The difficult search for the perfect battery

Extended autonomy, instant recharging, infinite life and production that respects ecological and social standards. Is it even possible? One thing is for sure, it seems that making batteries for the electric cars of tomorrow will require more than one recipe.

In McMasterville, Swedish manufacturer Northvolt plans to produce batteries similar to those already coming out of its Northvolt Ett (“Northvolt Un”) factory in Skellefteå, Sweden. These are lithium batteries, the cathode of which is composed of nickel, manganese and cobalt. Northvolt’s exact recipe is called Lingonberry NMC. Word” cranberry » translates into French as cranberry. This small berry can be made into a jelly that is said to be a great addition to the legendary Swedish meatballs.

Northvolt already prides itself on making the most “responsible” batteries, especially because its factories are powered by renewable energy sources. By 2030, the company promises to incorporate 50% of recycled materials from end-of-life batteries into its batteries.

NMC and LFP

Today, in the automotive industry, NMC batteries face a similar technology called LFP, which is more durable but less efficient. It consists of lithium, iron and phosphate. LFP batteries are less dense, which means they produce less energy pound for pound. But they resist heat better.

Electric vehicle manufacturers seem to be increasingly leaning towards this formula: for more efficient vehicles, NMC batteries are preferable, while for more durable or affordable vehicles, they turn to LFP batteries.

But not all the time. For example, LG Chem, a subsidiary of the Korean giant LG, which is one of the largest suppliers of batteries to car manufacturers, produces NMC batteries that add aluminum to make them more affordable to assemble. Earlier this year, Northvolt and Swedish truck manufacturer Scania unveiled a particularly durable nickel-manganese-cobalt battery that would be able to drive trucks for at least 1.5 million kilometers.

In fact, it is not yet clear how much the NMC technology can be improved. This was demonstrated last spring by Jeff Dahn, a pioneer in lithium-ion technology affiliated with Dalhousie University in Halifax. In front of other researchers, he presented a prototype battery called NMC 532, which he tested since 2017 by repeatedly charging and discharging. Under the hood of an electric car, its battery would allow it to travel more than six million kilometers, losing only 5% of its original power during this time.

Lithium metal

Cuberg, an American company acquired by Northvolt in 2021, hopes to one day market batteries for electric aircraft. It relies on a different chemistry, laconically called “lithium metal”. A lithium metal battery replaces the anode of a lithium-ion battery, which is usually made of graphite, with lithium in solid form.

Lithium metal technology is promising, but comes with its own risks, such as very complex recharging. Cuberg says it has eliminated these risks, ensuring its batteries are 40 to 70% more efficient than a traditional lithium battery at the same density. The company hopes to sell its first lithium metal batteries to the aerospace sector from 2025. The acquisition of Northvolt also allows it to open up to the automotive sector, as Cuberg says the manufacturing process for its batteries is very similar to that of the NMC battery produced by its Swedish parent company.

Solid

Despite all this, the real revolution in electric transport can be found in batteries with a solid electrolyte, also called all-solid batteries. Most major car manufacturers plan to switch to this technology between 2027 and 2030. In this sector, all-solid-state batteries are the holy grail: they are cheap to produce, and would also be more compact, lighter and more durable than traditional batteries. .

Toyota, for example, said this summer that it had made a “major breakthrough” in this area, allowing it, if all goes according to plan, to sell affordable electric vehicles capable of traveling 1,200 kilometers after just ten minutes of charging. All that remains is for manufacturers to figure out how to assemble their future batteries at a pace comparable to a traditional battery factory. “We’re almost there,” Toyota assured.

BMW, Ford and Nissan are also on the verge of producing electric vehicles powered by these batteries. Nissan promises the first car on the road in 2028, and in the same year batteries “up to 65% cheaper” than current batteries.

Obviously, you’ll have to see it to believe it, but the manufacturer thinks that by the end of the decade it will be possible to fill up with electrons like we currently fill up with gas, for comparable autonomy. If that happens, then we will finally find the perfect battery for electric transportation.

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