’s 150 miles or 300 miles, » Luebbe said.

Michigan-based startup Our Next Energy (ONE) has developed its « dual chemistry » Gemini battery comprising a standard lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) traction battery with a second « range extender » battery using chemistries more advanced and more expensive, providing low, medium and high battery. upscale choice.

« The market ultimately decides the right level of range, » said CEO Mujeeb Ijaz.

According to industry data, the average American car travels less than 30 miles per day. In Europe, the average is less than half.

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

“As the market matures, people will start to wonder why I’m paying thousands of dollars…for a battery that I’m never going to use,” she said. « Most cars are used to get to the shops, see friends or drop kids off at school, not to get to Monaco. »

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Cambridge, England, and Paul Lienert in Detroit Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)



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