Advanced batteries move from labs to mass production

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For years, scientists in labs from Silicon Valley to Boston have been searching for an elusive potion of chemicals, minerals and metals that would allow electric vehicles to recharge in minutes and travel hundreds of miles between charges, all for a cost. much lower than the batteries available now.

Now some of those scientists and the companies they founded are nearing a milestone. They are building factories to produce next-generation battery cells, allowing automakers to begin testing technologies on the road and determining whether they are safe and reliable.

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

If the technologies can be mass-produced, electric vehicles could compete with fossil fuel-powered vehicles for convenience and drive them down in price. Harmful emissions from car traffic could be substantially reduced. The inventors of the technologies could easily become billionaires, if they aren’t already.

For the dozens of start-ups working on new types of batteries and battery materials, stepping out of cloistered labs into harsh real-world conditions is the moment of truth.

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

“Just because you have a material that has the right to work doesn’t mean you can make it work,” said Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of QuantumScape, a battery manufacturer in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. “You have to figure out how to make it in a way that is defect-free and has high enough uniformity.”

Adding to the risk, the slump in tech stocks has stripped billions of dollars worth of value from publicly traded battery companies. It won’t be so easy for them to raise the cash 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 it went public in 2020. It was recently worth around $4 billion.

That hasn’t stopped the company from going ahead with a factory in San Jose that by 2024, if all goes well, will be able to wipe out hundreds of thousands of cells that will allow cars to recharge in less than 10 minutes. Automakers will use factory output to test whether batteries can withstand rough roads, cold snaps, 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 bursting into flames, and if they can be manufactured cheaply.

It is not certain that all new technologies live up to the promises of their inventors. The shorter charge times and longer range may come at the expense of battery life, said David Deak, a former Tesla executive who is now a consultant on battery materials. “Most of these new material concepts deliver huge performance metrics, but compromise something else,” said Mr. Deak.

Still, backed by Volkswagen, Bill Gates and Silicon Valley who’s who figures, QuantumScape illustrates how much faith and money has been placed in companies that claim to be able to meet all those requirements.

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

“It was enough to give an idea of ​​what it could be,” he said. He realized that the key was a battery capable of storing more energy, and “the only way to do that is to find a new chemistry, a breakthrough in chemistry.”

Mr. Singh teamed up with Fritz Prinz, a professor at Stanford University, and Tim Holme, a researcher at Stanford. John Doerr, famous for being among the earliest investors in Google and Amazon, provided the seed capital. JB Straubel, co-founder of Tesla, was another early supporter and is a board member of QuantumScape.

After years of experimentation, QuantumScape developed a ceramic material (its exact composition is a secret) that separates the positive and negative ends of batteries, allowing electrons to flow back and forth preventing short circuits. The technology makes it possible to substitute a solid material for the liquid electrolyte that carries energy between the positive and negative poles of a battery, allowing you to pack more energy per pound.

“We spent the first five years looking for a material that might work,” Singh said. “And after we thought we had found one, we spent another five years or so working out how to make it the right way.”

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

In Silicon Valley labs and elsewhere, dozens, if not hundreds, of other entrepreneurs have been pursuing a similar technological goal, tapping into the nexus of venture capital and university research that fueled the growth of the software and semiconductor industries.

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

SES shares have also slumped, 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 ones will survive. It will help the industry restart.”

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

“We are confident that the remaining challenges are engineering in nature,” said Doug Campbell, chief executive officer of Solid Power, a Ford Motor and BMW-backed battery maker. Louisville, Colorado-based Solid Power said in June that it had installed a pilot production line that would begin supplying cells for testing purposes to its automotive partners by the end of the year.

Indirectly, Tesla has spawned many of Silicon Valley’s startups. The company trained 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, California, is a Tesla veteran. Mr. Berdichevsky was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States with his parents, both nuclear physicists, when he was 9 years old. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, then became the seventh employee at Tesla, where he helped develop the Roadster Battery.

Tesla effectively created the electric vehicle battery industry by showing that people would buy electric vehicles and forcing traditional automakers to take the technology into account, Berdichevsky said. “That’s what’s going to make the world go electric,” he said, “everyone racing to make a better electric car.”

Sila belongs to a group of startups that have developed materials that substantially improve the performance of existing battery designs, increasing range by 20 percent 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, instead of the graphite that is prevalent in existing designs. Silicon can hold much more energy per pound than graphite, allowing batteries to be lighter, cheaper, and charge faster. Silicon would also alleviate US dependence on China’s refined graphite.

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

Now 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 silicon material to Mercedes-Benz from a factory in Moses Lake, Washington. Mercedes plans to use the material in luxury sport utility vehicles starting in 2025.

Porsche has announced plans to use Group14’s silicone material by 2024, albeit in a limited number of vehicles. Rick Luebbe, chief executive of Group14, said a major automaker would implement the company’s technology, which he said would allow a car to be recharged in 10 minutes, next year.

“At that point, all the benefits of electric vehicles are accessible without any drawbacks,” Luebbe said.

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

“With every new transformative industry, you start with a lot of players and it whittles down,” Luebbe said. “We’ll see that here.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.