Another unsuspecting victim of Covid-19 should be electric vehicles: Oil prices have cratered, making gasoline-fueled cars dirt-cheap to run. But a little-noticed breakthrough in automotive batteries has shaken up China’s EV market, and now is about to arrive in the United States, where GM and VW already have their hands on it.
The advance is the result of a global race to substantially reduce expensive cobalt in lithium-ion batteries. Until now, cobalt has been 20% to 33% of the cathode, the heart of lithium-ion batteries. The advance reduces that to 10%, a drop that researchers were calling highly unlikely just six months ago, cutting the price of an electric vehicle and adding up to 25 miles of range. Cobalt — sometimes called “blood cobalt”— also comes largely from a controversial supplier, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where workers toil in often horrible conditions. “This leap is big because it gets harder and harder to remove the last bit; 33% to 20% is less challenging than 20% to 10%,” said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It becomes exponentially harder to get the cobalt out.”
The new, advanced battery, called NMC 811, solves an electrochemistry puzzle that has vexed researchers for more than five years. Already it captured 12% of Chinese EV sales in January, up from less than 1% in 2018, according to Adamas, a Canada-based research firm. LG Chemical, the South Korean battery-maker, made the NMC 811 battery that GM will commercialize next year in its new electric Hummer, the ultra-heavy pickup truck popularized during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. The revived Hummer will have up to 400 miles of battery life on a charge, GM says, sufficient to erase almost anyone’s “range anxiety,” the malady afflicting anyone conjuring a spouse or child stranded on a snowy night in a dead car. After GM, VW says it will introduce the new battery in its own electric vehicles over the next year, and experts say most of the other major carmakers won’t be far behind.
“It seems too good to be true,” says Tim Grewe, GM’s director of battery cell development. “But we do manage to create things that you couldn’t imagine five years ago.”
EVs can cost tens of thousands of dollars more than conventional models, and gasoline is selling for an average of $2.15 a gallon, the cheapest in five years. But Tesla — by far the dominant player in electrics — has demonstrated that large numbers of people will buy the right battery-operated vehicle regardless of gas prices, and most major automakers are wagering that they can significantly boost electric sales. Five years after a criminal scandal over trick devices in its diesel vehicles, VW for one is betting the company on a wholesale transformation to electric.
The lithium-ion breakthrough is one clue to how the automakers hope to make the leap to the masses.
It turns out that while researchers at universities and national labs had continued to labor away, LG had already reached what the battery field calls “811,” short for NMC containing 80% nickel, 10% manganese, and 10% cobalt.
NMC is the most widely used type of automotive lithium-ion battery, short for its composition of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. GM was the first to commercialize NMC, a twist on the original lithium-ion battery, invented in 1980. In 2011, an NMC-equipped battery powered GM’s new plug-in hybrid Volt. From there NMC spread, and it now powers the electric vehicles of every major carmaker on the planet except Tesla, which favors a different formulation called NCA.
But what researchers on both NMC and NCA have encountered as they have sought to reduce cobalt is an electrochemical rebellion: Cobalt has served as a balancing agent, and when it’s been reduced, the other metals have revolted and refused to cooperate with the objective of storing energy. The result: The cathode cracks after just a few charge-and-recharge cycles.
A couple of years ago, though, researchers successfully managed a substantial reduction — lowering cobalt to 20% of the cathode. Researchers regarded it as a signal triumph; as recently as a few months ago they were saying that further reduction was highly improbable.
But on March 4, GM suddenly announced a much-enhanced line of electric vehicles and a new battery pack for a future Cadillac, a self-driving Cruise Origin, and next year’s Hummer. What the company did not say, and that no one noticed apart from a couple of trade journals, was that the newly unveiled battery achieved the latest cobalt-reduction goal — the cathode was just 10% cobalt.
It turns out that while researchers at universities and national labs had continued to labor away, LG had already reached what the battery field calls “811,” short for NMC containing 80% nickel, 10% manganese, and 10% cobalt. LG had surprisingly avoided the usual cracking. When you add up the entire cobalt reduction you also knock up to about $2,400 off the price of a car, says Carnegie Mellon’s Viswanathan. In part, the solution was doping the cathode with alumina (along with other trade secrets), according to Grewe, the GM battery official.
A notable aspect of the advance is its origin — researchers working at the bench. For years, researchers attempting various breakthrough efforts in lithium-ion and futuristic battery types like lithium oxygen have faced nothing but frustration. It reached the point where one wondered whether the physics of batteries are simply too hard. In that vein, NMC 811 is a sign of hope for battery science. Now, says Grewe, the LG and GM teams are working to reduce the cobalt even further.
For the last decade, though, all but unnoticed to the broader public, GM has gone after electrics in a very serious way.
GM is perhaps the most surprising presence at the forefront of the electric car race. Over the years, the company has produced some of history’s most iconic vehicles — among them, the 1957 Chevy, the 1959 Cadillac DeVille, the 1963 Corvette, and the 1969 Camaro. As a company, General Motors was the very archetype of American capitalism at its admired peak, year after year turning out models that were snapped up by Americans and status-seeking buyers across the globe.
But the 1980s killed that winning image. GM went flabby with the rest of Detroit, producing grandmotherly mediocrities with mixed quality, opening a yawning space for Japanese automakers to capture the market for high-quality, desirable, mainstream vehicles.
For the last decade, though, all but unnoticed to the broader public, GM has gone after electrics in a very serious way. The groundbreaking 2011 Volt, which traveled 35 miles on a fully charged battery before the engine took over, was named car of the year by Motor Trend magazine. In 2017, the company won the same prize for the Bolt, an all-electric, $37,500 sedan that went an at-the-time astonishing 238 miles on a charge, beating the Tesla Model 3 to market by several months. Both the Volt and Bolt were deliciously decked out vehicles — lacking the elegant sexuality of a Tesla, but reliably handsome, durable, and stacked with technology.
Now GM’s hat trick is reimagining the cultish classic Hummer, a gas-guzzler, as an electric. With the Volt and the Bolt, GM fell flat on sales, and one of the reasons was incompetent promotion — the company failed to market the cars, leaving the field to Elon Musk, who today is as synonymous with electric cars as Steve Jobs was with the smartphone.
This time, GM is not only boasting that it is first, but intends to license its battery to rivals.
GM is first to the global market, but not to China. Last year, China’s NIO said it had the world’s first electric vehicle using NMC 811, an SUV with a battery made by CATL, a large Chinese battery producer that appears to have used a different method to achieve the same advance. After NIO, a rush to NMC 811 broke out — resulting in it ending up in 6% of EVs and plug-in hybrids sold in China last year as a whole, says Ryan Castilloux, managing director of Adamas Intelligence. CATL’s NMC 811 will also be in the new electric VWs, though it is not clear when they will go on sale.
Tesla, too, is in the NMC 811 game in China, supplying its Model 3s with LG’s battery. That is a surprise since ordinarily Musk insists on using only NCA, which still relies on cobalt but substitutes aluminum for the manganese. In a 2018 call with Wall Street analysts, Musk said that Model 3 cobalt content in its NCA battery was already lower than anyone would achieve in future deployment of NMC 811.
VW, too, is viewed as determined to rival Tesla for electric sales, and the NMC advance puts both companies in position for the first time to mount fierce competition against combustion for mainstream motorists.
Jeff Chamberlain, who runs Volta Energy Technologies, an Illinois battery investment firm, said NMC 811 is “big” but not a paradigmatic advance, like for instance, figuring out how to stabilize pure metallic lithium anodes, another of the field’s major current goals.
There appears to be no public data describing how CATL or Tesla stabilize their cathodes. But in a paper in January, Jeff Dahn, a professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, and Yulong Liu, a PhD student, suggested using large, single crystals, rather than relatively small, polycrystalline particles. The paper attracted much attention in the battery community.
There may be no other GM vehicle with a better chance of becoming a bestselling electric than the Hummer, which comes with a fixed base of hardcore fans. VW, too, is viewed as determined to rival Tesla for electric sales, and the NMC advance puts both companies in position for the first time to mount fierce competition against combustion for mainstream motorists.
Says Castilloux: “811 has been viewed as the near-term frontier of innovation for EV batteries, and those who view themselves as leaders have been in a race to get there.”