The ONE for Battery Innovation

Michigan-based battery upstart Our Next Energy is tackling energy density, cost and safety with a new approach to cell chemistries.

Exploded rendering of ONE’s Aries LFP cell-to-pack architecture. (ONE)

When I look at our ‘toolbox,’ we’ve got one cell chemistry that delivers high energy density, is low cost, but it doesn’t have optimum cycle life,” veteran battery engineer Mujeeb Ijaz noted. “And we’ve got another cell that’s super-good at cycle life. We realized that given about 99 percent of EV duty cycles, we don’t need a single cell chemistry to solve all the problems. We can just use two.”

CEO and founder Mujeeb Ijaz, shown with his 1922 Detroit Electric, has a deep knowledge of EV history. The car is being retrofitted with ONE’s LFP batteries. (Lindsay Brooke)
An engineer assembles a prototype Gemini pack in ONE’s Novi tech center. (ONE)

Ijaz, the founder and CEO of Novi, Michigan-based battery upstart Our Next Energy (ONE), explained his company’s unique approach to the inseparable demands of EV range, cost and safety. ONE has developed two complementary battery architectures. The first, called Aries, is a structural cell-to-pack single chemistry battery currently in prototype testing at customers. It uses a lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) cell, in prismatic form factor, that eschews nickel and cobalt. LFP has an outstanding safety reputation but underperforms nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) cells in terms of energy density.

ONE’s more advanced architecture, Gemini, targets an energy-density level of 450 watt-hours per liter. Its unique dual-chemistry format combines a conventional traction battery with a second chemistry used as a range extender. The combination is designed to deliver more than double the 300-miles (483-km) driving range of a typical EV.

Ijaz, whose 30-year mobility career began in Ford’s fuel-cell EV program followed by stints at battery supplier A123 and at Apple, wouldn’t reveal much about Gemini in an interview with SAE Media. “It’s not LFP and it doesn’t go into thermal runaway,” he said. There is “zero cost on the anode side because we deleted all the graphite, which gives us more cathode volume,” he confirmed. Manganese is one constituent cathode material that Ijaz and his team believe will help them deliver “a high value range-extender cell that will give an electric passenger vehicle up to 750 miles’ range.” Ijaz said Gemini’s proprietary technology is supported by more than a dozen patents. ONE plans to demonstrate a production prototype Gemini battery in 2023.

“Metro delivery trucks can probably get away without extended range. But consumer needs are different,” Ijaz said. “Consumers know that one percent of the time, usually during vacation or holidays, they’ll be taking a trip. They’ll buy a car or truck for that one percent of their annual driving needs; that’s just part of the emotional and experiential aspect of a vehicle purchase decision.” He cited study data showing about one third of vehicle owners will consider an EV for their next vehicle, based on the range of today’s EVs. Demand jumps to about 95 percent if current EV range is doubled, he said.

A completed battery pack. (Lindsay Brooke)

“We need charging infrastructure, but we also need to extend EV range so that a regional trip--Detroit to Chicago, or San Francisco to L.A., for example--isn’t a decision to either drive or fly,” he said, because of the time required for en-route charging. Ijaz also explained that ONE aims to establish its batteries before SAE Level 4 vehicle autonomy takes off, a shift that “will disruptively grow our market.”

ONE is steering clear of nickel-cobalt for its production batteries because the team believes the chemistry has the potential to thermally runaway if an internal short develops. “I’d say we should be worried about the foundation of NCM/NCA,” Ijaz asserted. “The industry arrived at nickel-cobalt because it was the only family of cell chemistry to deliver the range numbers.” He noted that while he’s not uncomfortable in his daily driver, a Tesla Model Y which uses NCA cells, if the industry avoids nickel-cobalt altogether as EV adoption rates increase “we’ll avoid the risk altogether.”

The Tesla S fortified with a ONE high-energy prototype battery, being prepped in Novi for its 752-mile test run. (ONE)

Engineering an EV battery that’s twice as capable as today’s, in terms of energy density, helps ensure that the battery is not abused or overheated under extreme use as indicated in its C Rating, the measurement of current in which a battery is charged and discharged. With high energy density, the battery is in effect being babied because it has so much available energy in relation to most typical duty cycles. “Thermal management can be optimized; battery life and overall ‘health’ are extended by making the energy reserves, the power-to-energy ratio, so much greater.” Ijaz equates this to an understressed big-block V8 that can loaf along generating high torque at low rpm.

Making cell-to-pack work

Backed by investors including BMW i Ventures, Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Volta Energy Technologies, ONE has grown from two founding employees in late 2020 to 80, mostly engineers, today. That’s set to double within the next year as the company launches a pack-assembly plant in Michigan in November 2022, ramps up a new cell R&D facility near San Francisco, continues Gemini development, and finalizes Aries validation and testing prior to late-2022 production “for a customer’s delivery vehicle,” according to Ijaz.

ONE recently completed a $60 million bridge round of investment aimed at funding manufacturing development in the U.S., noted business development manager Nick Twork. It also hired Dr. Steven Kaye as its new CTO. Kaye previously led battery materials R&D in Apple’s Special Projects Group. He holds over 60 patents covering battery cathode, anode, electrolyte, cell architecture, and pack designs.

The structural cell-to-pack concept embraced by ONE and other battery suppliers including BYD  does away with modules, integrating the cells themselves into the pack architecture for increased package and mass efficiency. Ijaz explained his team’s engineering rationale, noting that cell-to-pack requires three conditions for it to be a rational solution. “First, the chemistry has to be right,” he said, calling LFP ‘the birth center’ of cell-to-pack. “A chemistry that tends to self-oxidize is not feasible; if a failure occurs and the chemistry self oxidizes, it will rip through the pack because the cells are so intimate,” he said. “You can’t stop the spread of a thermal runaway.”

Secondly, cell form factor is important. Of the four primary types of lithium cell used in EVs, the pouch types are non-starters. “For cell-to-pack to work, you need to create a load path that’s load carrying; a pouch cell needs to be surrounded by a module,” he explained. Metal cans and the ‘blade’ type cell [used by BYD] function as stressed members and so are acceptable. And cell-to-pack structures present a challenge in terms of serviceability; Ijaz argues that serviceability has to be given up.

“An EV battery is large and expensive, representing about 40 percent of the vehicle’s cost,” he said. “To make the battery serviceable is not logical. Years ago we believed that the OEM must be able to service the battery pack. Now, with a decade of EV experience behind us, the industry is learning that battery cells aren’t failing. Electronics fail, but typically not the cells. You and the customer have to agree that you’re not going to replace cells, which then becomes a warranty and validation topic.”

Proving technology in a 752-mile run

To demonstrate their battery-tech prowess and increase the company’s visibility, ONE engineers in December 2021 removed the stock 104-kWh battery pack from a Tesla Model S Long Range Plus sedan and replaced it with their own 207-kWh prototype pack, which fit nicely within the Model S’s confines. They then set out from ONE’s suburban Detroit headquarters into the Michigan heartland. After fourteen battery-draining hours of flogging the Tesla at an average speed of 55 mph (88 km/h), the team had covered 752.2 miles on a single charge.

In stock form, the longest-range Model S was rated by the U.S. EPA at 402 e-mpg. In 2020, Car and Driver magazine testers traveled 320 miles (515 km) at a sustained 75 mph (120 km/h) in the same Tesla-S model, a record distance for any vehicle tested by the publication, at the time. The standard Model S has a drag coefficient of 0.24, according to Tesla.

Following the real-roads exercise, the team put the ONE-fortified Tesla on a chassis dynamometer at a sustained 55 mph, stretching its legs for 882 miles on a single charge. The prototype battery exercises (which used special cobalt-nickel chemistry) showed encouraging potential for the future of lithium batteries and EV range.

Data-driven transparency

As a nascent battery developer in a crowded, competitive field dominated by incumbent giants CATL, LG, Panasonic and others, Ijaz is under no delusions about what it will take for ONE to survive over the long term. “I came into being a battery supplier with an appreciation for product-development and process discipline,” he noted. “I got my process education twice: once for being around it and not fully valuing it, and again in a start-up needing it. This made me value and embrace it in a whole new light.”

He's acutely aware of battery suppliers’ infamous reputation for exaggeration, and chuckles as he reiterates the old saying about “liars, damned liars, and battery suppliers.” When he made the jump from Ford to A123, Ijaz staunchly decided that he would not be part of that ongoing joke.

“I would not embody any of the aspects I’d seen in some battery suppliers that I didn’t like when I was a Ford engineer. Things like a lack of transparency and thinking they could work their way through a problem without disclosing it. That’s the clearest way to create mistrust.” He noted a robust, repeatable data and complete transparency as the only means to build a lasting and stout relationship with industry customers.

“When we went to The Battery Show in 2021, we came with data showing we had a 287-watt-hours-per-liter LFP pack that exceeds Tesla’s LFP and their NCA packs as well as other products that we’ve benchmarked. We said, ‘Let’s show them’ and we actually hung our battery pack on the wall for all to see, and we presented the data behind it,” he said. “I learned not to talk about subjects for which I have no data, and to share problems and find solutions together. The customer appreciates that when they’re involved, and they understand both our progress and where we have risks.”