The transition to electric vehicles is accelerating, with a rise in market share and advances in technology. In the accompanying blizzard of reports and corporate statements, some potentially huge developments can pass with little notice or explanation.
Here’s one: CATL, the China-based company that is the world’s leading manufacturer of EV batteries, provided details last month on a next-generation battery that will have an energy density of up to 500 watt-hours per kilogram, which is roughly double the energy density of the leading batteries on the market—a difference that will lead to longer range before needing to recharge.
This will be a “semi-solid state” design, which is one of the reasons it’s able to pack in so much energy (more on that in a bit).
Usually, when I see an announcement like this, it’s attached to a timetable that is vague or several years away. So it was notable that a CATL official, speaking at the Shanghai Auto Show, said this battery would begin mass production this year.
The company said the battery would be safe enough and have enough energy density to be able to work in aircraft, in addition to electric cars and trucks. The company said it is working with partners to develop electric passenger aircraft and is “practicing aviation-level standards and testing in accordance with aviation-grade safety and quality requirements.”
CATL, which stands for Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, has been a battery supplier for many of the world’s largest automakers, including BMW, General Motors, Tesla and Volkswagen.
Last year, CATL introduced a new battery with an energy density of up to 255 watt-hours per kilogram and a capability of more than 600 miles of driving range. The first vehicles that use the battery are now going on sale in China but are not yet available in the United States. An increase in energy density means that a battery can go further on a single charge, and it allows for the possibility of using smaller battery packs without a loss of range.
The company hasn’t given a range figure for the next generation 500 watt-hours battery, and it hasn’t said which brands or models will be the first to use it.
To help understand some of the terminology CATL is using, I got in touch with Venkat Srinivasan of Argonne National Laboratory in the Chicago area. He is a battery scientist and director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science.
Some questions and answers:
What’s a semi-solid state battery?
“We use the term ‘hybrid battery,’” Srinivasan said. “So what it means is that it’s got a solid, but it also has a liquid.”
The solid or liquid is the electrolyte, the material inside the battery through which lithium-ions flow.
Companies are working to develop batteries that are partially solid state or fully solid state because the materials allow for greater energy density than using liquids or gels.
This is a shift from today’s lithium-ion batteries, nearly all of which have liquid or gel electrolytes.
A semi-solid state battery will often have a solid electrolyte in its anode, which is the negatively charged side during discharging, and a liquid or gel in its cathode, which is its positively charged side.
QuantumScape, a battery manufacturing startup in San Jose, California, is one prominent example of a company using a semi-solid state design, based on presentations about its technology.
But companies describe the designs in different ways. QuantumScape doesn’t use the term “semi-solid state” for its battery, and such shorthand can obscure some big differences in materials and designs between companies.
What’s a condensed matter battery?
In addition to being semi-solid state, CATL describes its new product as a “condensed matter battery.”
“I have no idea what that is,” Srinivasan said.
He said the term may be more about branding or marketing than the battery’s design.
“Oftentimes we mistake branding to be a scientific concept, right?” he said. “Or oftentimes, it’s just pure branding. And that’s OK. That’s what companies do.”
How does this battery news fit into the bigger picture of EV adoption?
The development of batteries with higher energy density should lead to EVs with longer ranges. Some of the designs use materials that are less expensive than in current lithium-ion batteries, so there is potential for lower EV pricing.
But it’s important to realize that, even before these better and cheaper batteries hit the market, EV sales are soaring.
U.S. EV sales rose 45 percent in the first quarter compared to the first quarter in the prior year, according to Cox Automotive. EVs were 7.2 percent of all light cars and trucks sold, a record high.
“The hockey stick is here,” Srinivasan said, referring to the shape of the growth curve of EV sales. “It is going much faster than any of us can even anticipate.”
The pace of growth is good for the climate, since transportation is the leading source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But growth also adds to the urgency of some of the major concerns about EVs.
Companies and governments know that they need to work to build a public charging infrastructure. This is expensive and complicated.
The manufacturing of batteries and EVs have negative effects on the environment, through mining and concerns about the waste left over at the end of a battery’s life. Companies and governments are working to reduce the harmful effects, which is also expensive and complicated.
And that’s just the start of a long list of the downsides of EVs that need to be addressed quickly.
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Five years ago, when I talked to experts about tipping points in the shift to EVs, they were looking to the late-2020s and early 2030s as when the momentum would become unmistakable and unstoppable.
Now, the actions by automakers and policy changes by the world’s largest economic powers have moved up this timetable. How much? I don’t know. But it’s clear that we are close to a day when EVs are the preferred choice for new-car buyers, and internal combustion engines go the way of the flip phone.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
The Biden Administration Launches an $11 Billion Program to Electrify Rural America: The agriculture department has started the awards process for about $11 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funding to electrify and reduce emissions in rural areas, as Brian Dabbs reports for E&E News. The administration describes this as the largest investment in electrification since the New Deal. I’m interested to see if this spending in largely Republican areas can help reduce the partisan divide in attitudes about climate change and clean energy.
Biden Power Plant Plan Gives Industry Time, Options for Cutting Climate Pollution: The Inflation Reduction Act incentives for clean energy are only part of the picture, and last week the Biden administration helped fill in some key details with the release of rules for reducing emissions at power plants, as Marianne Lavelle and Nicholas Kusnetz report for ICN. The new rules are highly customizable, giving power plant owners options for how to cut their emissions. Next will come legal challenges, and if you want a sense of what Republican state attorneys general are saying about their plans, Fox News has a roundup.
IRS Releases Rules to Qualify for ‘Domestic Content’ Tax Credits: The Internal Revenue Service has issued guidance on how it defines qualifications for Inflation Reduction Act tax credits that require materials to be made in the United States, as Emma Penrod reports for Utility Dive. One of the key parts of the guidance is that solar panels are considered “manufactured products,” which allows them to qualify for credits as long as at least 40 percent of their components are produced in the United States. Solar energy business groups praised the guidance. The domestic content tax credit is part of the “layer cake” of stackable incentives I wrote about last week.
At Tesla Shareholder Meeting, Musk Talks Cybertruck and the Economy: Tesla CEO Elon Musk addressed shareholders at the company’s annual meeting this week and Lara Kolodny of CNBC has a rundown. He said Tesla’s long-awaited Cybertruck will hit the market this year and the company will be able to deliver 250,000 to 500,000 of the model once production has started. He also said he expects the economy to hit a rough patch over the next 12 months in which many companies will go bankrupt, but thinks Tesla is well-positioned for the long run. Responding to a question about his $44 billion takeover of Twitter, Musk said it was a “short-term distraction.” Yeesh, that’s an expensive and time-consuming distraction for the leader of one of the most important companies in the energy transition.
Can the World Make an Electric Car Battery Without China?: The New York Times looks at China’s dominance in the EV battery supply chain in a story by Agnes Chang and Keith Bradsher. This is essential reading to understand how far behind the United States is and why the Biden administration is devoting so much money and effort to encouraging battery companies to build factories in this country.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to email@example.com.