US Automotive Batteries Stride Forward

By Kent Griffith 

October 6, 2021 | The electric vehicle revolution is accelerating in the United States. Recent announcements have seen President Biden targeting 50% EV sales by 2030, General Motors investing $35 billion on electrification by 2035, and Ford Motor Company spending $30 billion, including $7 billion toward several new battery and electric truck factories. At The Battery Show and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo in Novi, Michigan, on the edge of Detroit, several thousand battery and EV engineers and enthusiasts came together with 550 exhibitors to discuss the latest developments in battery technology, shifting consumer demands, market trends, supply chain expansion, and recycling.

The Battery Show marked one of the first major in-person battery conferences since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. David Howell from the Vehicle Technologies Office, Department of Energy, opened the conference with a plenary covering “National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries and Executive Order High-Capacity Battery Supply Chain Report”. Howell motivated the need for electrification and advanced lithium-ion batteries with greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting showing that transportation comprises more than a third of US emissions, with on-road vehicles making up the vast majority (71%) of that figure. Battery electrification, combined with a clean grid, provides a pathway to decarbonization for this large fraction of US GHGs.

On the other hand, Howell notes that long-haul freight, air, marine, and rail decarbonization likely require additional technological advances via hydrogen, biofuels, and/or increases in combustion efficiency. Pulling together predictions from market analysts at Avicenne, BNEF, BMO, Argonne National Laboratory, Roland Berger, and others, Howell described a roughly tenfold global expansion of the lithium-ion battery industry from a few hundred GWh in 2020 to nearly 2.5 TWh in 2030. Over the next five years, the US alone is expected to ramp cell production capacity from 59 GWh to 224 GWh, though this will lag behind Europe, while the rest of the world will continue to be eclipsed by manufacturing in China.

On June 8, 2021, President’s Executive Order 14017 came out, addressing the supply chain for high-capacity batteries and critical minerals. Included in the key findings were a number of vulnerabilities across the supply chain: (i) upstream in the raw materials production stage concerning Class I nickel, lithium, and cobalt as well as mineral refining and processing; (ii) midstream in the material processing and cell manufacturing stage concerning all major cell components, but especially cathode and anode active materials; and (iii) downstream in the pack and vehicle or ESS manufacturing stage primarily concerning recycling. Recommendations moving forward include stimulating demand with government purchases of electric vehicles and buses as well as point-of-sale consumer rebates, incentivizing private investment in material and manufacturing capacity, establishing a comprehensive recycling policy, and supporting the development of a suitably trained workforce.

The Executive Order recommended $3 billion each for battery material processing grants and for battery manufacturing and recycling grants in addition to battery recycling and second-life application technology competitions and programs. The Department of Energy has long sponsored programs to reduce battery pack cost, lower the cobalt content of lithium-ion battery cathodes, develop batteries with silicon or lithium metal anodes, and study recycling methods. For fiscal year 2022, the Vehicle Technologies Office expanded the battery R&D budget to by more than 50% to $180 million and is accelerating and scaling-up efforts toward lithium metal anodes, cobalt- and nickel-free cathodes, and battery recycling targeting recovery and reintroduction of 90% of battery cells and materials into the domestic supply chain by 2030.

The National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021–2030 from the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries serves as “a national blueprint to guide investments in the urgent development of a domestic lithium-battery manufacturing value chain that creates equitable clean-energy manufacturing jobs in America, building a clean-energy economy and helping to mitigate climate change impacts.” The blueprint centers around five goals: broadly, raw materials, materials processing, manufacturing, recycling, and workforce development.

Digging deeper into the supply chain issues for US electric vehicle growth was Abigail Wulf, director of critical minerals strategy for SAFE. While the US and automotive OEMs are committing to electrification of the transportation sector, the US is greater than 50% reliant on imports battery metals and for 30 of 35 minerals on the US Geological Survey Critical Minerals list. Moreover, China is the major import source for 12 of those minerals and they own 8 of the 14 largest cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wulf noted that, “While China is not the primary producer of nickel, cobalt, and lithium, it is the primary processor of them.” Wulf would like to see greater supply chain transparency and the development of high environmental, social, and governance standards regarding mineral extraction and processing for the EV battery market.

Dr. Brett Hinds, Ford Motor Company, laid out some aspects of “The Global Transition to Electric Vehicles” and their efforts toward this objective. Hinds described a changing world view with key factors including urbanization, global middle-class growth, air quality, climate change, and changing customer attitudes. These factors impact the next generation of Ford vehicles and Hinds was quick to point out that electrification is not just environmental but afford opportunities for enhanced performance and applications. For example, the electric Mustang will be the fastest version ever built, with 0 to 60 MPH in 3.5 seconds while the battery of the electric F-150 will be able to provide backup power to a home in an electricity outage. A theme of Hinds’s presentation was collaboration. From his perspective, collaboration is particularly important for charging infrastructure because manufacturer specific charging networks are not efficient for widespread EV adoption or resource use. As Ford’s vehicle portfolio electrifies, they will work toward a circular framework from raw materials to manufacturing to application to second life and recycling.

Offering a slightly different perspective, Anthony Farchone of General Motors pointed out that “While we are all committed to the EV future, ICE vehicles will be the mainstream for some time to come.” It may be a while before EVs are the majority. From projections in his talk, even with new-sales EV adoption reaching 60% by 2040, that would only represent about 30% of cars on the road. More to the point of his talk, while EV powertrains operate with 400–800 V traction batteries, low voltage systems are necessary for both ICE and electric vehicles. In addition to jump starts, low voltage systems operate functions such as the window motors, warning and safety indicators, and interior lighting. Farchone also believes easily accessible low voltage systems will be necessary to provide safety and isolation from the high voltage side. While they are moving toward using the high voltage pack for additional functions, there are regulation and technical challenges to overcome. When evaluating batteries for low voltage electronics, there is still debate over lead acid vs lithium-ion, with considerations toward lifetime, diagnosability, cost, mass, and–critically–standardization.

Challenges remain, but the momentum toward electrification is overwhelming. Will kids born in the next decade view gas-powered cars with the same amber-tinted gaze as though you asked them to insert that Eagles cassette into the console stereo?