EV battery makers race to develop cheaper cell materials, bypassing China – Reuters.com | CarTailz

Nov 15 (Reuters) – US and European startups are racing to develop new batteries using two abundant, cheap materials – sodium and sulfur – that will reduce China’s battery dominance, alleviate looming supply shortages and lead to electric vehicles (EVs) for the could lead to mass market.

Today’s electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries – made primarily of lithium, cobalt, manganese and high-grade nickel – whose prices have skyrocketed. Western manufacturers are struggling to catch up with their Asian competitors, and automakers expect supply shortages in auto production by mid-decade.

The EVs of the future – those arriving after 2025 – could switch to sodium-ion or lithium-sulfur battery cells, which could be up to two-thirds cheaper than today’s lithium-ion cells.

But its promise hinges on potential breakthroughs in electrochemistry by startups like Berlin-based Theion and UK-based Farradion, and US-based Lyten.

Newer battery chemistries have problems that need to be overcome. Sodium-ion batteries don’t store enough energy yet, while sulfur cells tend to corrode quickly and don’t last long.

Still, more than a dozen startups have attracted millions of dollars in investments and government grants to develop new types of batteries.

Currently, China dominates battery production, including mining and refining of raw materials.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy, estimates that China currently has 75% of the world’s cobalt refining capacity and 59% of its lithium processing capacity.

“We’re still dependent on a material supply chain from China,” said James Quinn, chief executive of British sodium-ion battery startup Farradion, which received more than $1 million in government grants from Innovate UK before it was bought by the Indian conglomerate Reliance was bought ( RELI.NS) last year for $117 million. “If you look at the global geopolitical implications, this is a challenge for energy security, economic security and national security.”

Asian battery giants are also working on new chemistries. China’s CATL (300750.SZ) has announced that it will start producing sodium ion cells in 2023. Korea’s LG Energy Solution (373220.KS) aims to start manufacturing lithium-sulfur cells by 2025.

INSIDE THE BATTERY

The single most expensive element of an EV battery is the cathode, which accounts for up to a third of the cost of a battery cell.

Most EV batteries today use one of two types of cathodes: Nickel Cobalt Manganese (NCM) or Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP). NCM cathodes can store more energy but use expensive materials (nickel, cobalt). LFP cathodes don’t typically store as much energy, but are safer and tend to be less expensive because they use materials that are more common.

The cost of key cathode materials such as nickel and cobalt has skyrocketed over the past two years.

This is why so many companies hope to substitute cheaper and more common materials like sodium and sulfur if their technical limitations can be overcome.

“Sodium ions definitely have a place, especially for stationary storage and low-end vehicles in cost-sensitive markets like China, India, Africa and South America,” says consultant Prabhakar Patil, a former managing director of LG Chem.

“Lithium-sulfur’s launch cost is likely higher — although it has the potential to be the lowest cost — making consumer electronics the first application,” Patil said.

Michigan-based Amandarry and British startup AMTE Power (AMTE.L) are developing sodium-ion batteries using sodium chloride – basically table salt – as the main component of the cathode. You don’t need lithium, cobalt or nickel – the three most expensive battery components.

Jeff Pratt, chief executive of the UK Battery Industrialization Center – a £130million ($153million) government-funded factory that leases its production lines to startups to test battery chemistry – said he was trying to develop the cells of a sodium ion -Bringing startups into a battery-packed production schedule because it’s “strategically important” to Britain’s hopes of being at the forefront of developing new, better batteries.

The US companies Lyten and Conamix, Germany’s Theion and Norway’s Morrow are developing lithium-sulphur cathodes that still require small amounts of lithium, but no nickel or cobalt.

By using ubiquitous cathode materials — sulfur is commonly used in fertilizers and is therefore cheap as salt — these startups claim battery costs could be cut by as much as two-thirds, potentially making EVs affordable beyond the mid-range.

Current EV battery packs typically cost between $10,000 and $12,000.

“If we can achieve the goals we’ve identified with some of the world’s largest automakers, then we’ll be in the running,” said Charlotte Hamilton, CEO of Conamix.

ON ROAD

The battery startups say they are in talks with major automakers, some of which are actively testing new batteries that could appear in mass-market electric vehicles before the end of the decade. The car companies like to keep their options open.

“More (battery) chemistries will come out over time,” said Linda Zhang, chief engineer of Ford’s (FN) F150 Lightning electric pickup truck. “It would be foolish not to use these chemistries.”

At Tesla’s (TSLA.O) Battery Day 2020, CEO Elon Musk said that a “three-tiered approach” to lithium-ion batteries using different materials is needed to deliver “truly affordable” electric vehicles — primarily with iron-based LFP battery cells – to build larger, more powerful and more expensive EVs with nickel-based NCM or NCA cells with cobalt or aluminum cathode material.

Battery developers hope to include sodium-ion and lithium-sulfur batteries in the range open to the auto industry.

Duncan Williams, chief executive of consulting firm Nomura Greentech, said recent discoveries are closing the gap on issues like energy density and lifespan, “so we would expect these two alternatives to gain market share in the future.”

Michigan-based Amandarry already produces sodium ion cells at its Haining, China plant, making those cells ineligible for US Inflation Reduction Act incentives.

The company says it will also build a plant in North America.

Partner Amy Chen says Amandarry’s first transportation application will likely be electric two-wheelers.

Aside from a cost benefit, Chen says Amandarry’s batteries can be charged very quickly — 80% in 15 minutes.

AMTE Power CEO Kevin Brundish said the company is initially starting with batteries for stationary energy storage systems, such as those used by grid operators, where energy density is less important.

Farradion’s Quinn said the company’s batteries are also already competitive with LFP cells and it has formed an energy storage joint venture with agribusiness giant ICM Australia.

Quinn said that on a relatively small scale, Faradion’s batteries should be a third less expensive than iron-based LFP batteries.

He said Faradion has held talks with “almost every major automotive company”.

“Within the next three to five years you will see (our batteries) on the road.”

‘GLOB’

Sulfur is “bad, hard chemistry” to make batteries work, says Celina Mikolajczak, chief battery technical officer at California startup Lyten, which has attracted $47.5 million from investors, according to investment website PitchBook.

But she said it is “the chemistry of the future, the chemistry that will mass market batteries.”

Ulrich Ehmes, CEO of Theion – ancient Greek for sulfur – says the problem with sulfur is that it’s so corrosive it kills a battery after 30 charges.

But he said the Berlin-based company, backed by a handful of angels and private investors, had developed a method to treat and coat a lithium-sulfur electrode that should last it a lifetime.

Theion expects to begin shipping batteries later this year to power pumps in commercial rockets during launch. Ehmes said the company plans to start shipping test cells to vehicle manufacturers in 2024, with the first production EV applications expected around 2027.

Theion believes its lithium-sulfur cathodes could store three times more energy than standard NCM cells, charge ultra-fast, and reduce battery cell costs by two-thirds to about $34 per kilowatt-hour.

“It’s cheap, it has a high energy density, so it seems like a no-brainer,” Ehmes said.

Tony Harper, director of the Faraday Battery Challenge, the UK government’s program that invests in boosting new battery technologies, said the car industry is increasingly concerned about the supply of lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel, so new chemicals are vital .

“This will take the strain of a very, very difficult situation,” Harper said.

($1 = 0.8508 pounds)

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit and Nick Carey in London; Adaptation by Ben Klayman and Claudia Parsons

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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