WCX 2023: Battery Leaders Say Manufacturing Prowess Needs to Advance

Execs said that while lithium-ion technology is mature, it’s important to pursue different chemistries.

The future-of-the-battery panel (from left): David Howell, U.S. Department of Energy; Robert Galyen, Galyen Energy; Denise Gray, LG Energy Solutions Michigan; Mujeeb Ijaz, Our Next Energy; Preston Zhang, Panasonic.

Batteries are an incredibly complex subject, so it’s not surprising that in a panel at SAE’s WCX 2023 conference in April titled “Battery: Today, 2030 and Beyond,” some opinions diverged about the most important issues facing the industry. The audience, weighing in live on a web page, said it was the quest to lock down raw materials. The session panelists generally disagreed, saying the industry’s chief concerns are manufacturing technology and capacity. SAE Media was present as David Howell, moderator and principal deputy director of the Department of Energy’s manufacturing and energy supply chains office, talked about what the federal government is doing to help the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). He mentioned:

  • Federal investments to establish new manufacturing capacity and upgrading existing factories to reduce emissions and water use and improve efficiency.
  • Supporting the development of a clean-energy workforce.

“What we’ll see,” Howell said, is a wave of new electric-vehicle battery plants, which will increase North American battery capacity to about one terabyte of production capacity. And that's from where we are currently at about 6060 gigawatt hours. So that's a significant move.”

The following questions from Howell and answers from the panel have been selected and edited for length and clarity.

Howell: "What do you think is the biggest barrier to large scale?"

Robert Galyen, Galyen Energy LLC: “There is a bright horizon here. There's going to be a plethora of different battery technologies, which will be over the next several decades. We have to build that supply chain ourselves. I'm a little concerned that there's not more concern from the audience about manufacturing technology. Because manufacturing technology is where you're really making product. You got to be able to build batteries – now moving into the terawatt power level.”

Denise Gray, president, LG Energy Solutions, Michigan: “All of us, many of us came from the automotive industry. And we've gotten ideas from iteration to the prototype stages, all the way to production. We recognize that production is where the rubber meets the road, we tend to filter for like, quality. And that's where the current focus is today. Tomorrow, I think it's going to be on the next generation of technology. But today, for a lot for us, it's about manufacturing.”

Mujeeb Ijaz, founder and CEO, Our Next Energy: “Manufacturing is super important. In order to get any kind of product costs to the levels that you're going to need to deploy, you're going to need manufacturing costs to come down. Manufacturing costs do not normally come down until scale is achieved. You get into this very low-volume problem. You end up not being competitive.”

“The [Inflation Reduction Act] is a very good balm helping us to level the playing field for a short period of time while we transition our low-volume manufacturing to higher volume. So, I think the US government doing that initiative has helped a lot, but we don't take advantage of larger-volume applications (such as school buses) to climb out of the low-volume and high-cost curves that we're in right now.”

Howell: "A lot of these tax credits are based on domestic production ─ capacity and content ─ with a goal of 50 percent of light-duty vehicles being electric by 2030. The Europeans are doing similar things as well. Can we make the Biden administration and European [production] goals without China?"

Gray: “Today, we cannot do it. Can we diversify over time? I think everybody's working their darndest to try to do that, and especially with our government support here, we're now doing that in a greater way. In the long term, I think we've got a great chance of diversifying our supply base to have local North American, non-China suppliers. But we have to purposefully work at that over time.”

Ijaz: “The selection of raw materials is also part of the answer. As you look at cobalt as a very specific material that's constrained and available in not geographically diverse locations. One strategy that outlines energy impact in the beginning of the company is to avoid materials that would end up becoming constrained are not sustainable. We picked up an Enron report within a few months of starting the company, we latched onto the conclusions of that report and said that, if you want companies that are sustainable, take the most abundant materials that are successful so far. And it was iron and manganese that we came up with.”

“And as we cleared the table with nickel and cobalt as the primary chemistry that was being used in electric vehicles, and put on the table iron or manganese, we then had a common problem of energy density not being as high. And that led to some innovation. Now... we have a diverse source of materials geographicallyCobalt and nickel have doubled in price in just the last 18 months. Iron and manganese have not.”

Oliver Gunasekara, CEO and cofounder of Impossible Metals, a sea-floor mining company:“There is 20 times more cobalt in the seabed and there is 10 times more nickel and we can pick it up for a fraction of the environmental impact, and we can do it for lower cost. So, I think the seabed is the solution. And it is not controlled by China. There's actually this resource within U.S. territorial waters.”

Howell: "What is the next generation of batteries? What do they have to achieve to replace lithium-ion batteries?"

Galyen: “Matching the battery technology to the application that works is so critical. I believe if we get smart about it, we'll know which battery goes with which application the best. And there's a whole bunch of new technologies out there: graphene batteries, aluminum batteries, sodium batteries, and so on. So I think we’ve got a great future ahead, there's not going to be just lithium, but it's going to be a plethora of different technologies.”

Ijaz: “Our Next Energy’s approach could be one type of answer. We're looking at the batteries having two specific tasks in an electric vehicle. The daily task, which is less than 150 miles, where durability or performance and all your normal requirements are tied into that daily pattern.”

“But then there's the secondary task of extending range, which is the occasional long trek, which is where people are asking the question, what's the top-line range in the vehicle, and that's where a lot of decisions being made. We think that we can divide those two tasks into two distinct chemistries. The second chemistry can then evolve and grow into a much longer range, higher energy density, not requiring the same power targets. So that's our approach: to innovate on second chemistry, while keeping the first on the stable, everyday driving and very durable chemistry that's already well tested.”

Howell: "What is the major pinch point for batteries in the next five years?"

Gunasekara: “I would say it's more on the materials and the processing of those materials. Manufacturing has been very successful building gigafactory farms relatively quickly; getting the minerals out of the ground and getting them processed.”

Galyen: “Manufacturing is at the peak of my mind in terms of where we need to get other answers. On the other technologies or other industries breaking barriers. Just to calibrate everyone. Think about aircraft, construction, agriculture, there's a plethora of applications that are crawling out. Gray: It's the human capital. I think the technology has been demonstrated and manufacturing has been demonstrated other places. But here we've got to get the right leadership in place to recognize this isn't just setting up a plant. This is a big deal and attracting the right leadership – it's a different leadership than we've had before, I want to say that it's not the same. This is a different element of what we're trying to do here when it comes to battery technology, because it's a mixture of the typical automotive with some pharmaceutical capabilities.”