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

CAMBRIDGE, England, July 11 (Reuters) – In the race to electrify, carmakers have focused on range to ease consumer anxiety over charging infrastructure, but battery makers are already working on smaller, longer batteries and cheaper in the future. which also load faster.

As carmakers today follow market leader Tesla Inc ( TSLA.O ), seeking to build cars that can travel 300 miles (482 km) or more between charges, battery startups expect the range to be less important as public electric vehicle (EV) chargers become ubiquitous. In the search for smaller batteries that charge extremely fast, startups are experimenting with materials like silicon-carbon, tungsten and niobium.

The battery is the most expensive part of an EV, so true fast charging coupled with widely available chargers – the lack of charging infrastructure today is seen as slowing down wider EV adoption – would allow manufacturers automakers to build cars with smaller batteries at more affordable prices, but improve profits by selling more vehicles to a wider audience.

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“Early adopters at the higher end of the market wanted bigger battery packs and longer range because they could afford it,” said Sai Shivareddy, chief executive of Nyobolt, a startup developing niobium oxide anode materials. for batteries that can be charged in minutes. “For more cost-sensitive adoption, you need smaller battery packs … but with the same experience as today (with fossil fuel cars) where you can fill up in 5 minutes.”

China dominates global EV battery production and companies such as Contemporary Amperex Technology Co ( CATL ) ( 300750.SZ ) are developing batteries to go further on a single charge. Read more

Carmakers in China have launched small, low-cost electric cars like the Wuling Hongguang Mini – which even with the recent battery price hike still sells for around $6,500. The car is a joint venture of SAIC Motor Corp Ltd ( 600104.SS ), General Motors Co ( GM.N ) and Wuling Motors ( 0305.HK ).

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

Investments in EV battery technology grew more than sixfold to $9.4 billion in 2021 from $1.5 billion in 2020, according to startup data platform PitchBook, as automakers focused on the future.

“We’re in the larval stages of battery development,” said Lincoln Merrihew, vice president at data analytics firm Pulse Labs.

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Smaller distribution could also ease potential battery material bottlenecks as demand for electric vehicles grows, while less cobalt and nickel are used where China dominates refining and processing.

Another benefit is that carmakers can claim to gain sustainability by using less harmful materials in EVs and emit less CO2 by producing them.

“Re-engineering the vehicle to minimize the size of the batteries, since it’s so expensive, will be a game changer,” Ford Motor Co ( FN ) Chief Executive Jim Farley said at a conference in June. The US carmaker, he added, wants “the smallest battery possible for the competitive range” in its next generation of EVs starting in 2026.

Others are squeezing more efficiency from existing batteries, as Mercedes-Benz ( MBGn.DE ) has done with its EQXX prototype with a range of 1,000 km (621 miles). Read more

MOST AFFORDABLE EV

Fast charging today is limited by the ability of EV batteries to absorb energy quickly. 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 feeds them into a robotic vacuum that busily cleans the floor behind him as he talks.

Niobium is a stable metal that is often used to strengthen steel – the largest deposits in the world are in Brazil and Canada. Used in anodes or cathodes, startups like Nyobolt and Echion say niobium can handle super-fast charging while lasting many years longer than today’s batteries.

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

A few miles away from Nyobolt, Echion’s niobium anodes are initially for commercial electric vehicles such as mining vehicles that run continuously and will need fast charging.

CEO Jean de La Verpilliere 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 buy electric vehicles,” he said.

Brazilian mining company CBMM dominates niobium production and has invested in Echion and other start-ups and is testing niobium with others, including battery materials company Nano One ( NANO.TO ), Toshiba ( 6502.T ) and Volkswagen Caminhoes e Onibus, a Brazilian subsidiary of Volkswagen’s ( VOWG_p.DE ) truck unit Traton ( 8TRA.DE ).

Rogerio Marques Ribas, head of CBMM’s battery program, 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 life and more security while charging in minutes”.

“Raw materials will be an obstacle for batteries”, added Ribas. “In the near future people will ask, why do you have a big battery pack?”

“THE MARKET DECIDES THE FAMILY”

Niobium isn’t the only material startups are exploring.

Group14 Technologies produces 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. Read more

Testing Group14’s material, Mercedes-backed battery manufacturer StoreDot charged the batteries to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. Group14 CEO Rick Luebbe said its anode material can provide a fast EV charge in five minutes.

“When I can drain my battery in five or 10 minutes … then it doesn’t really matter what that distance is, whether it’s 150 miles or 300 miles,” Luebbe said.

Michigan-based startup Our Next Energy (ONE) has developed its Gemini “dual chemistry” battery that features a standard lithium iron phosphate (LFP) traction battery with a second “range extender” battery using more advanced and expensive, offering low, mid and high range options.

“The market ultimately sets the right level of range,” said CEO Mujeeb Ijaz.

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

Isobel Sheldon, chief strategy officer of British battery company Britishvolt ( IPO-BRI.L ), said that as EV owners realize they are paying more than they should, the market will demand less range.

“As the market matures, people will start asking why I’m paying thousands … for a battery I’ll never use,” she said. “Most car use is to go to the shops, see friends or drop the kids off at school, not to go to Monaco.”

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

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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