This might yet work out. The U.S. could possibly develop a locally sourced battery supply chain using domestically available materials that deliver all the range and none of the incendiary news footage slightly ahead of an EV demand spike. That’s the cautiously optimistic dream of Mujeeb Ijaz, CEO and founder of Michigan-based Our Next Energy (ONE). He started the company in mid-2020 with a goal of solving the safety and range limitations of current battery technologies, and this plucky startup now has two potential solutions to these thorny problems, as we learned during an Automotive Press Association visit to the company’s HQ.
Safety is Easy, Range is Trickier
The mainstream batteries powering most of our long-range EVs today include nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxides. The “oxide” part of is responsible for all the headline-grabbing EV car fires. When something goes wrong—like a short-circuit or an accident piercing a battery—any little spark can liberate the O2 oxygen molecules from that brew. The resulting fire spreads, liberating the O2s from all the other molecules inside the battery, which is why these fires are so devilishly difficult to extinguish.
Lithium-metal batteries also incorporate oxygen molecules, but they’re bound as O4 in phosphate, where they can’t contribute to “thermal runaway” like the NMC-oxides. But to date, lithium-iron-phosphate, the leading lithium-metal battery chemistry, has trailed NMC for energy density by as much as 40 percent.
Solution #1: Cell-to-Pack Efficiency
One way Our Next Energy has sought to tackle this problem is to eliminate as much of the packaging and other “stuff” that doesn’t store energy inside a battery pack. So instead of packing cylindrical or foil-pouch-type cells into modules and then assembling these non-structural modules into a structural case designed to protect the vulnerable cells, ONE employs prismatic cells that come in their own rigid casing. Bond these to a cooling plate on the bottom, and they contribute significant structural integrity to the battery pack while eliminating extra structure. This alone greatly improves a pack’s mass and volume efficiency. The company claims its lithium-iron-phosphate prismatic Aries II pack comes within six percent of the mass and range of the leading NMC packs. Of course, NMC chemistry prefers not to be completely charged or discharged, while LFP isn’t as sensitive to that, so real-world range may be at par.
Solution #2: Dual-Chemistry Range-Extender Battery
This is the concept ONE demonstrated in the 752-mile Tesla lap of lower Michigan earlier this year. Another great way to cut cost and save space is to ditch the anode in favor of a simple copper current collector that lithium plates onto during the manufacturing process. So in this Gemini battery, the twin chemistries at work are a set of typical LFP cells interspersed among a nickel-manganese anode-free cells.
These cells pack great energy density but would never last the useful life of an EV on their own. Here’s how it works: The vast majority of the time around town, you plug in and top off every night or at work, unconcerned about staying near 100 percent, because the LFP cells are doing all the work. The battery management system gently charges and slowly discharges the anode-free cells around town using built-in DC-DC converters. But when you head out on the open road, they kick in and provide that occasional long-haul range.
Compared to an NMC pack with equivalent energy, the Gemini pack uses no cobalt, 75 percent less nickel, and 60 percent less graphite—the typical anode material (the LFP cells still use graphite anodes). Separating the anode-free NM cells with LFP cells, with all bonded to a cooling plate at the bottom leverages the strengths of each chemistry, cooling and warming one another as needed in changing weather.
Our Next Energy knows only too well that OEMs are more comfortable purchasing from established players, so the company is growing gradually, building a big plant in Van Buren Township in phases, with early production serving to train its workforce, build a stable supply chain (that ensures local-content compliance with the Inflation Reduction Act), and begin supplying the smaller commercial truck/bus and grid energy-storage markets before releasing any automotive batteries. It expects the first 106-kWh, 350-mile-range Aries II LFP packs to enter automotive service around 2025, and the first 185-kWh, 600-mile-range Gemini packs to hit the road in 2026, very possibly on a BMW.
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