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Byd's cell-to-pack Blade battery, clashing with the typical boxy or cylindrical cell shape. Photo: Kyodo/AP

The Electric: China Engineers a Lead on an Important Battery Technology

Photo: Byd's cell-to-pack Blade battery, clashing with the typical boxy or cylindrical cell shape. Photo: Kyodo/AP

Welcome back to The Electric! 

For years lithium-iron-phosphate was a has-been battery—once heralded by automakers but then left behind by nickel-based chemistries that delivered greater electric vehicle range. Then Chinese companies figured out how to pack LFP densely into cells, and the iron-based chemistry staged a comeback. This week, we dive deeply into cell-to-pack battery design, an important battery technology that’s widely overlooked outside China. 

Over the past dozen years, researchers in corporate and academic labs have vastly improved electric vehicle batteries, boosting the range they deliver, lowering their price and ushering in the promise of a slew of mid-priced EVs within this decade. But their effort hasn’t been enough to stave off an industry crisis: While everyone was focused on the price of batteries, they ignored the supply and cost of the metals required to make them work. The result is a stark shortfall of battery metals such as lithium and nickel, and soaring costs, setting up a likely decadelong EV shortage.

Today, two innovations in China are addressing the crisis—and leaving most of the rest of the world behind. One alters the battery’s chemistry, using abundant iron and phosphate in place of scarce and expensive cobalt and nickel. The other changes the battery’s structure to so-called cell-to-pack architecture, which eliminates many of the modules and other components inside, allowing battery makers to cram more energy into the same space. 

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