The Race to Develop a New EV Battery is Underway


U.S. manufacturers are moving ahead with creating new battery technologies for electric vehicles thanks to government mandates and incentives. The holy grail is a battery that uses no "conflict" minerals from abroad, is safer, cheaper, and has a greater driving range.

The Tesla was the first widely available lithium-ion-powered car to enter the market in 2008. Due to lithium's higher energy density, li-ion batteries can hold a third more watt-hours per kilogram than Ni-MH batteries, resulting in a longer lifespan and lighter weight.

However, the lithium battery still has significant flaws. It is dependent on imported crucial minerals like lithium, cobalt, copper, graphite, and nickel that are extracted by drilling into mountains or filling ponds with scarce groundwater from the desert and then waiting for the water to evaporate so that the mineral is left behind.

More than 70% of the world's cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, frequently using child labor under hazardous working circumstances. Other minerals originate from nations with which the United States would prefer to sever economic ties, such as China, which provides nearly all of the graphite used in EV batteries globally, and Russia, which provides 20% of the world's diminishing supplies of nickel.

Only electric vehicles (EVs) with 80 percent of their minerals coming from the United States or its allies will be eligible for the entire tax credit by 2029.

By 2030, according to market analysts, the quantity of lithium will no longer meet the demand.

A battery that uses less cobalt and more nickel, manganese, and aluminum is already in commercial production. Several companies are working on solid-state batteries, which don't use potentially flammable liquids. Plans for gigafactories devoted to battery manufacturing in the U.S. abound. Batteries that replace so-called conflict minerals with domestic minerals have advanced beyond research and development into their testing phases.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, two new federal laws, are anticipated to advance the sector. Since the end of 2009, the United States has given buyers of the majority of new EVs a $7500 tax credit; however, beginning in 2023, the IRA links that tax credit to specific requirements for the sourcing of essential minerals and the production of batteries. By 2029, only EVs with 100 percent North American-manufactured or -assembled components and 80 percent of their minerals coming from the U.S. or its allies will be eligible for the entire credit.

Panasonic Energy, headquartered in Nevada, declared last month that it would begin producing electric vehicle batteries from recycled nickel in that state in 2025.

Ford and Mercedes-Benz are exploring solid-state technology through partnerships with battery makers.

In comparison, solid-state batteries use no electrolyte at all and instead use a polymer or ceramic that performs the same function without the danger of flammability posed by organic solvents. Cars fueled by gasoline catch fire more frequently and more easily than EVs equipped with li-ion batteries. However, li-ion batteries are particularly susceptible to a condition known as "thermal runaway," in which a smoldering cell cannot expel heat as quickly as it produces it. Firefighters in Florida discovered this the hard way when saltwater-soaked Teslas took fire after Hurricane Ian's storm surge. Chemical fires require a ton of water to put out, up to 40 times as much as gasoline fires.

Factorial Energy anticipates launching solid-state lighting at its upcoming Methuen, Massachusetts, plant.

Between 2028 and 2030, EV cells will be available.

Ahmad Pesaran, chief energy storage engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, says that liquid electrolytes are used in most batteries for good cause. To keep contact between the anode and cathode, a fluid can flow into any open spaces. However, "you have to have really good surfaces that can merge together" for a solid electrolyte to function, according to Pesaran. A difficult task for the brittle ceramics used in some solid-state applications, the materials also need to resist pressure without cracking.

Instead of debating cutting-edge technologies, GM's Maten advises focusing on which materials can store the most energy for the least amount of money and that can be obtained without destroying Indonesian coastal communities for a nickel or depending on totalitarian governments. Although lithium-ion battery costs fluctuate, they are currently around $150 per kilowatt-hour. Although some manufacturers are aiming for $60 per kilowatt-hour, that price must decrease to at least $100 per kilowatt-hour to achieve cost parity with gasoline-powered engines. There are numerous routes to take, but no one is certain of the timing. All of this is still very much in an experimental environment, according to Maten.

The DOE announced $2.8 billion in grants for 20 various businesses in October with the goal of boosting American production and processing of vital minerals. In January, additional money for selected projects will be disclosed. In a video targeted at researchers and manufacturers, Jigar Shah, head of the DOE's loan programs office, stated that the IRA increased the agency's loan authority by $40 billion to support the Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Program. The program's main objective, according to him, is to onshore and reshore the automobile industry's supply chain as this nation works to reduce its carbon footprint. On December 12, Ultium Cells, a partnership between GM and LG Energy Solution, received a $2.5 billion credit from the DOE that will produce
low-cobalt batteries at three U.S. facilities.

It's crucial to remember that merely creating an electric vehicle supply chain within the United States and its allies does not make it sustainable, at least not in terms of the environment and general well-being.

Although officially a friendly country toward the United States, lithium mining in the Atacama Desert threatens groundwater and drains lagoons that are vital to the local population and wildlife. 89 percent of copper reserves and 97 percent of nickel reserves in the United States are both within 35 miles of Native American towns.

Environmental justice advocates are concerned about potential negative effects even in Southern California's Imperial Valley, where lithium extraction — from the brine already pumped into 11 geothermal power plants — has been heralded as a potential economic boon to a struggling agricultural community.

The California Energy Commission, which has already spent $16.5 million on the resource's development, believes that the Imperial Valley initiative, which it refers to as "Lithium Valley," may be able to meet up to 40% of global lithium demand. Consequently, lithium production is expected to continue indefinitely.

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