For EV battery makers, it’s go small or go home

CAMBRIDGE, England, July 11 (Reuters) – In the race to go electric, carmakers have focused on mileage to ease consumer anxiety about charging infrastructure, but battery makers are already working on smaller, longer-lasting and more -cheap batteries of the future that also charge faster.

As carmakers today chase market leader Tesla Inc ( TSLA.O ) by striving to build cars that can go 300 miles (482 km) or more between charges, battery startups expect range to matter less as with public electric vehicle (EV) chargers becoming ubiquitous. In search of smaller batteries that charge extremely quickly, startups are experimenting with materials such as silicon carbon, tungsten and niobium.

The battery is the most expensive part of an EV, so true fast charging combined with widely available chargers – the lack of charging infrastructure today is seen as holding back the wider adoption of EVs – would allow carmakers to produce cars with more -small batteries at more affordable prices, but to boost profits by selling more vehicles to a wider audience.

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“Early adopters at the higher end of the market wanted bigger battery packs and longer range because they could afford it,” said Sai Shivareddy, CEO of Nyobolt, a startup developing niobium oxide anode materials for batteries that can be charged in minutes. “For more price sensitivity, you need smaller battery packs … but with the same experience as today (with fossil fuel cars) where you can charge in 5 minutes.”

China dominates global EV battery production and companies such as Contemporary Amperex Technology Co ( CATL ) ( 300750.SZ ) are developing batteries to go further on a single charge. Read more

Automakers in China have released small, low-cost EVs like the Wuling Hongguang Mini — which, even with the recent rise in battery prices, still sells for around $6,500. The car is a joint venture between SAIC Motor Corp Ltd ( 600104.SS ), General Motors Co ( GM.N ) and Wuling Motors ( 0305.HK ).

Western startups such as Cambridge-based Nyobolt and Echion Technologies or Woodinville, Washington-based Group14 Technologies are working on electrode materials to bring super-fast charging batteries to market.

According to startup data platform PitchBook, investment in battery technology for electric cars jumped more than sixfold to $9.4 billion in 2021 from $1.5 billion in 2020 as automakers focus on the future.

“We’re in the larval stage of battery development,” said Lincoln Merrihew, vice president of data analytics firm Pulse Labs.

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The move to small quantities could also ease looming bottlenecks in battery materials as demand for electric vehicles grows, while using less cobalt and nickel, where China dominates refining and processing.

Another benefit is that carmakers can claim sustainability wins by using less harmful materials in EVs and emitting less CO2 in their production.

“Redesigning the vehicle to minimize the size of the batteries, because it’s so expensive, is going to change the rules,” Ford Motor Co ( FN ) Chief Executive Jim Farley said at a conference in June. The American carmaker, he added, wants the “smallest battery possible for the competitive range” in its next generation of electric vehicles starting in 2026.

Others squeeze more efficiency out of existing batteries, as Mercedes-Benz ( MBGn.DE ) did with its 1,000-km (621-mile) range EQXX prototype. Read more

MORE AFFORDABLE EV

Fast charging today is limited by the ability of EV batteries to absorb energy quickly. Fast charging can shorten the life of batteries or overheat them, so most EVs limit the charging speed to protect them.

At Nyobolt’s headquarters, CEO Shivareddy charges four batteries in about three minutes and plugs them into a robotic vacuum that diligently cleans the floor behind him as he talks.

Niobium is a stable metal that is often used to strengthen steel – the largest deposits in the world are in Brazil and Canada. Used in anodes or cathodes, startups like Nyobolt and Echion say niobium can handle super-fast charging while lasting many years longer than today’s batteries.

Nyobolt is focused on high-performance racing electric cars, and Shivareddy said it will take years of validation before automakers are ready to use its batteries in mass-market models.

A few miles from Nyobolt, Echion’s niobium anodes were originally designed for commercial electric vehicles such as mining vehicles that run continuously and will need quick charging.

CEO Jean de La Verpilliere said Echion’s goal is to have the batteries ready for passenger EVs by 2025.

“Smaller batteries mean lower prices and therefore more people can afford EVs,” he said.

Brazilian mining company CBMM dominates niobium production and has invested in Echion and other startups and is testing niobium with others including battery materials company Nano One ( NANO.TO ), Toshiba ( 6502.T ) and Volkswagen Caminhoes e Onibus, a Brazilian subsidiary Volkswagen company (VOWG_p.DE) cargo unit Traton (8TRA.DE).

Rogerio Marques Ribas, head of CBMM’s battery program, said that although the energy density of niobium can be up to 20% lower than some current batteries, “we can bring maybe three to ten times more life and more safety , while charging in minutes’.

“Raw materials will be an obstacle for batteries,” Ribas added. “In the near future, people will ask why they need a big battery pack?”

“THE MARKET DECIDES THE VOLUME”

Niobium isn’t the only material startups are exploring.

Group14 Technologies produces a silicon-carbon anode material that allows lithium-ion batteries to hold up to 50% more energy. The company raised $400 million from investors in May. Read more

Testing the Group14 material, Mercedes-backed battery manufacturer StoreDot charged the batteries to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. Group14 CEO Rick Lube said its anode material could offer fast EV charging in five minutes.

“When I can charge my battery in five or 10 minutes … then it doesn’t really matter much what that range is, whether it’s 150 miles or 300 miles,” Lube said.

Michigan-based startup Our Next Energy (ONE) developed its Gemini dual-chemistry battery, featuring a standard lithium iron phosphate (LFP) traction battery with a second range-extender battery, using more advanced and expensive chemistries that provide low, mid and high range options.

“The market ultimately determines the right level of reach,” said CEO Mujeeb Ijaz.

According to industry data, the average American car is driven less than 30 miles per day. In Europe, the average is less than half that.

Isobel Sheldon, chief strategy officer of British battery company Britishvolt ( IPO-BRI.L ), said that when EV owners realize they are paying for more than they need, the market will demand less mileage.

“As the market develops, people will start asking why I’m paying thousands … for a battery I’ll never use,” she said. “Most cars are used for driving to the shops, visiting friends or taking children to school, not driving to Monaco.”

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Reporting by Nick Carey in Cambridge, England, and Paul Lienert in Detroit Editing by Ben Clayman and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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