Carmakers race to control next-generation battery technology
By Jack Ewing and Eric Lipton
Already far behind Asian manufacturers in building electric car batteries, U.S. automakers and their suppliers are racing to develop a new generation of batteries that are cheaper, can pack in more energy and charge faster.
It is a global contest with huge economic consequences for automakers, small battery startups and car buyers, who in a few years will chose from a dizzying array of electric cars that use different kinds of batteries as the combustion-engine era recedes.
The chemical makeup of batteries — a technical subject that was the province of engineers — has become one of the hottest topics of discussion in the corporate boardrooms of General Motors, Toyota, Ford Motor and Volkswagen, as well in the White House.
With financial and technological support from the government, these giant companies are embracing startups working to remake the battery so they are not left behind by the industrial revolution unleashed by the electric car.
Automakers’ ability to master battery technology could help determine which companies thrive and which are overtaken by Tesla and other electric car businesses.
Batteries will help determine the price of new cars and could become the defining feature of vehicles. Like the megapixels on cameras or the processing speeds of computer chips that consumers once obsessed over, the features of batteries will be the yardstick by which cars and trucks are judged and bought.
“This is going to be the new brand differentiation going forward — the battery in electric vehicles,” said Hau Thai-Tang, chief product platform and operations officer at Ford Motor. “So, we’re making a huge effort.”
Batteries, of course, will also play a central role in the fight against climate change by helping to move cars, trucks and the power sector away from oil, coal and natural gas.
Automakers are taking a crash course in battery chemistry because demand for electric cars is taking off. Companies have to figure out how to make batteries cheaper and better. Today, batteries can make up one-quarter to one-third of the cost of electric cars. And most of those batteries are made by a few Asian companies.
Even Tesla, the dominant producer of electric cars, relies on Asian suppliers and is seeking to bring more manufacturing in house.
President Joe Biden this month encouraged companies to move more of the battery supply chain to the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlined the strategic importance of such efforts. Volkswagen was forced to temporarily shut down its main electric vehicle factory in Germany after the fighting disrupted the supply of parts made in western Ukraine.
Auto giants such as Stellantis, which owns Ram and Jeep, are lavishing cash on startups such as Factorial Energy, which has fewer than 100 employees in an office park in Woburn, near Boston.
Factorial executives, who have stopped returning calls from automakers offering bags of money, are developing a battery that can charge faster, hold more energy and be less likely to overheat than current batteries.
“Money can come and go,” said Siyu Huang, a co-founder at Factorial, who began experimenting with battery technology as a graduate student at Cornell University. “We want to deliver the safest battery and change the way people are living.”
Cheaper and more-durable batteries
The most immediate change coming is in the building blocks of batteries.
Most lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles rely on nickel, manganese and cobalt. But some automakers, including Tesla and Ford, are moving to use batteries in at least some vehicles that rely on lithium iron phosphate, which is popular in China.
These LFP batteries, as they are known, cannot store as much energy per pound, but they are much less expensive and last longer.
Tesla plans to offer LFP batteries in shorter-range, lower-priced electric vehicles. Ford is planning to use them in some trucks sold under its Ion Boost Pro brand for fleet owners.
“It could be delivery, it could be plumbers, electricians, landscapers that work in a fixed geographic zone,” said Thai-Tang, the Ford executive.
Ford is teaming up with SK Innovation of Korea to make its batteries, but it hopes to bring much of that manufacturing to the United States, Thai-Tang said. “That will reduce some of the geopolitical as well as just logistics cost challenges.”
New designs and ingredients
Ford’s new electric F-150 pickup truck, which has not gone on sale but already has 200,000 reservations, will rely on batteries with a higher percentage of energy-dense nickel, also made by SK Innovation.
Tesla in February said it had already built 1 million cells for its next-generation “4680” battery that it has started to use in its Model Y crossovers. CEO Elon Musk has said the battery will have 16% more range because of its distinctive honeycomb design. “It’s hard until it’s discovered, and then it’s simple,” he said in 2020.
GM claims that its Ultium battery cell needs 70% less cobalt than the cells used in the Chevrolet Bolt electric hatchback. The company has added aluminum to its battery. The GMC Hummer pickup, which GM recently started selling, is the first vehicle to have this battery.
GM, in partnership with South Korea’s LG Chem, is building a $2.3 billion battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio. It is one of at least 13 large battery factories under construction in the United States.
Batteries are already becoming important to auto branding — GM is running ads for Ultium batteries. It adds to the imperative that they ensure these batteries are reliable and safe. GM has had to recall the Bolt to fix a battery defect that can lead to fires.
Many automakers are eager to reduce their reliance on cobalt in part because it mostly comes from the Congo, where it is mined by Chinese-financed companies or by freelancers who sometimes employ children.
“It’s the potential violation of human rights, the child labor or the artisan miners who are digging under very difficult circumstances — that’s the major concern that we have,” said Markus Schäfer, a senior Mercedes executive responsible for research and development.
The auto industry is also concerned about nickel, because Russia is an important supplier of the metal.