COMMENT: Influx of options leaves EV battery future in flux

New players and technologies have the potential to turn EV battery design on its head, but lithium-ion will dominate for some time to come. By Betti Hunter

Electric vehicle (EV) adoption is set to surge after a slow start. Automakers across the world are racing to catch up with a surprising number of Chinese vehicle manufacturers and US market disruptor Tesla by developing their own EV portfolios, and drivers are increasingly convinced that EVs are a viable and necessary alternative to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

The launch of electric supercars such as Automobili Pininfarina’s Battista dispelled any lingering fears that e-mobility and high-performance engineering are mutually exclusive. Tightening emissions regulations and urban clean-air zones are compelling many consumers to make the switch, and range anxiety is diminishing as charging infrastructures develop and rapid charging becomes a near-term possibility. But accelerating EV sales will put pressure on the industry as battery technology, design and manufacturing continue to evolve.

The market is volatile and EV battery manufacturing is a complex process. A host of new players have entered the sphere, disrupting the traditional model as the automotive industry charges towards electrification. Asian companies currently dominate, with seven of the ten largest battery producers based in China. Global automakers, particularly in Europe, are naturally concerned.

The market is volatile and EV battery manufacturing is a complex process. A host of new players have entered the sphere, disrupting the traditional model

Attempts to drive investment and the formation of the European Battery Union, led by Volkswagen and Northvolt, could go some way towards creating a more global network of battery producers, but China and Korea are likely to retain their position at the top of the pile for some time to come. In terms of EV production, the balance has already shifted away from traditional automakers and suppliers. Could an increased automaker focus on battery development and collaboration with atypical industry newcomers tip the scales back in their favour?

When it comes to the structure of the batteries themselves, the forecast is clearer—on the surface, at least. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) will be the industry standard for the foreseeable future, although Li-ion batteries will undergo radical change as manufacturers seek alternative raw materials to the ones currently used in conventional battery design. In particular, there is a push to decrease reliance on cobalt, a currently crucial element in Li-ion battery cathodes.

Opinions are divided as to whether the industry can truly ever step away from the so-called ‘blood diamond of the battery industry’

Both the lithium and cobalt markets have fluctuated wildly since 2017, peaking in January 2018 before prices dropped by 50% midway through the year. But though the lithium market is likely to level out in the long-term, the cobalt market is constricting. This limited resource is only mined in a small number of locations, with up to 60% of supply coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo—a nation under scrutiny for alleged corruption and unfair labour practices.

As the ethical implications of using DRC-sourced materials and worries about the formation of a ‘cobalt cartel’ collide, manufacturers are looking for an escape hatch. A number of start-ups believe they have found an alternative option, but details are still under wraps. Opinions are divided as to whether the industry can truly ever step away from the so-called ‘blood diamond of the battery industry’. When Panasonic announced in 2018 that it would be developing cobalt-free batteries, however, the industry started to pay closer attention. And with solid-state batteries looming on the distant horizon, cobalt could finally be confined to the annals of EV history.

Further trends in EV battery development are explored in Automotive World’s latest special report, ‘The future of electric vehicle batteries’, featuring analysis and insight from a range of industry stakeholders.

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