The twelve most promising EV battery innovations

The race is on to come up with breakthroughs that will make batteries more efficient, safer and, crucially, cheaper

The twelve most promising EV battery innovations
Solid state batteries: just around the corner, or permanently "just around the corner"?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” So said Abraham Lincoln. Or maybe not.

 Whoever did say it was on to something, because technology has always shaped the way economies develop. In that spirit, EV inFocus takes a look at the top dozen battery technologies to keep an eye on, as developers look to predict and create the future of the EV industry.

1)     Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) 

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries already power a significant share of electric vehicles in the Chinese market. But, as the technology is just starting to gain traction in North America, it makes it into our ‘to watch’ list.

Almost all of the EVs sold in North America currently use lithium-ion batteries with cathodes using some type of nickel-cobalt chemistry. To date, these batteries have offered the best combination of range, power and size.

But nickel and cobalt more than doubled in price since 2021 — albeit now declining in price again — and are also prone to thermal runaway if they are physically damaged or have manufacturing defects. This has led to a number of recalls in the last three years, including the Chevy Bolt.

LFP batteries, on the other hand, are less likely to burn than nickel batteries as they contain no oxygen. That makes them much safer and more durable — albeit at the expense of lower energy density.

Despite this drawback, commercial activity in the LFP space is well underway. Our Next Energy (ONE) is forging ahead, raising $300mn at a $1.2bn valuation to develop the technology. The firm already has a joint development agreement with BMW and has outfitted an iX with an Aries II battery for testing.

And Ford has committed to using LFP cells in some of its vehicles, beginning with the standard range Mustang Mach-E, followed by the F-150 Lightning in 2024. Meanwhile in Europe Eleven ES has announced a European plant that will produce 500MWh/yr of LFP batteries by 2024.

Elsewhere, Indian firm Epsilon Advanced Minerals (EAM) has finalised the acquisition of a lithium-ion phosphate (LFP) cathode active material technology centre in Moosburg, Germany. EAM aims to make India the first country in Asia outside of China to manufacture LFP cathode materials. It will break ground on its manufacturing facility this year and scale up to produce 100,000t/yr of the materials by 2030.

2)     LMFP

Last year GM led a $60mn funding round in Mitra Chem, which is focusing on developing new types of LFP combinations — including lithium manganese iron phosphate (LMFP), a technology that is making analysts sit up and take notice. With LMFP, the introduction of manganese in the cathode can lead to improvements in energy density while maintaining low costs.

Mitra Chem has recently announced commercial LMFP cathode shipments and will be developing the technology throughout the year. Other battery manufacturers such as Catl are also rumoured to be developing batteries based on LMFP technology

3)     Solid state batteries

Solid state batteries have the potential to offer better energy density, faster charging times, a wider operating temperature range and a simpler, more scalable manufacturing process. There have been several announcements in recent months indicating that developers may be on the edge of a breakthrough — although sceptics continue to delight in pointing out that solid state batteries have been ‘just a few years away’ for well over a decade now.

At the end of last year, Toyota said it would be able to mass produce solid state batteries with a range of 1200km and a charging time of ten minutes by 2028. The firm has already partnered with Idemitsu on manufacture. Toyota has been developing solid-state batteries with Japanese electronics company Panasonic since April 2020.

It is not just Toyota making inroads. Solid state battery developer Quantumscape said at the end of last year that following testing at VW battery company Power Co's labs, its A0 prototype cell achieved over 1,000 full cycle equivalents with a discharge energy retention of over 95pc.

“This result sets a new high-water mark for lithium-metal battery performance,” says Jagdeep Singh, CEO of Qaumtumscape, adding that the firm believes its approach is superior to Toyota’s, which uses a sulphide-based technology than can form lithium-metal dendrites, affecting performance. Power Co CEO Frank Blome confirmed the results earlier this year.

“We are convinced of the solid-state cell and are continuing to work at full speed with our partner Quantumscape towards series production," he said.

Samsung SDI is another major player in the field. The firm has completed a pilot assembly line for solid state batteries, and plans to begin commercial production in 2027.

And in May last year Ganfeng Lithium announced mass production of solid state batteries at a plant in China.

Chinese EV start-up Nio is using what it has referred to as solid state batteries in its ET7 model, and plans to extend the technology to more vehicles, although some have said that the battery is not really a true solid state.

Other experts have noted that there are still safety concerns and the batteries are still not certified to be used in vehicles, with particular concerns over their susceptibility to the effects of vehicle vibration. Work to tackle the vibration issue is underway and addressing it may be key to the technology’s further development.

4)     Silicon anodes

Silicon can be used to replace the graphite in a battery anode to make it lighter and thus increase the energy density. One silicon atom can hold four lithium atoms, compared to the incumbent graphite which takes six carbon atoms to hold one lithium atom. As a result, silicon-graphite mixes entered the market a few years ago, and now around a third of anodes contain silicon.

The replacement of graphite with silicon has the additional benefit of reducing reliance on overseas supply chains. China is the world's top graphite producer and recently tightened its criteria for exports.

Firms such as Enevate — which signed a production license agreement with NantG power in September last year — believe they have the ability to deliver 100pc silicon anodes.

But there are problems to be overcome. Chief amongst them is the potential for the silicon anode material to expand, leading to a degradation of battery performance — a longstanding barrier to more widespread adoption of the material. Some firms, such as Sila, which is working with Panasonic, have developed a silicon material that they say suppresses expansion.

Other major players in the silicon anode space to watch are Nexeon, One D Battery Sciences and Storedot. EV pure play Polestar announced in November it was to make a prototype vehicle with Storedot silicon anode material.

5)     Lithium-sulphur batteries

Lithium-sulphur batteries have the potential for higher energy density when compared to traditional lithium-ion batteries, opening up the potential for longer driving ranges. Proponents add that they are safer than their lithium-ion counterparts, offering enhanced safety features during charge and discharge cycles.

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As a cathode material, sulphur is cheap and relatively abundant, helping to bring down costs and reduce supply chain risk.

Several firms are working in the space. Li-S Energy is developing a lithium sulphur battery manufacture facility in Geelong, Australia, which it expects to commence production in the first quarter of 2024.

Sticking ‘Down Under’, Aim-listed Australian company Gelion’s acquisition of UK startup Oxlid at the end of last year was a vote of confidence in the lithium-sulphur sector. Oxlid says it recently demonstrated a new cathode material with “highly competitive” discharge capacities.

Another contender in the space is US firm Zeta Energy. It raised $23mn in series A funding in 2022 and has been focused on scaling up manufacturing and refining its production processes. The company says it has ‘clear line of sight’ to batteries that exceed 450Wh/kg, which it will produce at a pilot plant scheduled to begin operations in 2024.

US firm Lyten, which has $410mn in start-up funding and a pilot line that is also likely to produce sample cells in the near future, is also worth a watch, as is a team at the University of Muenster which has started a research project following a €1.9mn ($2.05mn) grant from the German government.

Other players in the sector include Nextech Batteries and new entrants Coherent and Theion.

Despite their potential, lithium-sulphur batteries face notable challenges that developers are seeking to address. The chemical properties of sulphur and the instability of the lithium metal anode can cause the battery to undergo phase changes during charge and discharge, meaning they can lose up to 30pc of their initial capacity over time.

6)     Sodium-ion batteries

Sodium-ion has a production process very similar to lithium-ion, while using different materials that reduce overall costs and avoiding the need for critical minerals, and is currently the only viable chemistry that does not contain lithium.

Chinese firm Catl first kick-started development in sodium-ion batteries in 2021. The solution it developed is estimated to cost 30pc less than an LFP battery.

Several other cell manufacturers have now joined Catl in establishing a sodium-ion supply chain, with the dramatic rise in lithium and other battery raw material prices over the last two years accelerating interest.

The technology is largely likely to be used for stationary storage applications initially, and some analysts are cautious about the technology, which they say may not reach commercial scale until 2035.

But some EVs may even be already using it. It was announced in April last year that Catl’s batteries will power Chery EV models, while BYD’s Seagull will use a solution developed in-house. BYD will start building a 30GWh sodium-ion battery factory in China this year.

And JAC Motors, a Chinese automaker closely linked to Volkswagen, also says it is planning to use sodium-ion batteries in its new Yiwei brand to be launched this year.

But it is not just in China that the technology is being developed. Sweden’s Northvolt is also making progress on a sodium-ion cell that has now been validated.

7)     Graphene

Graphene, a layer of atoms arranged in a single plane, has shown promise in lithium-ion electrodes. Graphene-enhanced lithium-ion EV batteries enable faster charging times by allowing more rapid ion transport across the battery's electrode materials.

Nanograf says its graphene batteries show a 50pc increase in run time compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries. The firm opened a new manufacturing facility in Chicago last year.

Nanotech Energy has also outlined plans for a £1bn graphene battery gigafactory in the UK. And, in February 2023, German chemicals heavyweight Evonik announced that it had invested in China-based graphene manufacturer SuperC.

Chinese carmaker GAC has released early details of a graphene-based battery that can be recharged to 80pc within just 8 minutes.

Mainstream adoption is still some way off, but graphene has the advantage of being able to work in different types of batteries, including sodium-ion, which could help futureproof the technology.

8)     Saltwater/saline batteries

These batteries use a liquid saline solution in capturing, storing, and discharging energy. The primary ingredient for conducting electricity in saltwater batteries is sodium.

When the battery is being charged, the saltwater moves through a stack of membranes, and under the influence of an electric field, it transforms into acid and base. These acid and base components are stored in different containers. .

And when the battery is being used to provide power, the stored acid and base solutions move back through membranes, mixing and turning back into saltwater. This mixing process is what creates electricity.

ESS Salgenx has developed such batteries in the US.

Applications for EVs have been thought to be limited as saltwater batteries store less energy compared to lithium-ion batteries in the same amount of space — making them better suited to applications such as grid energy storage.

But the Quant e-Sportlimousine is being touted as the world’s first saltwater-powered car. The set-up is known as a flow cell battery. Unlike conventional batteries which require a long time to recharge, all that is needed to recharge flow cell batteries is an exchange of the spent electrolyte-rich fluid for new, charged fluid. The e-Sportlimousine, however, has been in development for ten years or so without much progress.

9)     Battery recycling

Hydrometallurgical extraction techniques are proving to be more effective at removing critical minerals from recycled batteries than traditional methods. These techniques use chemical solutions to extract and purify various metals from old batteries.

Chinese firm Ganfeng Lithium and Green Eco-Manufacture are well established in the space, both launching their IPOs in 2010. Green Eco-Manufacture says it can now recycle over 90pc of lithium from used batteries and extract nickel from materials that contain less than 0.1pc of the metal. The firm has recently signed an agreement with mining heavyweight Anglo-American to strengthen co-operation in EV battery materials processing.

Several US firms are also well-established in the battery recycling space, including Recyclico and Redwood Materials. Redwood recently signed a deal with Toyota to provide recycled cathode active materials and anode copper foil to Toyota’s North Carolina battery manufacturing plant, and is targeting a minimum of 20pc recycled nickel, 20pc recycled lithium, and 50pc recycled cobalt for cathodes and 100pc recycled copper in the anode copper foils.

Redwood has also recently announced plans to expand into Europe, where the EU has finalised regulations targeting the recovery of 50pc of lithium from old batteries by 2027. Also in Europe, commodities heavyweight Glencore and Li-Cycle last year announced plans for the largest battery recycling plant in Europe, using Li-Cycle’s patented hydrometallurgical technology.

Another firm to watch is PH7 technologies, a Canadian start-up founded in 2020, which last year received $16m in series A funding. The firm uses a technique it calls solvo-metallurgy — a similar technique to hydrometallurgy that uses non-aqueous solutions.

Some players in the US sector are starting to pursue a new area of R&D — the recycling of graphite. As mentioned, at the end of last year China implemented new export controls on the mineral, which is widely used in commercial EV battery anodes.

As a result, these firms are now looking to recycle battery-grade graphite — something that has not yet been done at scale due to the relatively low costs and well-established supply chain of graphite to date.

American Battery Technology Company (ABTC) has developed an approach that starts with physically separating graphite from other battery materials, followed by a chemical purification step. Additional mechanical and thermal treatments are then used to restore graphite’s original structure.

ABTC plans to scale up to recycling several tonnes of graphite-rich material a day with the help of a three-year, $10mn Department of Energy grant funded enabled by the US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Massachusetts-based battery recycling start-up Ascend Elements has also developed a chemical process for graphite purification. In October, Ascend Elements and Koura Global announced plans to build the first ‘advanced’ graphite recycling facility in the U.S.

Another Department of Energy-backed start-up, Princeton NuEnergy, is meanwhile exploring direct recycling of graphite. Last year, the firm opened the first pilot-scale direct recycling plant in the US in McKinney, TX.

10)  Battery management systems

A battery thermal management system (BTMS) is the device responsible for managing and dissipating the heat generated during the electrochemical processes that occur in battery cells.

High battery temperatures can accelerate battery ageing as well as pose safety risks, while low battery temperatures can lead to decreased capacity and weaker charging performance. Improvements in BTMS technologies can go a long way towards alleviating these risks.

The sector is estimated to be worth up to $13bn, with a CAGR of almost 40pc expected in coming years. BTMS was responsible for more academic research than any other battery technology in 2023, with almost a quarter of all publications, according to the Volta Foundation’s EV battery academia report.

Algolion, which uses data streams from EV battery management systems to help identify anomalies in cell performance, was acquired by GM last year. Battgenie, Breathe, Brillpower, Eatron Technologies and Electra EV, are also developing technology in this area.

The emergence of battery digital twins that enable AI cloud-based algorithms to evaluate trends across millions of cells is a new branch of the technology that has the potential to further improve the performance of battery management systems.

These large data sets also help to predict battery performance more accurately, enabling proactive maintenance and optimisation. Various firms including Texas Instruments and Analog Devices are working in this space. 

11)  AI

Accurately predicting the performance of the complex systems found in EV lithium-ion batteries is not easy. Individual batteries contain many variables which need to be isolated and analysed in testing. As a result, firms are increasingly using AI to analyse data in battery testing.

Mitra Chem (see LFP section) says its proprietary machine learning technology can reduce the lab-to-production time by a factor of ten, allowing for the testing of ten of thousands of electrode design variations in under a year.

Elsewhere, Storedot researchers have used a Kaplan-Meier AI algorithm to evaluate data from battery testing. And, in early 2024, materials technology firm Umicore entered into an agreement with Microsoft to use artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to facilitate and accelerate its research in battery material technologies.

Umicore will use an AI platform to synthesise decades of past data from its proprietary battery R&D, as well as external data. It hopes that the tool will help cut the R&D time for new battery materials from five years to two years.

12)  Wireless EV charging

ABT e-line and Witricity are the firms to keep an eye here. They are looking to pilot wireless EV charging in Europe sometime this year. ABT e-Line will initially upgrade the Volkswagen ID.4 to support wireless charging from Witricity, and plans to expand to additional EV models thereafter. Witricity received a $25mn investment from Siemens in 2022.

Witricty is also developing licensing agreements in the US and it will make it technology available from 2025 for owners of the KGM Torres EVX Pickup. It is also reported to be in talks with GM.

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