For electric vehicle battery makers, it's go small or go home

In the quest for smaller batteries that charge extremely quickly, firms are experimenting with materials like silicon-carbon. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND (REUTERS) - In the race to go electric, carmakers have focused on range to ease consumer anxiety over charging infrastructure, but battery makers are already working on the smaller, longer-lasting and cheaper batteries of the future, which also charge more quickly.

While carmakers today chase market leader Tesla, seeking to build cars that can travel 482km or more between charges, battery startups expect range will matter less as public electric vehicle (EV) chargers become ubiquitous.

In the quest for smaller batteries that charge extremely quickly, the startup firms are experimenting with materials like silicon-carbon, tungsten and niobium.

Fast-charging, fast-selling

The battery is an EV's most expensive part, so true fast charging coupled with widely available chargers - a lack of charging infrastructure today is seen as slowing broader adoption of EVs - would allow automakers to build cars with smaller batteries at more affordable prices, yet boost profit by selling more vehicles to a broader audience.

"Early adopters at the higher end of the market wanted bigger battery packs and longer range because they could afford it," said Mr Sai Shivareddy, chief executive of Nyobolt, a startup developing niobium oxide anode materials for batteries that can charge in minutes.

"For more cost-sensitive mainstream adoption, you need smaller battery packs, but with the same experience as today (with fossil-fuel cars) where you can fill up in five minutes," he said.

China dominates global EV battery production, and companies like Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) are developing batteries to go farther on a single charge.

Carmakers in China have rolled out small, low-cost EVs like the Wuling Hongguang Mini - which even with recent battery price rises still sells for around US$6,500 (S$9,100). The car is a joint venture of SAIC Motor, General Motors and Wuling Motors.

Western startups like Cambridge-based Nyobolt and Echion Technologies or Woodinville, Washington-based Group14 Technologies are working on electrode materials to bring super fast-charging batteries to market.

Larval stage

According to startup data platform PitchBook, EV battery technology investments jumped more than sixfold to US$9.4 billion in 2021 from US$1.5 billion in 2020 as carmakers focused on the future.

"We are in the larval stage of battery development," said Mr Lincoln Merrihew, vice-president at data analytics firm Pulse Labs.

Going small could also ease looming battery material bottlenecks as EV demand soars, while using less cobalt and nickel where China dominates refining and processing.

Another benefit is carmakers could claim sustainability wins using less harmful materials in EVs and emit less carbon dioxide manufacturing them.

"Re-engineering the vehicle to minimise the size of the batteries, since that's so expensive, is going to be a game changer," Ford Motor's chief executive Jim Farley said at a conference in June.

The US carmaker, he added, wants "the smallest possible battery for the competitive range" in its next generation of EVs starting in 2026.

Others are squeezing more efficiency out of existing batteries, as Mercedes-Benz has done with its EQXX prototype with a range of 1,000km.

More affordable EVs

Fast charging today is limited by EV batteries' ability to absorb power quickly. Fast charging can shorten batteries' lifespan or overheat them, so most EVs limit charging speed to protect them.

At Nyobolt's headquarters, CEO Shivareddy charges four batteries in around three minutes and plugs them into a robotic vacuum that busily cleans the floor behind him as he speaks.

Niobium is a stable metal often used to strengthen steel - the world's largest deposits are in Brazil and Canada. Used in anodes or cathodes, startups like Nyobolt and Echion say niobium can handle super-fast charging while lasting many years longer than today's batteries.

Nyobolt is focusing on high-performance racing EVs. Mr Shivareddy said it would take years of validation before carmakers are ready to use its batteries in mass-market models.

A few miles from Nyobolt, Echion's niobium anodes are initially for commercial EVs like mining vehicles that operate continuously and will need fast charging.

CEO Jean de La Verpilliere said Echion's goal is to have batteries ready for passenger EVs by 2025.

"Smaller batteries mean cheaper prices and, therefore, more people can afford EVs," he said.

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