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Tesla rivals close to commercializing new lithium-ion battery technology

Tesla’s role of leading the world’s transition to an electric future must remain innovative to stand the test of time. Many battery startups are on a route to deliver much more efficient rechargeable batteries. Will their breakthroughs cannibalize Tesla?
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The lithium-ion battery technology, introduced in 1991, has since become the only choice and a standard to power electric cars and smartphones. Many industries are joining the trend to utilize rechargeable battery technology for the purpose of building self-sufficient devices. Over 3 million electric cars around the world are powered by lithium-ion batteries. And more than 36 percent of the world’s population (about 2.1 billion people) depends on lithium-ion batteries to enjoy digital lives.

However, lithium-ion battery technology development has maintained a very slow pace since introduced; many promises of a big leap are either smokescreens or taking too long to happen. This has grossly slowed down the world’s race to an electric future.

Considering the challenges in the use of rechargeable batteries; weight, size and charging, many battery startups are focused on improving the energy density while still making lithium-ion batteries affordable. This quest has led to a completely different paradigm; efficient lithium battery must be lighter, last longer on a single charge and be cheaper.

Fortunately, many startups are coming up with supercharging technology for better performance aside from investing more into building better batteries with improved energy densities and lower costs. Most recent electric cars can travel longer distances and also charge more quickly at supercharger stations. Tesla’s new supercharger stations can add up to 75 miles of range in 5 minutes. That’s not enough, though.

The concept of lithium-ion battery technology

Existing lithium-ion batteries are limited in their physical energy density and material parts, which the new technology seeks to improve. The new lithium-ion batteries are to be more efficient and safer by having no risk of fire if the batteries damage or overheats.

A lithium-ion battery is made up of four important parts: a liquid electrolyte, the anode, the cathode, and a separator. The electrolyte creates the positive and negative currents by carrying lithium ions through the separator; to and from the electrodes: cathode and anode. This is the process that generates the charge stored in the battery.

The physical separator begins to breakdown when the graphite and metal oxide which makes up the anode and cathode heats up. The process leaves the electrolyte, which is highly flammable, exposed. And this is why the battery density must not surpass the safe doping ratio. The current maximum energy density for a lithium-ion battery is about 260 watt-hours for each kilogram. Lithium-ion batteries in most electric cars are holding at most 250 watt-hours for each kilogram.

Commercial production of the new lithium-ion battery technology

Several battery start-ups will, starting from this year, introduce their recent lithium-ion battery technology, believed to feature great improvement, into the commercial market. Sila Nanotechnologies CEO Gene Berdichevsky said its new lithium-ion battery technology took the company “eight years and probably 35,000 iterations of our material synthesis” to be commercially ready.

Sila is just one of many battery start-ups recently backed with substantial funding to commercialize their battery tech. The California-based Alameda last year received $70 million from many investors to build a commercial production line for its silicon anode batteries. Before co-founding Sila 10 years ago, Berdichevsky, a mechanical and energy engineer, was a seventh employee at Tesla Motors. He led the development of the world’s first, mass-produced, safe, automotive lithium-ion battery system used in the Tesla Roadster.

While multiple variations of the existing lithium-ion battery technology have taken quite a lot of time to emerge, the startups behind them are recently preparing for the commercial spotlight. The new lithium-ion battery technology is expected to control the market for at least the next 10 years.

Sila plans to start with consumer devices before scaling up automotive partners over the next 5 years, with BMW already an auto partner with the battery startup. “The material required for one car is the equivalent of 1,000 smartwatches or 10,000 smartphones,” Berdichevsky said.

Colorado-based solid-state batteries manufacturer Solid Power alleged its building batteries that have at least 50 percent more energy density. In other words, Tesla Model 3 long-range vehicles would deliver at least 480 miles (772 km) from a single charge if installed with solid-state batteries. Solid Power received $20 million in funding last year to commercialize its battery technology.

Sila's prototype cells has 20 percent more energy density.

QuantumScape, a Stanford University spinoff founded in 2010, is partnering with Volkswagen Group to develop a solid-state battery. The German automaker staked the sum of $100 million as an investment to commercialize QuantumScape’s battery technology. The San Jose-based battery startup is now valued $1.75 billion, according to PitchBook’s data. Volkswagen’s E-Golf, which currently has a range of 186 miles, will deliver 466 miles on a single charge when installed with QuantumScape’s battery, which is lighter and charges faster, according to Volkswagen.

California-based Enevate, which is also using silicon anodes to create next-generation lithium batteries, received $111 million in funding last year, part of which came from LG Chem, a South Korean battery company. Enevate’s first commercial batteries, which will focus on micromobility, are about a year and a half away, according to the company’s CEO Robert Rango.

The new battery technology concept

Solid-state is the new battery technology, which replaces most of the important parts of a lithium-ion battery that has made it less efficient. Solid-state replaces the liquid electrolyte and separator a solid piece, typically glass, flame-retardant polymer or ceramic. It also used metallic lithium to replace the graphite anode.

Will these developments disrupt Tesla’s business? Solid-state batteries look promising but the product is not likely going to be commercially available until around 2025. QuantumSpace, which is clearly leading other solid-state battery counterparts, disclosed recently that its commercial production target is scheduled to be 6 years from now.

However, Sila and a few other startups are not casting their coins into solid-state batteries. Sila Nanotechnologies is planning to take advantage of the existing lithium-ion manufacturing process to deliver its improved batteries quicker. Instead of developing solid-state batteries, Sila will just replace the graphite anode with a silicon-based anode that can absorb lithium ions a lot faster than graphite.

Of course, it’s clear that rechargeable battery development takes a long timeline. And this is a clear sign of how difficult the technology can be. While these new developments focused on improving the range of electric cars are yet to reach commercial production, it difficult to dispute a disruptive effect on Tesla’s business by the time they make it to the market. Mind you, Tesla is not folding its arms to be overwhelmed by the impending storm. It has in many occasions proven to be innovative and into business. These are clear indications that the ubiquitous of electric cars could be closer than many of us think.

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