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Climate ChangeFor U.S. Corporations, the Race for the Recent EV Battery Is On

For U.S. Corporations, the Race for the Recent EV Battery Is On

Sixteen years have passed since engineer Martin Eberhard unveiled his futuristic custom-designed sports automobile before a crowd of investors, journalists, and potential buyers in a Santa Monica Airport hangar. The Roadster, because it was called, contained numerous progressive engineering, but nothing about it mattered greater than the 6,831 lithium-ion battery cells packed into its rear compartment, which gave the vehicle its range and speed. “The battery system is the key,” Eberhard explained on the time, “behind our four-second 0-60 mph acceleration.”

Eberhard and his collaborator, Marc Tarpenning, named their recent electric vehicle company after Nikola Tesla, and two years later, in 2008, the Tesla became the primary commercially produced, lithium-ion-powered vehicle to hit the auto market. Lithium-ion, or li-ion, was an enormous step up from the nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries that had been powering most hybrid and electric vehicles, including the wildly popular Prius. Lithium’s higher energy density means a li-ion battery can store a 3rd more watt-hours per kilogram than Ni-MH batteries can, which implies they last more and weigh less.

However the lithium battery still has serious drawbacks. It relies on imported critical minerals — not only lithium, but cobalt, copper, graphite, and nickel — which are acquired by hacking into mountains or by pumping scarce desert groundwater into ponds, then waiting for water to evaporate and leave the mineral behind. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces greater than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, often by exploiting child labor under unsafe working conditions. Other minerals come from countries with which the US would like to loosen economic ties, including Russia, which provides 20 percent of the world’s dwindling stores of nickel, and China, which supplies virtually all of the graphite utilized in EV batteries internationally.

By 2029, only EVs with 80 percent of their minerals sourced within the U.S. or its allied nations will qualify for the total tax credit.

“We don’t necessarily have the power to get some minerals unless we go to places which are defined as not acceptable,” says Ben Prochazka, executive director of the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit that works to maneuver transportation away from fossil fuels. Soon, we may not have the opportunity to get certain minerals in any respect: China, as an illustration, has threatened to maintain its graphite for its own prodigious battery industry; market analysts predict the worldwide demand for lithium will exceed supply by 2030. “We’ve got got to work out a special way of constructing batteries,” says Prochazka.

With state and federal mandates and incentives pushing auto firms to prioritize battery-powered vehicles of their fleets, and volatile gas prices moving more consumers toward zero-emission transportation, automakers and battery firms are rushing to just do that. They’re working to develop other ways to make batteries while decreasing costs, increasing energy density — which translates to all-important longer driving range — and weaning the industry off what the U.S. government calls “foreign entities of concern.”

Batteries that replace so-called conflict minerals with domestic minerals have advanced beyond research and development to their testing phases; a battery that reduces cobalt in favor of nickel, manganese, and aluminum is already in business production; several firms are working on solid-state batteries, which use no potentially flammable liquids, and plans for gigafactories dedicated to battery manufacturing within the U.S. abound.

The passage of two recent federal laws, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, is anticipated to maneuver the industry along. The U.S. has offered a $7,500 tax credit to buyers of most recent EVs because the end of 2009; but starting in 2023, the IRA ties that tax credit to certain requirements for sourcing of critical minerals and manufacturing of batteries. By 2029, only EVs with 80 percent of their minerals sourced throughout the U.S. or its allied nations and one hundred pc North American-manufactured or -assembled components will qualify for the total credit.

Taken together, the bills stand to remodel the electrical vehicle battery industry and force innovation, much because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did within the 2010s, when Tesla secured a $465 million federal loan to finish development of its Modern S sedan and open its plant in Fremont, California. If cobalt and nickel are hard to get, Prochazka says, then “let’s make batteries that use less cobalt, or no cobalt. Or let’s make batteries that use less nickel.” China refines nearly all the minerals utilized by battery makers, Prochazka adds, “so now we’ll have processing facilities within the U.S.” Last month, Nevada-based Panasonic Energy announced that in 2025 it might start making EV batteries from nickel recycled in that state.

Michael Maten, GM’s senior strategist for EV and energy policy says the change was coming whether Congress acted or not. In 2021, when GM CEO Mary Barra committed to go one hundred pc electric by 2035, Maten says, “The very first thing we said was, ‘Oh man, we’re going to wish numerous batteries.’” That led to taking a tough take a look at the availability chain and making “a concerted effort to onshore or nearshore that offer chain to ensure it’s sustainable.” Now, he says, “nearly every month we bring on one other partner to secure” critical minerals.

“You possibly can consider our battery cell as a French dip,” says a battery developer. “The electrolyte permeates the entire thing.”

Failure shouldn’t be an option, Maten says. “We’re transforming a 100-year-old business based on the inner combustion engine into an all-EV business. We wish to ensure we’re around for an additional 100 years.”

On a video call, George Liddle, director of analytics for Lyten, a San Jose-based company that makes a speciality of making composites for batteries, holds up a chunk of paper with the sting facing outward. “That’s two-dimensional graphene,” he says, which is structurally much like a soccer net laid flat, “only in nano form.” Liddle then crumples the paper right into a ball. “In the event you do that, you find yourself with 3D graphene, which is 1,000 times more reactive, electrically and chemically” than the flat version.

Lyten began as a business endeavor to gather waste methane from oil fields, convert it to inert carbon and sequester it deep underground. “It turned out that the economics didn’t work in any respect for that,” Liddle tells me. The corporate pivoted to batteries when one in all its researchers discovered that graphene derived from that carbon may very well be used as a buffer between lithium and sulfur inside a recent form of battery.

A employee checks connections on an EV battery panel on the headquarters of Lucid Motors in Newark, California.
David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Sulfur has roughly 4 times the potential energy storage of nickel, manganese, or cobalt,” Liddle says, “and it’s literally dirt low cost — it’s a byproduct of petrochemical operations.” Oil drillers give it away by the ton. That nobody has ever made a lithium-sulfur battery with a business application (although some have tried) speaks to how difficult it’s to do. As cells throughout the battery charge after which discharge, lithium bonds with sulfur and is released as lithium ions. With each cycle, the compound goes through a series of complex chemical conversions until neither the lithium nor the sulfur remain in usable form. “The battery cycles about 100 times after which dies,” Liddle explains, “since it mainly poisoned itself.”

Now Liddle mimes inserting a substance — sulfur — into the spaces of the balled-up paper, the stand-in for graphene. “It seems that if you happen to take the sulfur and embed it deep into the nano-crevices of graphene, it forces the conversion of lithium-sulfur to lithium and sulfur,” he says. Graphene splits the 2 chemicals up, so sulfur atoms and lithium ions don’t destroy the battery.

A battery cell could be regarded as a sandwich: A positively charged cathode and a negatively charged anode around an electrolyte that passes ions from one side to the opposite. The electrolyte is nearly all the time a viscous organic solvent. The cells in Lyten’s battery have all those components, but structured somewhat bit in a different way. “You possibly can consider our battery cell as a French dip,” Liddle says. “The electrolyte permeates the entire thing.”

Ford and Mercedes-Benz have partnerships with battery manufacturers to explore solid-state technology.

Solid-state batteries, in contrast, use no electrolyte in any respect, swapping it out for a polymer or ceramic that serves the identical function but without the flammability risk of organic solvents. Gasoline-powered cars catch fire more readily and more often than EVs outfitted with li-ion batteries. But li-ion batteries are uniquely vulnerable to a phenomenon generally known as “thermal runaway,” where the burning cell can’t throw off heat faster than it generates it. As firefighters in Florida learned after saltwater-soaked Teslas caught fire following Hurricane Ian’s storm surge, it takes an awful lot of water to place out a chemical fire — as much as 40 times as much because it takes to extinguish a gasoline automobile’s fire.

A handful of automakers, including Ford and Mercedes-Benz, have partnerships with battery manufacturers to explore solid-state technology. Factorial Energy, which is about to open a recent factory in Methuen, Massachusetts, expects to roll out solid-state EV batteries sometime between 2028 and 2030.

Most batteries use liquid electrolytes for good reason, explains Ahmad Pesaran, chief energy storage engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. A fluid can flow into every empty space to keep up contact between anode and cathode. For a solid electrolyte to work, nonetheless, “you’ve gotten to have really good surfaces that may merge together,” Pesaran says. The materials also need to resist pressure without cracking — a tall order for the brittle ceramics utilized in some solid-state applications.

A solid-state battery produced by Factorial Energy, which is expected to open a factory in Massachusetts in 2023.

A solid-state battery produced by Factorial Energy, which is anticipated to open a factory in Massachusetts in 2023.

In reality, battery researchers usually tend to achieve commercializing silicon anodes than they’re to perfect a solid-state technology, some experts say. Silicon has potentially twice the energy density of graphite, which is often utilized in lithium-ion batteries, and it’s way more widely available. (Silicon’s feedstock is sand.) A silicon-anode battery may very well be available in only a number of years. The fundamental challenge has been silicon’s tendency to expand because it charges and discharges. “The amount changes almost 300 percent if you happen to’re doing it to its maximum capability,” says Brian Cunningham, a technology development manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, “and that creates numerous mechanical strain on the complete structure,” making it unlikely the battery could survive a business vehicle’s requisite charge-discharge cycles. “We’re engineering solutions to scale back that stress and strain,” he says.

A greater idea than debating bleeding-edge technologies, GM’s Maten says, is to easily take a look at which materials store essentially the most energy as a minimum cost and are obtainable without tearing up Indonesian coastal villages for nickel or counting on authoritarian regimes. Lithium-ion battery prices are volatile, but straight away they cost somewhere around $150 per kilowatt-hour. For cost parity with gasoline-powered engines, that price has to come back all the way down to at the very least $100 per kilowatt-hour, although some automakers are eyeing $60 per kilowatt-hour. There are various ways to get there, but nobody knows when it should occur. “All of this remains to be very much in a lab setting,” Maten says.

Ninety-seven percent of all nickel reserves within the U.S. are positioned inside 35 miles of Native American communities.

In the actual world, the individuals who buy vehicles shall be the last word arbiters of successful battery technology, the DOE’s Cunningham says. What matters is making a battery that can outperform drivers’ expectations for range and acceleration at a price that makes the electric- vs. gas-powered debate moot. “In some unspecified time in the future we’ll hit this crossover point where battery-electric vehicles are cheaper than conventional ones,” he says. He doesn’t much care how we get there — solid-state, silicon, or another progressive battery design. The U.S. Department of Energy, he notes, is “chemistry agnostic.”

In October, the DOE announced $2.8 billion in grants for 20 different firms working to bolster the production and processing of critical minerals within the U.S. One other round of funding for specific ventures shall be announced in January. Jigar Shah, director of the loan programs office on the DOE, said in a video aimed toward researchers and manufacturers that the IRA added $40 billion to the agency’s loan authority to support the Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Program. “The goal of this system is admittedly to onshore and reshore the availability chain for the automotive sector as we decarbonize here on this country,” he said. On December 12, the DOE awarded a $2.5 billion loan to Ultium Cells, a three way partnership between GM and LG Energy Solution that can produce low-cobalt batteries at three U.S. facilities.

A worker climbs through a copper and cobalt mine in Kawama, Democratic Republic of Congo.

A employee climbs through a copper and cobalt mine in Kawama, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s necessary to notice that simply constructing an electrical vehicle supply chain throughout the U.S. and its allied nations doesn’t make it sustainable, at the very least not within the ecological and public health sense. Chile is technically a U.S.-friendly nation, yet lithium mining within the Atacama Desert threatens groundwater and drains lagoons on which local communities and wildlife depend. Ninety-seven percent of all nickel reserves within the U.S. are positioned inside 35 miles of Native American communities, as are 89 percent of copper reserves.

Even in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, where lithium extraction — from the brine already being pumped into 11 geothermal power plants — has been heralded as a possible economic boon to a struggling agricultural community, environmental justice advocates worry about potential negative impacts. With a population of 179,000, the Imperial Valley is greater than 85 percent Latino and has long suffered the health effects of pesticide drift from farm fields and airborne particulates from the dying Salton Sea. The impacts of lithium mining on public health have yet to be explored.

The California Energy Commission estimates that “Lithium Valley,” because it calls the Imperial Valley project, could supply as much as 40 percent of the world’s lithium demand, and it has already invested $16.5 million in developing the resource. Which suggests lithium production will likely go forward regardless of what. Lithium, as Elon Musk is fond of claiming, is indeed the brand new oil.

Regardless of the drawbacks, the acquisition of lithium — regardless of where it’s found — probably won’t decelerate. Not only does our dependence on gas and diesel engines harm the climate and our lungs, says the Electrification Coalition’s Prochazka, it’s a significant national security risk. “We proceed to export billions of dollars on an annual basis to countries that don’t share our ideals,” he notes. Battery technology will not be in every sense benign, but “we’ve much greater control over how we generate electrons” than we do over where we get our oil. “The long run of transportation,” he says, “is electrification. That debate is over.”


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