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  • Since 2010, the price of lithium-ion batteries has decreased by a factor of 10, leading to a boom in EV production in the U.S. and globally. But as

  • most recent car buyers know, electric vehicles are still prohibitively expensive for most Americans, costing on average at least $15,000 more than

  • a new gasoline-powered car.

  • When you look at the need for electrification of the transportation sector, one of the greatest contributors to emissions around the world, it really

  • is the limitations of battery technology that are holding back that movement of electrification

  • Within the EV industry, lithium-ion is the only type of battery being manufactured at scale. But there's a number of companies that are

  • developing new battery technologies that they hope will be able to compete on price and efficiency in the next decade or so, as analysts estimate that

  • the size of the EV battery industry will grow to around $70 billion dollars by 2025.

  • There is a sense that for us to move to the next big jump when it comes to cost reduction and energy density increase, lithium-ion is not going to be

  • the long term answer.

  • Cuberg, a Silicon Valley startup which spun out of Stanford in 2015, is pursuing a lithium metal battery, which Wang says could be twice as energy

  • dense as standard lithium-ion. While lithium metal has been on researcher's radars since the late 1960s, it's only recently started to show real

  • promise for commercial applications. Cuberg's first customers are in the aviation industry, but EV battery giant Northvolt, which has contracts with

  • Volkswagen and BMW, just acquired the company, with plans to eventually put Cuberg's batteries in cars too.

  • We've been obviously looking at what is beyond the next generation of high nickel lithium-ion batteries? How to get beyond 1000 watt hours per liter?

  • But Richard and the team at Cuberg really really seem to have a viable way.

  • We're going through a transformation of the industry as large as when oil came onto the marketplace for fueling vehicles in the first place. It's as

  • big as displacing the entire oil industry for transportation.

  • A battery has three basic components. One end, the anode, is negatively charged. The other, the cathode, is positively charged. The substance in

  • between, which conducts electric current, is the electrolyte. In a lithium-ion battery, the electrolyte is made up of lithium salt and organic

  • solvents and carries positively charged lithium ions from the anode, which is usually made of graphite, to the cathode, often made of cobalt, nickel

  • and manganese. This movement creates free electrons which travel through a separate wire and carry an electric current through the device being

  • powered. The more lithium in the battery, the more energy dense that it is. And in a lithium metal battery, the anode is made of pure lithium.

  • The pure lithium is the holy grail of anode technologies. There is literally no excess weight or volume contained with storing that lithium,

  • just a pure metallic electrode. And that allows us to really take the battery to the next step in terms of how much energy we can store in there.

  • Battery experts have known for decades that if they could get it to work, lithium metal would be a superior battery technology. But there's been

  • persistent challenges, like dendrites forming on the anode.

  • When you charge lithium metal batteries, you have these needle shaped formations that form on the surface. These needles can penetrate through

  • and short the cell and shorting a battery is never a good thing. So what happened maybe in the early 1990s was people sort of dropped the research

  • into lithium metal batteries.

  • Lithium is also a very reactive element, meaning that if it comes into contact with water or oxygen, it can overheat and catch fire. Cuberg

  • though, thinks that it's solved these problems with its proprietary electrolyte technology.

  • So we have developed a new chemically stable electrolyte that creates a wonderful protective layer on the lithium metal, and that protects it from

  • being decomposed or reacted with other materials.

  • It's not the only company in this space, but what sets Cuberg apart from other lithium metal startups is that like lithium-ion batteries, it has a

  • liquid electrolyte, while its competitors, like QuantumScape and Solid Power use a solid, oftentimes ceramics-based electrolyte. Solid state

  • batteries have generated lots of interest and commercial investment, since they also promise to prevent reactivity and dendrite formation.

  • QuantumScape, backed by Volkswagen and Bill Gates, went public in 2020. And Solid Power, backed by Ford and BMW, is set to go public this year, both

  • through special purpose acquisition companies. But though solid state tech shows promise, Wang says Cuberg's liquid electrolyte makes its batteries

  • far more compatible with existing lithium-ion production methods.

  • So with just some very, very minor retooling and retrofitting, we're able to utilize more than 95% of all the existing lithium-ion manufacturing

  • processes for making our new battery technology.

  • This, Wang says, will allow Cuberg to scale up and commercialize much quicker than its solid state competitors. Though many companies, Northvolt

  • included, are interested in investing in a whole range of next generation battery technologies.

  • You see different types of technologies which all have the ambition of really increasing energy densities. So I think there is so much going on

  • that just to stand on one and bet on one leg is a very dangerous proposition going forward.

  • While QuantumScape and Solid Power are partnering with big name automakers, Cuberg's first customers are in the aviation industry, as the market for

  • short-haul electric aircrafts is heating up. So far, Cuberg has partnerships with Boeing as well as aviation startups Beta Technologies,

  • Ampaire and VoltAero.

  • Current lithium-ion batteries are not good enough for aviation, simply because they're too heavy. And that weight ultimately means that you can't

  • carry as many passengers, you can't fly as far. And so we are targeting the aviation industry because they have a much higher value proposition for

  • high performance technologies and are willing to pay a premium to really get the best performance for their vehicles.

  • Cuberg acknowledges that it will take a number of years for its tech to scale to the point where it's cost competitive with lithium-ion. Wang

  • predicts that will happen around 2027 or 2028. But in the meantime, when it comes to electric planes, the increased energy efficiency of lithium metal

  • batteries could be well worth the higher cost.

  • The idea here is to start to move away from the two-dimensional travel and all the traffic we have on the roads to try to take off from say a

  • building, go across town where there could be a lot of traffic, and sort of get away from the traffic and drop somebody off. Here there are very short

  • runs, you might be only flying for half an hour to 45 minutes, you might have a few passengers, and electrifying them has a lot of advantages.

  • Ultimately though, Northvolt plans to get Cuberg's batteries into EVs as soon as possible.

  • Any path to automotive requires huge scale-up, but five years is the internal timeline that we put upon ourselves.

  • If all goes according to Carlsson's plan and Cuberg's batteries are in cars by 2026, Wang predicts that by 2030, EVs with lithium metal batteries will

  • actually be cheaper than EVs using lithium-ion, as increasing the energy density will ideally drive down production costs across the board.

  • By increasing the energy density, you're making the entire vehicle design is simpler, you have fewer production steps per kilowatt hour, you have

  • less material inputs, less labor inputs, less energy inputs. And even then when you integrate it into a vehicle, because you have a lighter weight

  • battery, you can get away with a simpler vehicle design, more elegant vehicle structure and a more efficient vehicle. And so ultimately, all of

  • these apply for cost savings across the board.

  • Srinivasan says that today's lithium-ion battery packs for EVs cost about $170 to $180 dollars per kilowatt hour. To reach cost parity with an

  • average gasoline-powered car, packs we need to be more than twice as cheap.

  • Now the target for electric car is somewhere around $80 a kilowatt hour. And that number comes from taking a small vehicle, say a Toyota Corolla or

  • equivalent, and converting that from a gasoline car to an electric car.

  • Cuberg says that it expects its battery packs will be 10 to 20% cheaper than lithium-ion, once they're manufactured at scale. While Srinivasan

  • agrees that lithium metal could lower costs and increase the range of electric vehicles, he warns that charging time has historically been a

  • problem with these batteries, because of dendrite formation

  • Turns out that fast charging has actually been the big challenge with lithium metal batteries. So today, it is not clear if you're going to be

  • able to enable fast charging. But the hope is that once we start getting these batteries to the market, we can start to sort of push on the

  • boundaries of things like fast charging,

  • Cuberg believes that fast charging will be possible though. For aviation, Wang says that now, its battery cells currently take 40 minutes for a full

  • charge, a number that he expects will drop significantly in the coming years. QuantumScape says that its batteries can charge to 80% of full

  • capacity in 15 minutes. And Solid Power says that it can get to 50% capacity in the same amount of time.

  • The key is to combine all these parameters with high energy density, with cost, with long durations and also very fast charging times. I mean,

  • everybody wants everything at the same time. And this is where we need to continue working with the technology in order to get it to all these

  • requirements.

  • Manufacturing scale-up is also going to be critical in the years to come, especially in the U.S., which lags far behind China and Europe when it

  • comes to building out all elements of the EV battery supply chain.

  • Today in the United States, we make approximately 40 gigawatt hour of batteries. The number that we need in the next 10 to 15 years could be in

  • the range of terawatt hour a year. Now, that's a big change. We are talking about creating in the order of 20 gigafactories or 30 gigafactories for us

  • to get there.

  • But battery experts are heartened that the Biden administration is taking this scale-up seriously. The Department of Energy recently released a

  • 100-Day Battery Supply Chain Review. In it, the administration says that it will take immediate action to ensure that battery companies receiving

  • federal funding make their products in the U.S. and promises to make loans to EV battery manufacturers to help them to expand or establish U.S.

  • manufacturing facilities.

  • By offering grants and other types of funding to make it easier for companies to set up shop in the U.S., this ultimately allows us to really

  • develop that advanced supply chain in the U.S. and support domestic automakers.

  • Cuberg itself has received funding from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the California Energy Commission, and

  • hopes to expand its domestic presence, even though Northvolt is headquartered in Stockholm.

  • I wouldn't be surprised if you would see a factory in the U.S. from us in the not too long-distance future.

  • But building out the battery industry, which is projected to grow by tens of billions of dollars in the years to come, will not happen overnight. So

  • there will be more than enough room for multiple technologies in the marketplace.

  • We believe the future of the battery industry will be highly supply constrained for the foreseeable future. And this means that there won't be

  • enough good batteries to go around for all the different use cases that you want it for. And so this naturally means that more advanced technologies

  • like lithium metal will coexist along with lithium-ion technologies.

  • Experts say that now is the time to act when it comes to investing in these new technologies. And a number of innovative battery companies like Cuberg

  • have raised big rounds, been acquired or gone public in recent years.

  • There is a worldwide race to capture the battery market, simply because it is becoming clear that we are probably going to transition towards an

  • electric future. What this means is that this is the time to take the ideas that we have, the innovations that we have and bring them to the market.

Since 2010, the price of lithium-ion batteries has decreased by a factor of 10, leading to a boom in EV production in the U.S. and globally. But as

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Why This Battery Breakthrough Could Make EVs Cheaper

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/30
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