By Allison Proffitt
April 4, 2019 | A panel of OEMs took the stage last week at the 36th annual International Battery Seminar and Exhibit in Fort Lauderdale and outlined the top innovations they wanted to see, the most intriguing chemistries, and what they believe governments should do to advance battery research. It was a quick-moving hour, ably led by Celina Mikolajczak, director of engineering, energy storage systems at Uber.
Mikolajczak started by asking the panel what innovations they wanted to see. It was a long and varied list.
Bob Taenaka at Ford Motor Company kicked off the wish list with cells that last the life of the vehicle, design that supports cell swell over life, higher allowable operating temperature limits, and wireless sensing within batteries. Micheal Austin, BYD US Operations, added oxygen limitations within cells to protect against fires, cobalt-free chemistries, and phase-change monitoring to reduce degradation at the high end of the charge. Representing Johnson Controls, Craig Rigby requested standardization at the module level around things like crush behavior as well as common definitions of power and performance across temperature and operating conditions. And Tim Arthur at the Toyota Research Institute called for more materials research and encouraged collaborations with national laboratories and academia to improve materials.
New chemistries were represented in many of those asks, and Mikolajczak dug deeper, asking the panel which chemistries were most intriguing.
Representing the supplier side, Mohamed Alamgir with LG Chem, reported most inquiries for new anode chemistry. “Of course the holy grail is lithium, but that has yet a long road.” In the shorter term, Alamgir is looking for silicon-based electrodes that can achieve fast charging without dendrite formation, calling some of the latest research “very, very exciting!”
Arthur is looking for power density to match energy density. “In order for large scale production, you need to keep on producing high powered battery packs and modules,” he said. Toyota plans to have 5.5m electrified cars on the street by 2030, he said, and 4.5m of those will be hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles. “These high-powered batteries will remain important for the next decade,” he said.
Austin highlighted cathode issues. “The hype is in solid state, so lithium metal anodes, but you need to attach those to the common cathode. So we need to solve some of the cathode issues.” In particular, Austin called nickel-rich cathodes, “problematic without some significant advances in thermal stability. We don’t want cars exploding on roads.”
Arthur from Toyota admitted to a recent conversion to silicon anodes. “At first I didn’t think there was any way we could get over their issues—volume change, SEI formation, everything that you see on a very fundamental level—but… I think they’re going to be realized a lot sooner than I thought… I expect that silicon anodes will be a part of EV, possibly sooner than solid state. Let’s just say we have a 2050 target.”
Taenaka at Ford was even more bullish. Silicon anode technology as a minor blend is already in production, he said. Perhaps in the near future we’ll see 90%-95% silicon content anodes. “It appears to me that certainly within the next ten years that’s something that may actually be implemented,” he said. Solid state technologies are probably a bit farther out. “I tend to still think that the lithium ion technology with the silicon-based [anodes] will still be the workhorse for the automotive field.”
One of the foundational problems in battery research, though, isn’t just chemistries, but materials supply and recycling. “Raw materials and minerals, that becomes a big, big issues when you’re trying to secure supply. A surprising amount of the cell is related to the London Metals Exchange price for a particular metal,” Mikolajczak said.
Both cobalt and nickel are subject to supply shortages, Taenaka agreed, and lithium isn’t immune. “As the price of these raw materials change, it makes business sense to find new approaches to processing, manufacturing, or obtaining raw materials,” he said. “Trying to minimize the amount of raw materials that have to be mined or processed goes a long way to trying to have a sustainable future for transportation.”
Taenaka also emphasized the importance of “promoting demand” for recycling. “That’s where government has a big influence: changing the scale for what makes good business sense.” The cost to recycle materials doesn’t make particularly good business sense today, he said. “But if you impose, if you will, a requirement on recycling that will definitely change the field.”
We can’t only focus on what comes out of the tail pipe when we talk about sustainability, Arthur said. Factories have an impact. Materials have an impact. Governments have a role to play in that bigger picture.
Government’s Role In Creating Demand
Mikolajczak pointed out that governments often set standards and regulations. “Those can support an industry; those can destroy an industry,” she observed. What is the government’s role in the battery industry? Is it to regulate? To fund research? To build demand?
“Before anybody knew about batteries it was only the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy that kept the battery industry in this country alive, said LG Chem’s Alamgir. “For a long, long time the government was the primary funder of battery research in this country,” he said, crediting the US government with investing in, and building much of LG Chem’s business. LG Chem received an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant from the US government, and built up a facility in Holland, Michigan, now employing 750 people.
Johnson Controls participated in the same grant program as LG Chem, but Rigby took a different view of government involvement. “Throwing a bunch of money at manufacturing in the absence of really having sustainable stimulation of the demand to bring that market up, and prop it up, is a miss.” Rigby argued that the government’s role should be less focused on grants and more on stimulating demand for battery and electric technologies. “Demand will drive the need for manufacturing,” he said. Today many US demand for battery cells are imported. “It’s just business sense that when demand is high enough, you’ll start making it locally,” Rigby said.
Austin, from BYD, took a slightly different view. “That was wonderful that LG Chem borrowed some of my tax dollars to start their business, and I funded their research. I appreciate the federal government for picking that winner. But I don’t think it’s the job of the government to pick winners, or losers. Promote technology; promote demand.”
Austin referenced San Antonio, which put out bids for jobs to add renewable energy to their portfolio. “That was a brilliant way to use the dollars they were going to spend anyway—looking at the government as a customer—and not picking a winner, just looking at the most available technology at the time,” Austin said. “They had eight major global brands compete for that 850 jobs.”
He also referred to China’s mandate that every fixed rail bus will be zero emissions. “They’ve only replaced 16% of their fleet, and that’s impacted the diesel industry by about 3 million barrels a day,” he said. “The government should use their dollars to create demand. I think every postal service vehicle should be electric. It’s a no brainer… Go put the dollars where they’re going to spend them anyway, whether it’s LED street lighting or busses or wherever.”