December 26, 2011
Electric Battery Start-ups And Manufacturing Challenges

A long and good article in Technology Review about the interdependence of product innovations and manufacturing innovations in many non-computer industries along the way takes a look at some of the promising start-ups doing battery innovation for electric vehicles.

The challenge for the startups, then, is to figure out a way to make their technologies using current manufacturing know-how while developing products that are radical enough to disrupt established technologies.

Ann Marie Sastry clearly thinks her startup can do just that. Housed in a small industrial park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sakti3 is working on a next-generation technology for solid-state batteries (see TR10, May/June 2011). The fabrication area in the back of the offices is strictly off limits to visitors, as are cameras and questions during a quick tour of the testing and design areas; CEO Sastry will reveal few details about the technology except to say that the battery has no liquid electrolytes and the company is using manufacturing equipment that was once employed to make potato-chip bags. But she is more forthcoming in explaining how the startup can thrive in the highly competitive advanced-battery sector.

New battery designs that not require a corresponding set of very difficult manufacturing innovations have much better prospects for making it to market. The article highlights how some of the solar photovoltaics makers failed because they required not just product innovations but also many supporting manufacturing innovations. This made them both highly dependent on large manufacturing investments and also much higher risk.

MIT materials scientist Gerbrand Ceder thinks his start-up, Pellion, might be able to double or triple energy density over the current lithium ion batteries. That'd be a big game changer.

Ceder has systematically analyzed various compounds for their potential as battery materials. Using the computational tools developed by his materials genome project, Pellion, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that he cofounded in 2009, has identified new cathodes for a magnesium-based battery. If it works, Ceder says, the batteries could have double or triple the energy density of today's lithium-ion batteries. Equally important, he says, they could "feed into the existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing." And that's critical, he says, because "if you have to invent a new material that can replace the existing one, it might take five to 10 years, but if you also have to invent a new design, it can take 10 to 20 years."

The article describes another promising battery start-up whose founder benefited from seeing the manufacturing problems of his previous start-up.

The article reports that the Chevy Volt battery pack weighs 435 pounds. So about 11 pounds per mile. If Pellion could get it down to 4 pounds per mile then 500 pounds would provide 125 miles of range. But that's a big if and it isn't going to have any impact for at least 5 years at best.

About 10 electric cars are coming to market in 2012. But already soe of the electric car start-ups have gone out of business and some plans for electric car battery factories in Europe have been canceled. The much anticipated Ford Focus Electric is coming in a few months at about $40k base price. So there's no sign in electric car prices that battery costs have substantially come down yet.

Will refinements to current lithium ion battery designs and their manufacturing processes do enough to achieve a halving and more of EV battery costs? Also, just what prices are showing up in contracts to supply EV batteries in 2012 and 2013? Substantially less than 2010 or 2011? Anyone know?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 December 26 10:09 PM  Energy Batteries


Comments
Nori Posphery said at December 27, 2011 1:47 PM:

The approach taken here: http://gm-volt.com/2011/06/14/could-cambridge-crude-gel-battery-send-fossil-fuel-toward-extinction/ makes more sense because it is a battery that can be "refueled" very quickly, on the run.

More information here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aenm.201100152/full

Fuel cells will be perfected for vehicles before conventional storage batteries, most likely.

Fat Man said at December 27, 2011 8:47 PM:

Disdain.

Engineer-Poet said at December 28, 2011 3:14 PM:

IIUC, batteries already beat the life-cycle cost of ICEVs.  "Perfect"?  Nothing is perfect, there is only worse, better and good enough.

Ronald Brak said at December 30, 2011 7:28 PM:

Given the current state of technology, I think a small plug in hybrid with an all electric drive and a small generator would suit my needs pretty well. This sort of car isn't available yet. The Volt has more battery storage than I need for my day to day driving and a larger generator than I need. And since I live in a sunny area and PV is now much cheaper and lighter than it was a few years ago I want solar cells on the roof and bonnet. (I realise this will only supply a fraction of my energy use, but I want them anyway.) Now as a person who just wants a cheap way of getting around, the current crop of electric vehicles aren't really designed with me in mind. But I imagine that at some point they will get around to making something for me. Hopefully before I run my current car into a kangaroo. (I'm the only one in my family who hasn't done that yet. I think I did clip the tail of one, however.)

Nick G said at January 3, 2012 6:00 AM:

Ron,

I think you want a plug-in Prius: they should be available soon.

Ronald Brak said at January 3, 2012 3:18 PM:

The plug in prius might be the closest match, but it is still too 'good' for me. I'd be happy with something a little smaller with worse performance, provided of course it came at a lower price.

Nick G said at January 4, 2012 9:40 PM:

Ron,

You can get a used Prius, and then get a commercial plug-in conversion.

Ronald Brak said at January 5, 2012 8:44 AM:

I guess that's an option, but I think I'll just try to to avoid putting a roo through my radiator or windscreen for a few more years and see what's available then.

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