EV Automakers Fight For Access To Better Batteries

For most companies, there are few challenges that signal a potential business disaster as clearly as a materials shortage in their production process. No components, no product. And no product means no revenue. In this era of rapidly expanding electrification, with commensurate demands on certain components, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers are facing this categorical threat right now. For many, this is an existential problem, which we’ll get back to in a moment.

The electrification wave is among the most important revolutions of our lifetime. Fossil fuel advocates and corporations aren’t particularly sanguine about this coming change—their infrastructure investments and assets are worth many trillions and have woven themselves into the fabric of just about every economy on the planet—but technological change is an all-consuming and ultimately inexorable force. When a better way of doing something comes along—especially if it’s profitable—that better way steamrolls the older tech.

To properly understand electrification as a phenomenon it’s crucial to acknowledge the make-or-break nature of battery technology. The state of battery tech forms the basis of all value propositions in electrification. The same could be said for petroleum technology, in terms of what has been driving our industries and economies for the past 150 years. The pace of the coming transformation will hinge on how efficient, effective, and available batteries are and will become.

All mass-market EVs use lithium-ion (Li or Li-ion) batteries. These batteries are large and heavy—think about how heavy an internal combustion engine car battery weighs, and that’s an example of a single battery that isn’t used to power electric motors—and many are needed per vehicle. The average weight of the batteries in an EV is 500kg, and can make up as much as half the cost of the vehicle (!) with an average that hovers around 40%. They often take up the whole floor of the EV, sometimes spilling over into the trunk. In short, for every EV produced, a sizable chunk of battery inventory is consumed. And just to provide a sense of scale, Tesla alone has a manufacturing target of 20 million new EVs per year by 2030.

Electric car batteries place a weighty demand on supply chains. Li-ion batteries require varying amounts of graphite, aluminum, nickel, copper, lithium, manganese, cobalt and iron. In a Chevy Volt, for example, the battery has a 60 kilowatt-hour capacity, and contains 185 kg of minerals. This total doesn’t include non-mineral components, such as the battery casing and the electrolyte. Notably, the current copper shortage is worrisome. Copper is used in countless industries, and the demand for the metal is not flagging. Right now the copper supply chain is of great concern to automotive OEMs.

Which brings us back to the rising existential problem for many automotive companies: automaker executives are growing increasingly concerned about supply chain challenges for batteries and the related spike in prices. In response, automakers have been frantically searching for ways to make their battery supply chains more reliable and resilient; interruptions due to lack of battery inventory or poor quality control can be expensive for the automakers. For example, Ford was recently forced to shut down production of their F-150 Lightning EV due to a battery quality issue.

So where does this leave the EV automakers? They can’t earn a profit if they have no revenue, and revenue isn’t forthcoming if they have no product to sell. If they’re unable to secure a reliable EV battery supply, doesn’t this mean an end to operations?

Unsurprisingly, automakers are on the lookout for solutions to this threat, and are already investing in mining operations, refineries and their own dedicated battery manufacturing centres, typically joint ventures with established battery makers. They’re also keenly searching for new battery technologies that involve cost reductions and better battery performance. And as it turns out, options like this already exist.

This writer has been following developments at Addionics for a few years now. The company continues their journey through the deep complexities of battery physics (rather than battery chemistry, which pretty much everyone else is banking their R&D on) and their core innovation may very well help solve some of the EV battery supply chain problems.

“[What we do] results in significant weight and cost reduction for an EV battery. What increases is battery performance.”

The key concept behind what Addionics is pursuing is the idea of a three-dimensional electrode structure rather than the traditional two-dimensional model. “The 3D nature of our battery architecture increases the surface area of the electrodes while reducing internal resistance,” said Dr. Moshiel Biton, CEO and co-founder. “Combining these two properties results in a higher-power and higher-energy battery.”

Biton is a materials scientist and holds a Ph.D. from Imperial College London. The R&D he and his team are pursuing heavily pushes the envelope for batteries in a novel direction. “We use porous copper and aluminum for the electrodes in our architecture, which reduces the amount used–a reduction in copper usage of as much as 40%–and that results in significant weight and cost reduction for an EV battery. What increases is battery performance.” In other words, they have a solution for a less expensive EV battery that offers a higher KWh capacity. For EV automakers, this could translate into a profit increase of as much as 20% per vehicle.

The end result of shifting to this new 3-D model is straightforward: Addionics’ solution promises the reduction of the amount of copper and aluminum required, higher production output, better battery performance, and a lower overall cost. This addresses supply chains, range anxiety, and pricing—all of which have a major impact on industry investment and consumer acceptance of a world running with electric vehicles.

Naturally there are concerns about tooling up and adjusting manufacturing lines to allow for this new battery model. Gilad Fisher, Director of Marketing at Addionics responded: “No new facilities need to be built. What we offer is a drop-in solution that requires no additional capital expenditure. Additionally, the solution is chemistry-agnostic. It doesn’t matter if the battery is nickel-manganese-cobalt, lithium-iron-phosphate or even emerging chemistries such as silicon and solid-state. Costs are reduced as a result, and the kicker is that so are emissions; we have a more efficient manufacturing and drying process that consumes less and creates less waste.”

“All of the key parameters of battery performance improve,” said Fisher. “Our model allows for a higher power, higher energy battery that does not at all compromise durability or safety.” Given that potential battery fires remain a major engineering concern for all EVs, this is good news from the team. Fisher also reports that the Addionics team continues to pursue the 3-D electrode model in partnership with at-present unnamed Tier 1 automakers to ensure seamless integration with the industry, acknowledging that while innovation is important, so is offering a product that the sector can deploy with the least friction possible.

While EV battery production is struggling to keep up with demand (in both quality and supply terms), the world pushes ahead in fits and starts towards electrification. Like all technological revolutions this one isn’t without its challenges. There is irony in the fact that the next phase of transport in the 21st century relies almost entirely on the humble battery, a technology that has been around in one form or another for well over 200 years. And yet, a previously untried, outside-of-the-box approach to an old problem may speed us toward the destination that billions are looking forward to. One can’t help but get a charge out of the prospect.

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