What’s next for batteries

What’s next for batteries

The transition will require many batteries, but better and more affordable ones.

Most EVs today use lithium-ion batteries. This technology is a decades-old one that’s also used in cell phones and laptops. EVs can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge and are now cheaper than gas-powered cars after years of development. New applications for lithium-ion batteries include electricity storage on the grid, which can help balance intermittent renewable power sources such as wind and solar.

But there are still many areas for improvement. Companies and academic labs are looking for ways to improve technology, such as increasing capacity, speeding up charging times, and cutting down on costs. The goal is to make EVs more efficient by using cheaper batteries that can be stored on the grid.

At the same time, supply concerns for key battery materials like cobalt or lithium are driving a search to find alternatives to the lithium-ion chemistry.

In the midst of a rising demand for EVs, renewable power, and an explosion in battery technology, one thing is certain: Batteries will play a crucial role in the transition towards renewable energy. Here’s what to expect in 2023.

A radical rethink

Some dramatically different approaches to EV batteries could see progress in 2023, though they will likely take longer to make a commercial impact.

One area to watch this year is the so-called solid state batteries. Lithium-ion and related chemistries use liquid electrolytes that move charge around. Solid-state batteries replace this liquid by ceramics or other solid material.

This swap opens up possibilities to pack more energy into a smaller area, potentially increasing the range of electric cars. Solid-state batteries can also move charge faster, which could mean shorter charging times. Solid-state batteries are also safer because they reduce the risk of fire from solvents.

Solid-state batteries can use a wide range of chemistries, but a leading candidate for commercialization uses lithium metal. Quantumscape, for one, is focused on that technology and raised hundreds of millions in funding before going public in 2020. The company has a deal with Volkswagen that could put its batteries in cars by 2025.

But completely reinventing batteries has been difficult. Lithium-metal batteries have faced concerns about their durability over time as well as manufacturing difficulties. Quantumscape announced in late December it had delivered samples to automotive partners for testing, a significant milestone on the road to getting solid-state batteries into cars. Other solid-state-battery players, like Solid Power, are also working to build and test their batteries. But while they could reach major milestones this year as well, their batteries won’t make it into vehicles on the road in 2023.

Solid-state batteries are not the only technology to be on guard. Sodium-ion batteries are also an interesting alternative to the lithium-ion chemistries of today. These batteries are similar to lithium-ion batteries but use sodium instead of lithium as their main chemical ingredient. Chinese battery giant CATL reportedly plans to begin mass-producing them in 2023.

Sodium-ion batteries may not have better performance, but they could reduce costs as they are cheaper and more readily available than lithium-ion chemistries. But it’s not clear whether these batteries will be able to meet needs for EV range and charging time, which is why several companies going after the technology, like US-based Natron, are targeting less demanding applications to start, like stationary storage or micromobility devices such as e-bikes and scooters.

Today, the market for batteries aimed at stationary grid storage is small–about one-tenth the size of the market for EV batteries, according to Yayoi Sekine, head of energy storage at energy research firm BloombergNEF. However, demand for electricity storage is increasing as more renewable power sources are installed. Because major renewable power sources such as wind and solar are unpredictable, batteries can help store it for when it’s needed.

Lithiumion batteries aren’t the best for stationary storage, even though these batteries are often used for it. Although batteries for EVs are becoming smaller, lighter and more efficient, stationary storage’s primary goal is to reduce costs. Grid storage is not as important as size and weight, so different chemistries are likely to win.

One rising star in stationary storage is iron, and two players could see progress in the coming year. Form Energy is developing an iron-air battery that uses a water-based electrolyte and basically stores energy using reversible rusting. The company recently announced a $760 million manufacturing facility in Weirton, West Virginia, scheduled to begin construction in 2023. Another company, ESS, is building a different type of iron battery that employs similar chemistry; it has begun manufacturing at its headquarters in Wilsonville, Oregon.

Shifts within the standard

Lithium-ion batteries keep getting better and cheaper, but researchers are tweaking the technology further to eke out greater performance and lower costs.

Some of the motivation comes from the price volatility of battery materials, which could drive companies to change chemistries. Sekine states, “It’s cost-driven.”

Cathodes, which are the most expensive part of an EV battery, are a type called NMC (nickel-manganese cobalt). These three elements, along with lithium, are very expensive so it is possible to reduce costs by removing some or all of them. This year could be a breakthrough year for one alternative: lithium ferric phosphate (LFP), which is a low-cost cathode material that is sometimes used in lithium-ion batteries. It currently accounts for about 03% of the global EV market.

Recent improvements in LFP chemistry and manufacturing have helped boost the performance of these batteries, and companies are moving to adopt the technology: LFP market share is growing quickly, from about 10% of the global EV market in 2018 to about 40% in 2022. Tesla is already using LFP batteries in some vehicles, and automakers like Ford and Volkswagen announced that they plan to start offering some EV models with the chemistry too.

Although battery research tends towards cathode chemistries and anodes, they are also in line for a makeover.

Graphite is used to hold the lithium ions in most anodes of lithium-ion batteries. Alternatives like silicon could increase energy density and speed up charging.

Silicon Anodes have been the subject for years of research, but historically they haven’t had a long enough life span to be used in products. Companies are now looking to increase production of the materials.

In 2021, startup Sila began producing silicon anodes for batteries in a wearable fitness device. The company was recently awarded a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy to help build a manufacturing facility in Moses Lake, Washington. The factory will serve Sila’s partnership with Mercedes-Benz and is expected to produce materials for EV batteries starting in 2025.

Other startups are working to blend silicon and graphite together for anodes. OneD Battery Sciences, which has partnered with GM, and Sionic Energy could take additional steps toward commercialization this year.

Policies shaping products

The Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed in late 2022, sets aside nearly $370 billion in funding for climate and clean energy, including billions for EV and battery manufacturing. “Everybody’s got their mind on the IRA,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials researcher at MIT and founder of multiple battery companies.

The IRA will lend and grant loans to US battery manufacturers, thereby increasing capacity. In addition, EV tax credits in the law incentivize automakers to source battery materials in the US or from its free-trade partners and manufacture batteries in North America. Automakers will continue to announce new manufacturing capacities in the US and find new sources of materials, both because of the EV tax credit restrictions and the funding from the IRA.

All that means there will be more and more demand for the key ingredients in lithium-ion batteries, including lithium, cobalt, and nickel. One possible outcome from the IRA incentives is an increase in already growing interest around battery recycling. Although there won’t soon be enough EVs on the road to meet demand for certain materials, recycling is heating up.

CATL has been a leader in battery recycling. However, the industry could see significant growth in Europe and North America this year. Nevada-based Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle, which is headquartered in Toronto, are building facilities and working to separate and purify key battery metals like lithium and nickel to be reused in batteries.

Li-Cycle is set to begin commissioning its main recycling facility in 2023. Redwood Materials has started producing its first product, a copper foil, from its facility outside Reno, Nevada, and recently announced plans to build its second facility beginning this year in Charleston, South Carolina.

With the flood of money from the IRA and other policies around the world fueling demand for EVs and their batteries, 2023 is going to be a year to watch.

This story is a part of MIT Technology Review’s What’s Next series, where we look across industries, trends, and technologies to give you a first look at the future.

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