More efficient batteries for electric cars are coming – The Post


More efficient batteries for electric cars are coming – The Post
Written by aquitodovale

Last week, the Japanese multinational Panasonic announced that it will invest $ 4 billion in a new battery factory for electric vehicles, which will be built in Kansas (United States) with the aim of supplying mainly the car company Tesla, one of its major customers. The plant will have a research center for the development of a new generation of batteries that recharge faster and last longer for the same size. Panasonic is just one of several companies working to develop these new systems, which could be ready for the market in a few years and considered essential for the transition from cars with heat engines to electric ones.

Batteries are the core element of electric cars and are also among their most expensive components. At current prices, which have also increased due to the raw materials crisis following the pandemic, they alone account for up to one third of the total cost of production. With rapidly expanding demand, automotive companies can rely on a limited amount of large battery suppliers, almost all of them Asian companies, and for this reason, in recent years, major companies in the sector such as Volkswagen, Ford and Stellantis have made huge investments to reduce their dependence on third parties and at the same time improve the efficiency of the batteries.

Those who can offer them that charge faster and with greater autonomy will have more advantages on the market, but the improvement of the batteries is not simple and collides with physical and sometimes economic limits that are not indifferent. The hundreds of companies and start-ups that in recent years, especially in the United States, have dedicated themselves to research and development of new solutions are well aware of this. Investment funds have injected billions of dollars into the sector, betting on the most promising companies and that with the right recipe for batteries could become very rich in a relatively short time, but the energy and financial market crisis of recent months has significantly complicated the things.

QuantumScape, one of the Californian companies that have received substantial funding in recent years, had a market value of around $ 54 billion when it went public in 2020, while today its value is around $ 4 billion. As the New York Times, financial difficulties have not slowed down the activities of the company, which is confident of starting the production of a new generation of batteries within a couple of years. More dense and efficient thanks to a new way in which the “cells”, the constituent elements, are organized and isolated from each other, QuantumScape batteries will first be tested by some automotive companies, who will later evaluate whether to adopt them on their vehicles.

Among the investors of the company are Volkswagen, a German company that intends to invest heavily in electric vehicles and in a short time, but also the co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, committed to financing technologies that can help mitigate the effects of global warming ( thermal engines are among the main causes of carbon dioxide emissions).

Beyond the investments in external companies, Volkswagen confirmed in early July that it intends to invest 20 billion euros to build electric vehicles, setting up Power Co, a subsidiary that will have to manage the procurement of raw materials and various production activities. The new company will also carry out research and development in the battery sector, which will then be built in the six new plants that Volkswagen plans to build in Europe by the end of 2030.

Among the numerous companies in the sector, QuantumScape is however considered among the most promising especially for a new technology developed to better isolate some battery components, using a new ceramic material whose recipe is naturally an industrial secret. It allows you to use a solid material instead of a liquid one to manage the passage of electric current between the positive and negative poles of the batteries. This solution, explored by numerous other manufacturers with various materials, makes the battery denser and consequently able to store more energy per kilogram than the systems currently used.

In some ways, QuantumScape is seen by industry experts as a dress rehearsal for the new generation of batteries for electric vehicles. The first production cycle will allow testing its reliability outside the laboratories, where it is not always possible to reproduce all the variables of the real world. Batteries are more or less efficient as the ambient temperature changes, for example, but other conditions such as high humidity and air composition can affect the performance of some of their components. Numerous charge and discharge cycles also affect cell life, reducing battery performance and reliability over time.

Many of the managers and engineers working in the sector, especially in the United States, have had previous experience within Tesla, the company of Elon Musk who first bet with great conviction on electric vehicles, encouraging competing car companies to develop alternative systems to traditional heat engines. The progressive crowding of startups, especially in the United States, has led in recent years many Tesla employees to leave Musk’s company, looking elsewhere for better-paid jobs and above all with attractive prospects on the research and development front.

Always the New York Times gives the example of Gene Berdichevsky, the CEO of Sila, a Californian company that designs systems for batteries of various types and not only for electric cars. Born in the then Soviet Union and moved to the United States at 9 with his parents, both engineers expert in nuclear submarines, Berdichevsky had graduated from Stanford, one of the most prestigious US universities, then joined Tesla becoming one of the protagonists of the development. batteries for the very first car models made by the company.

Berdichevsky left Tesla in 2008 and began working on a project that would later become Sila, his current company. Sila does not directly produce batteries, but sells a new material based on silicon powder that can significantly improve the efficiency of the batteries, without requiring large conversion works in existing plants and which mostly produce lithium-ion batteries.

The silicon powder developed by Sila (

Simplifying a lot (here a more extensive explanation), most of the current batteries work through the passage of lithium atoms inside the cells. The passage of current occurs because each atom is ionized (hence the name “lithium ions”), that is, positively charged, because it lacks an electron. During the charging phase, the lithium ions collect from one part of the battery (anode); when using the battery for example to power the motor, the ions move to the other side (cathode) making it possible to transfer energy. The process is of course much more complex than that and is made possible by the material that the anode, cathode and other components of the battery are made of.

Elementary model of a lithium-ion battery (© Johan Jarnestad / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

The anode is almost always made of graphite, but Sila has experimented with a way to replace it with silicon, which can hold more ions in a smaller space. The battery is therefore more efficient and lasts longer. Other companies have developed similar systems, facing numerous difficulties, starting with the tendency of silicon batteries to swell when charged, to the point of jeopardizing their stability. In some cases it took over ten years of research to find the right silicon powder recipe to reduce this effect.

Sila recently entered into a deal with Mercedes-Benz, which will use silicon in batteries starting in 2025, but only in a selection of high-end vehicles.

Other automotive companies such as Honda, Hyundai, General Motors and Chinese and Korean companies have invested in SES AI, a company established about a year ago that intends to produce batteries starting from some technologies developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. It has already opened a factory in Shanghai, China, where it began manufacturing the first prototype high-efficiency batteries. If the tests on the first models are successful, the company will begin supplying batteries to its partners starting in 2025.

In general, the sector is in full swing and according to analysts it will face some natural selection in the coming years, with many startups failing to bear the costs or failing to develop new solutions. Corporations funded by big auto makers are likely to have a better chance of holding on given the high demand and the growing push from governments to switch to electric motors.

Established manufacturers, such as Panasonic which sells millions of batteries every year, know that competition will become increasingly fierce and therefore invest heavily in research and development. In its new plant in Kansas, as in other laboratories, the Japanese company is finishing to perfect the new “4680” batteries, larger than the previous ones and above all with new measures to make them more efficient. Production will begin next year and Tesla will be a major beneficiary.

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