Event alert: Please RSVP here for “The New Iron Age,” the inaugural monthly Live Chat with The Electric. On Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, I will speak with Yet-Ming Chiang, co-founder of some of the most important battery startups of the last dozen years, including A123 Systems, 24M and Form Energy—companies working directly on the subjects we’ve discussed the last five weeks. There will be time for live questions, so be sure to join me.
The Million-Mile Battery Is Really Here. It Will Change Everything
Two years ago, a sensation arose around the notion of a “million-mile battery,” an extraordinarily durable lithium-ion battery that could last decades while powering an electric vehicle over long distances and costing more or less the same as an ordinary battery. The commotion, triggered by a paper co-written by Jeff Dahn, a Dalhousie University professor and lead battery scientist for Tesla, gained more traction when Tesla and General Motors later said they were on the verge of actually producing such a battery. But it soon died away, and only Chinese battery and EV maker BYD seemed to have put a vehicle with that kind of range on the road.
It turns out, though, that leading researchers and EV companies have continued to develop batteries that last 1 million miles or longer. In China, BYD and Contemporary Amperex Technology, another battery giant, are each advertising an EV battery life of 750,000 to 1 million miles, equivalent to five to seven decades of average driving. In the West, a GM spokesman told me that the company’s Ultium battery, which will launch later this year in the electric Hummer, will last a million miles too. At Dalhousie, Dahn’s own test battery has now lasted 3 million miles, stretching the outer boundaries of the benchmark he set for long-life batteries. And Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, a silicon anode company, said he expects to ship a 30-year battery by the end of the decade.
“It’s a ‘forever battery,’” Berdichevsky told me. “Thirty years might as well be forever.”
Today, though many battery professionals still inexplicably consider it a fringe idea, the million-mile battery seems likely to become a commercial standard by later this decade, powering EVs and storing solar power for remarkable expanses of time. This durability is likely to roil multiple industries:
· Oil and gas: The downward spiral of fossil fuels for passenger vehicles and power-plant fuel would accelerate as batteries overcome prior assumptions about their inferiority compared with energy-dense oil and natural gas.
· Mining: Less of the world’s scarcer battery metals and minerals would be needed, screwing up the forecasts upon which billions of dollars of current mining and refining investment are based.
· Autos: Employment in the industry, already set to shrink in an increasingly electric era, will be further squeezed because the fleet will turn over much more slowly.
· Recycling: In a long-life EV world, the newly created industry of battery metal recycling will be less in demand than anticipated. Recyclers would likely be forced to turn to less lucrative mobile devices, power tools and scooters.
Researchers describe long-life batteries as enlarging the understood contours of personal transportation: If a battery barely degrades, you easily end up in a world of a “community battery,” in which EVs are plugged into the grid when parked, supply power during peak demand surges and store the excess when demand is low. Motorists would potentially suffer much less range anxiety because such long-life batteries would also charge relatively fast. Batteries could become a lifetime purchase, bought for one EV, taken with you when you switch to a new model, and so on as you—but not the battery—age.
In the first two issues of The Electric, I wrote of how China came to dominate the battery race: While American researchers and labs have invented every major lithium-ion formulation in use, American industry has failed to commercialize any of them. Instead, Chinese and other Asian companies have done so. In 2009 or so, China went on to establish a policy objective of building up its lithium-ion and EV industries, and it has spent the subsequent decade executing on that plan.
But I also identified an unexpected market opening for non-Chinese auto and battery makers: With its escalating crackdown on homegrown tech startups, China has created a moment of comparative market flux. Western companies could move through this breach and capture important patches of the battery industry—and that includes the development of long-life batteries, led by Dahn.
The quest for long-life batteries is not new. In the late 1990s, a French battery scientist named Michel Broussely would attend battery conferences and regale community members with his pioneering tales of testing long-life batteries for French battery company Saft. In a much-read 2001 paper, Broussely showed that a lithium-ion battery in his lab lasted more than 13 years while tested at room temperature.
In a 2011 paper, Karim Zaghib, former chief technology officer for Hydro-Québec, a major Canadian power company and another pioneer of long-life batteries, described a battery combining cheap lithium-iron-phosphate and a lithium-titanate-oxide anode that could be recharged 30,000 times. That would be equivalent to some four centuries of driving.
But neither of those batteries went beyond the hypothetical in terms of ever going into an actual EV. In an interview last week, for instance, Zaghib said the use for the battery he described in his paper would have been quite limited—for instance, for buses traveling extremely short routes of 12 miles or so before needing a fast recharge.
It was Dahn’s 2019 paper, coming after the battery industry had made considerable advances from those early days, that described something with true commercial practicality. In an academic talk he delivered in June of this year, Dahn explained his fixation on long-life batteries as a hope to “save the planet.” EV battery makers normally attempt to develop a battery that can be recharged about 1,000 times, lasting roughly 300,000 miles—twice the life of a typical passenger vehicle. After that, the battery can be recycled.
Dahn wants to create batteries that never go to the recycling bin. Among other second-life purposes, they would move to another vehicle, serve as backup power in factories and homes, or function in vehicle-to-grid services, which store and provide power during periods of peak demand for electric utilities. Such an approach could sharply reduce the mining of battery metals and minerals, since the entire battery, and not just a few recycled metals, would remain in use. “I don’t believe [1,000-cycle batteries are] in the best interest of the planet,” Dahn told the online audience.
To get there, Dahn described pairing a “very good” artificial graphite anode with a workhorse nickel-manganese-cobalt battery, called NMC532. He put much focus on additives to the electrolyte, the liquid separating the two electrodes, which would use chemicals such as methyl acetate to allow the battery to charge fast while not damaging it. He also described the use of large single crystals for the cathode rather than the usual smaller polycrystalline particles—single crystals, he said, are much less prone to microcracking, a scourge of longevity. Microcracking results from the swelling and contraction of the electrodes as lithium ions shuttle in and out of them. Single crystals, however, are comparatively robust and resist this fracturing.
Dahn’s Dalhousie lab reports that it has now cycled its experimental battery cell 13,000 times, which would allow a vehicle to travel 3.2 million to 3.7 million miles, depending on how many miles were driven per year, while retaining an astonishing 93% of its initial capacity. But that’s only if the battery stays in room temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). At more punishing but realistic temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), Dahn’s cells have performed less well but still stoutly: lasting 6,500 cycles and retaining more than 80% of their initial capacity.
Two years ago, Tesla patented Dahn’s million-mile battery and CEO Elon Musk said he would deploy the long-life battery in 2020. That year has come and gone without Musk executing on these plans. He didn’t address the million-mile battery, for instance, during Tesla Battery Day last September.
It is actually far less surprising that CATL and BYD have debuted million-mile batteries because they are using LFP, which typically has a far longer life than NMC. Still, the numbers the two companies report are impressive: BYD advertises more than 300 miles per charge and 750,000 miles of life in its Dolphin model, which contains the Blade battery I have written about previously. In a tweet on Thursday, prominent Chinese blogger Moneyball @DKurac reported that BYD will begin to supply the Blade to Tesla in the second quarter of next year. Tesla already uses LFP batteries made by CATL, which claims to have a 4 million–mile battery in production.
I have found that people in the U.S. and European battery and auto industries tend to distrust Chinese battery-performance metrics, and so it is with the aforementioned million-mile batteries. Berdichevsky, the Sila Nano CEO, for instance, questioned whether the Chinese technology had been subjected to rigorous real-life conditions such as severe cold and heat.
What’s clear is that it’s only a matter of time before roads in China, the U.S. and Europe are replete with million-mile BYD, Tesla and GM models. As of now, this future is approaching under the radar: GM, habitually slow to crow when it has had the upper hand in the electric age, notably hasn’t advertised that its Ultium battery will last a million miles, and most U.S. and European automakers and battery makers haven’t publicly recognized the Ultium, CATL and BYD batteries. That attitude could come back to haunt them as the decade unfolds if, as is probable, the advertised numbers are substantially accurate, long-life batteries gain public favor and the laggards have to catch up quickly.
The majority of U.S. and European automakers are moving with torpid timidity when it comes to grabbing the commanding heights of batteries, in this case appearing to leave million-mile commercialization largely to Asian companies and a couple of Western rivals. American auto and battery companies appear to be depending more on aggressive federal policy, such as the government funding for EV-charging stations, battery factories and consumer rebates proposed last week by President Joe Biden, than on their own technological chops. It’s why the smart EV and battery money is betting on China and just one or a handful of non-Chinese automakers.
An exclusive premium service covering the nascent battery and electric vehicle revolutions.
Steve LeVine is editor of The Electric. Previously, he worked at Axios, Quartz and Medium, and before that The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is the author of The Powerhouse: America, China and the Great Battery War, and is on Twitter @stevelevine