August 10, 2022

Advanced EV batteries move from labs to mass production

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For years, scientists at Boston’s Silicon Valley Laboratories searched for an elusive potion of chemicals, minerals and metals that would allow electric vehicles to charge in minutes and travel hundreds of miles. miles between charges, all at a much lower cost than currently available batteries.

Today, some of these scientists and the companies they founded are approaching an important milestone. They are building factories to produce next-generation battery cells, allowing automakers to start testing the technologies on the road and determining if they are safe and reliable.

Factory operations are mostly on a limited scale, designed to perfect manufacturing techniques. It will be several years before cars with high-performance batteries appear in showrooms, and even longer before batteries are available in mid-priced cars. But the start of assembly line production offers the tantalizing prospect of an electric mobility revolution.

If the technologies can be mass-produced, electric vehicles could compete with fossil-fuel vehicles for convenience and undercut them on price. Harmful emissions from car traffic could be significantly reduced. Tech inventors could easily become billionaires, if they haven’t already.

For the dozens of fledgling companies working on new types of batteries and battery materials, the emergence of cloistered labs in harsh real-world conditions is a moment of truth.

Producing battery cells by the millions in a factory is much more difficult than producing a few hundred in a clean room, a space designed to minimize contaminants.

“Just because you have a material that’s allowed to work doesn’t mean you can make it work,” said Jagdeep Singh, founder and chief executive of QuantumScape, a battery manufacturer in San Jose, Calif. heart of Silicon Valley. “You have to figure out how to make it in a defect-free way and with high enough uniformity.”

Adding to the risk, the fall in tech stocks has stripped billions of dollars of value from publicly traded battery companies. It won’t be as easy for them to raise the funds they need to build manufacturing operations and pay their staff. Most have little or no income because they haven’t started selling a product yet.

QuantumScape was worth $54 billion on the stock market shortly after its 2020 IPO. It was recently worth around $4 billion.

That hasn’t stopped the company from moving forward with a plant in San Jose which, by 2024, if all goes well, will be able to eradicate hundreds of thousands of cells allowing cars to recharge in less than 10 minutes. Automakers will use factory output to test whether batteries can withstand rough roads, cold spells, heat waves and car washes.

Automakers will also want to know if batteries can be recharged hundreds of times without losing their ability to store electricity, if they can survive a crash without igniting, and if they can be manufactured cheaply.

It is not certain that all new technologies keep the promises of their inventors. Shorter charge times and longer range can come at the expense of battery life, said David Deak, a former Tesla executive who is now a battery materials consultant. “Most of these new material concepts bring huge performance metrics but compromise something else,” Deak said.

Yet with the backing of Volkswagen, Bill Gates and a who’s who of Silicon Valley figures, QuantumScape illustrates just how much trust and money has been placed in companies that claim to be able to answer all these requirements.

Mr. Singh, who previously started a company that made telecommunications equipment, founded QuantumScape in 2010 after buying a Roadster, Tesla’s first production vehicle. Despite the Roadster’s notorious unreliability, Mr. Singh became convinced that electric cars were the future.

“It was enough to give a glimpse of what could be,” he said. The key, he realized, was a battery that could store more energy, and “the only way to do that is to research a new chemistry, a chemical breakthrough.”

Singh teamed up with Stanford University professor Fritz Prinz and Stanford researcher Tim Holme. John Doerr, famous for being among the first investors in Google and Amazon, provided seed money. JB Straubel, co-founder of Tesla, was another early supporter and serves on the board of QuantumScape.

After years of experimentation, QuantumScape has developed a ceramic material – its exact composition is a secret – that separates the positive and negative ends of batteries, allowing ions to flow back and forth while preventing short circuits. The technology substitutes a solid material for the liquid electrolyte that carries energy between the positive and negative poles of a battery, allowing it to store more energy per pound.

“We spent about the first five years looking for a material that might work,” Singh said. “And after we thought we’d found one, we spent about five years working on how to make it the right way.”

Although technically a “pre-pilot” assembly line, the QuantumScape factory in San Jose is almost as big as four football fields. Recently, rows of empty cubicles with black swivel chairs awaited new employees, and machinery sat on pallets ready to be installed.

At labs in Silicon Valley and beyond, dozens, if not hundreds, of other entrepreneurs are pursuing a similar technological goal, building on the connection between venture capital and academic research that has fueled the growth of semiconductor and software industries.

Another prominent name is SES AI, founded in 2012 based on technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SES is backed by General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, Chinese automakers Geely and SAIC, and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation. In March, SES, based in Woburn, Mass., opened a factory in Shanghai that produces prototype cells. The company plans to start supplying automakers in large volumes in 2025.

Shares of SES also plunged, but Qichao Hu, chief executive and co-founder, said he was not worried. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “When the market is bad, only the good survive. This will help the industry reset.

SES and other battery companies say they have solved the fundamental scientific hurdles needed to make cells that will be safer, cheaper and more powerful. Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to produce them by the millions.

“We believe the remaining challenges are technical in nature,” said Doug Campbell, general manager of Solid Power, a battery manufacturer backed by Ford Motor and BMW. Solid Power, based in Louisville, Colorado, said in June it had installed a pilot production line that would begin supplying cells for testing to automotive partners by the end of the year.

Indirectly, Tesla spawned many Silicon Valley start-ups. The company nurtured a generation of battery experts, many of whom left and went to work for other companies.

Gene Berdichevsky, CEO and co-founder of Sila in Alameda, Calif., is a Tesla veteran. Mr. Berdichevsky was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States with his parents, both electrical engineers on nuclear submarines, when he was 9 years old. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Stanford, then became Tesla’s seventh employee, where he helped develop the Roadster’s battery.

Tesla effectively created the electric vehicle battery industry by proving people would buy electric vehicles and forcing traditional automakers to reckon with the technology, Berdichevsky said. “That’s what’s going to make the world electric,” he said, “everyone is competing to make a better electric car.”

Sila belongs to a group of start-ups that have developed materials that dramatically improve the performance of existing battery designs, increasing range by 20% or more. Others include Group14 Technologies in Woodinville, Washington, near Seattle, which is backed by Porsche, and OneD Battery Sciences in Palo Alto, California.

All three have found ways to use silicon to store electricity inside batteries, rather than the graphite that is prevalent in existing designs. Silicon can hold much more energy per pound than graphite, allowing batteries to be lighter and cheaper and to charge faster. Silicon would also reduce US reliance on refined graphite in China.

The downside of silicon is that it swells up to three times its size when charged, which can stress the components so much that the battery would fail. People like Yimin Zhu, OneD’s chief technology officer, have spent a decade baking different mixtures in labs packed with equipment, looking for ways to overcome this problem.

Today, Sila, OneD, and Group14 are in various stages of ramping up production at sites in Washington State.

In May, Sila announced an agreement to supply its silicone material to Mercedes-Benz from a plant in Moses Lake, Washington. Mercedes plans to use the material in luxury sport utility vehicles from 2025.

Porsche has announced plans to use Group14’s silicone material by 2024, but in a limited number of vehicles. Group14 chief executive Rick Luebbe said a major manufacturer would roll out the company’s technology – which he said would allow a car to charge in 10 minutes – next year.

“At this stage, all the advantages of electric vehicles are accessible without any disadvantages,” Mr. Luebbe said.

The demand for batteries is so strong that there is plenty of room for several companies to succeed. But with dozens, if not hundreds, of other companies chasing a slice of a market that will be worth $1 trillion once all new cars are electric, there are bound to be failures.

“With every new transformational industry, you start with a lot of players and it gets smaller,” Luebbe said. “We will see that here.”