As vehicle manufacturers unveil their newest generation of hybrid and electric vehicles, the race for a reliable battery is heating up.
Automakers have been waiting in the wings while tech companies develop potential EV batteries. Now they’re placing their bets on which will emerge as the energy storage device of the future, with three serious contenders among current EV battery technologies.
Lithium-Ion: Lithium batteries became commercially available in the 1970s and quickly became the standard. The batteries could not be recharged safely and research turned to lithium-ion. This option delivered concentrated power in a lightweight battery which could be safely recharged.
- High energy density
- No priming needed when new
- Low maintenance
- Requires protection circuit to maintain safe voltage
- Subject to aging, even in storage
- Expensive to manufacture
Lithium-Metal (Solid-State): While lithium-metal batteries of the 1970s could not be recharged, that problem was resolved via the solid-state lithium battery. Automakers were eager to support research and development. Toyota took an active role in solid-state battery development, becoming the holder of more than 1,000 patents in the technology.
- Can deliver 2.5x the energy density of lithium-ion batteries
- Lower risk of catching fire
- Faster charging / longer cycle life
- Poor performance in cold temperatures
- Pressure needed to maintain electrode contact can result in breakage
- Potential for dendrites.
Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LFP): These batteries were developed in the 1990s and became famous after Elon Musk used them in some Tesla models. LFP batteries deliver stability and quick charging times and don’t use nickel or cobalt.
- Quick charging times
- Nickel- and cobalt-free
- Longer overall life cycle
- Lower voltage
- Lower energy density
- Poor performance in low temperatures
After teaming up with the likes of BMW, Ford, Samsung and Hyundai, Solid Power unveiled a 22-layer cell battery in December 2020. At the same time, they made impressive promises when it came to EV battery milestones, including recharging a battery by 50% in less than 15 minutes.
Volkswagen is backing QuantumScape, a battery company focused on solid-state batteries. Developers claim they can increase the range of an EV by 50% and reduce charging times to less than 20 minutes. Critics point out the company has yet to deliver.
QuantumScape has been working on their new battery for a decade and has yet to produce a prototype for independent testing. They’ve released data on performance from their own labs, and when asked about third-party lab testing, CEO Jagdeep Singh said it was something he “would consider.”
Then there’s the $139 million investment General Motors made in SolidEnergy Systems for their lithium-metal EV battery which promises to combine affordability with high performance. Prototypes have completed more than 150,000 test miles (241,500 km) at GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, MI.
Over at Tesla, Elon Musk is placing his bets on the “million-mile” LFP battery that replaces the cobalt and nickel of traditional batteries with iron.
This reduces human rights issues over mining and makes the battery a less expensive option. The LFP battery isn’t without its problems, however. Currently the batteries don’t deliver extended mileage consistently on a single charge and they struggle in colder temperatures.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to LFP – and what might put Tesla over the finish line – is its incredible charging power. LFPs charge in half the time of their competitors. They can store more energy so they can deliver consistent power even if they are charged off-grid.
People charging with solar power, for example, may only have a few hours a day to recharge their battery. For drivers with range anxiety, LFP batteries offer reassurance.
And it’s that ability to alleviate customers’ concerns that could give Tesla the tipping point advantage. By backing LFP, Musk delivers comparable (if not superior) power, stability and accessibility and then gives consumers the ability to do it quicker and without reliance on anyone or anything, including the power grid.
Engines drove innovation for decades in the auto industry, but batteries are slipping into the driver’s seat. Both developers and automakers are keenly aware of the need to address the concerns of the 21st century consumer.
They need to deliver more than just value; they also need to deliver security, dependability and the promise of being able to hit the open road without worry.
Ryan Gerardi (pictured above, left) is producer and host of the AutoConverse Podcast.