SAN JOSE, California. For years, scientists in labs from Silicon Valley to Boston have searched for an elusive potion of chemicals, minerals and metals that would allow electric vehicles to charge in minutes and travel hundreds of miles on a single charge, all at a much lower cost than batteries available. now.
Now some of these scientists and the companies they founded are approaching a major milestone. They are building factories to produce next-generation battery cells, allowing automakers to start road-testing technologies to determine if they are safe and reliable.
Factory operations are mostly limited in scope and are designed to improve manufacturing techniques. It will be several years before cars with high-performance batteries show up in showrooms, and many more years before batteries are available in moderately priced cars. But the start of assembly line production opens up the enticing prospect of an electromobility revolution.
If the technology can be mass-produced, electric vehicles can compete with fossil-fuel vehicles in terms of convenience and lower costs. Harmful emissions from road transport can be significantly reduced. Technology inventors can easily become billionaires—if they haven’t already.
For dozens of young companies working on new types of batteries and battery materials, moving out of closed labs into the harsh environment of the real world is a moment of truth.
Producing millions of battery cells in a factory is much more difficult than producing a few hundred in a clean room, a space designed to minimize contamination.
“Just because you have a material that has the right to work doesn’t mean you can make it work,” said Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of QuantumScape, a San Jose, California-based battery manufacturer in the heart of the city. . Silicon Valley. “You have to figure out how to produce it in such a way that it is defect-free and has a high enough uniformity.”
The risk is exacerbated by a drop in tech stocks that have stripped billions of dollars of value from listed battery companies. It will not be easy for them to raise the cash they need to set up manufacturing operations and pay their staff. Most of them have little or no income because they haven’t started selling the product yet.
Critical year for electric vehicles
As the overall automotive market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered vehicles is skyrocketing all over the world.
QuantumScape was worth $54 billion on the stock market shortly after it went public in 2020. It was recently worth about $4 billion.
That hasn’t stopped the company from building a factory in San Jose, which by 2024, if all goes well, will be able to produce hundreds of thousands of batteries that can charge cars in less than 10 minutes. Automakers will use the plant’s products to test whether batteries can withstand bad roads, extreme cold, heat and car washes.
Automakers will also want to know if batteries can be recharged hundreds of times without losing their ability to store electricity, if they can survive a crash without catching fire, and if they can be produced cheaply.
Not the fact that all new technologies will justify the promises of their inventors. Shorter charging times and longer range can come at the cost of battery life, said David Dick, a former Tesla executive who now works as a battery materials consultant. “Most of these new material concepts deliver huge performance numbers but compromise on something else,” said Mr. Dick.
However, backed by Volkswagen, Bill Gates and Silicon Valley influencers, QuantumScape shows how much faith and money has been invested in companies that claim to be able to meet all of these requirements.
Mr. Singh, who previously founded a telecommunications equipment company, founded QuantumScape in 2010 after purchasing a roadster, Tesla’s first production vehicle. Despite the roadster’s notorious unreliability, Mr. Singh is convinced that electric vehicles are the future.
“It was enough to give an idea of what might be,” he said. He realized that the key was a battery that could store more energy, and “the only way to do that was to look for new chemistry, a chemical breakthrough.”
Mr. Singh teamed up with Fritz Prinz, professor at Stanford University, and Tim Holm, researcher at Stanford. John Dorr, known for being one of the early investors in Google and Amazon, provided the seed capital. J.B. Strobel, co-founder of Tesla, was another early supporter and board member of QuantumScape.
After years of experimentation, QuantumScape has developed a ceramic material – its exact composition is a secret – that separates the positive and negative ends of batteries, allowing electrons to flow back and forth, avoiding short circuits. This technology replaces the liquid electrolyte that carries energy between the positive and negative poles of a battery with a solid material, allowing more energy to be stored per pound.
“We spent the first five years looking for material that could work,” Mr. Singh said. “And after we thought we had found it, we spent another five years or so working on how to produce it the right way.”
Although technically a “pre-production” assembly line, the QuantumScape plant in San Jose is almost the size of four football fields. Recently, rows of empty booths with black swivel chairs were waiting for new hires, while the equipment was on pallets, ready to be installed.
In Silicon Valley labs and elsewhere, dozens if not hundreds of other entrepreneurs pursued similar technological goals, drawing on the interplay of venture capital and university research that fueled the growth of the semiconductor and software industries.
Another well-known name is SES AI, founded in 2012 based on technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SES is backed by General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, Chinese automakers Geely and SAIC, and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation. In March, SES, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, opened a cell prototype manufacturing plant in Shanghai. The company plans to begin deliveries to automakers in large volumes in 2025.
SES shares also fell, but Qichao Hu, chief executive and co-founder, said he was not worried. “That’s good,” he said. “When the market is bad, only the good survive. This will help the industry reboot.”
SES and other battery makers say they have solved the fundamental scientific problems needed to create safer, cheaper and more powerful cells. Now the question is how to produce them by the millions.
“We’re confident the remaining issues are engineering in nature,” said Doug Campbell, chief executive of Solid Power, a battery maker backed by Ford Motor and BMW. Solid Power, based in Louisville, Colorado, said in June that it had installed a pilot production line that would start supplying parts for testing to its automotive partners by the end of the year.
Indirectly, Tesla spawned many Silicon Valley startups. The company has trained a generation of battery experts, many of whom have gone to work for other companies.
Gene Berdichevsky, CEO and co-founder of Sila in Alameda, California, is a Tesla veteran. Mr. Berdichevsky was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States with his parents, nuclear physicists, when he was 9 years old. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, then became the seventh Tesla employee, where he helped develop the roadster’s battery.
According to Mr. Berdichevsky, Tesla effectively created the EV battery industry by proving that people would buy EVs and forcing traditional automakers to reckon with the technology. “That’s what will make the world go electric,” he said, “everyone is competing to make the electric car better.”
Sila belongs to a group of start-ups that have developed materials that significantly improve the performance of existing battery designs, extending range by 20 percent or more. Others include Group14 Technologies in Woodinville, Washington near Seattle, which is backed by Porsche, and OneD Battery Sciences in Palo Alto, California.
All three have found ways to use silicon to store electricity inside batteries, rather than graphite, which is prevalent in existing designs. Silicon can hold much more energy per pound than graphite, allowing batteries to be lighter and cheaper, and to charge faster. Silicon will also reduce US dependence on graphite processed in China.
The disadvantage of silicon is that it triples in volume when charged, which can put such a strain on components that the battery will fail. People like Yiming Zhu, OneD’s chief technology officer, have spent a decade making various mixtures in equipment-filled labs, looking for ways to solve this problem.
Sila, OneD and Group14 are currently in various stages of ramping up production at their Washington State sites.
In May, Sila announced a deal to supply its silicone material to Mercedes-Benz from its Moses Lake, Washington plant. Mercedes plans to use this material in luxury SUVs starting in 2025.
Porsche has announced plans to use the Group14 silicone material by 2024, albeit in a limited number of vehicles. Rick Lubbe, chief executive of Group14, said the major manufacturer will roll out the company’s technology, which he says will allow a car to be charged in 10 minutes next year.
“At this point, all the benefits of electric vehicles are available without any of the downsides,” Mr. Lubbe said.
The demand for batteries is so great that there are many opportunities for several companies to succeed. But with dozens, if not hundreds, of other companies vying for a $1 trillion market share, once all new cars are electric, there are bound to be setbacks.
“With every new transformational industry, you start with a lot of players and then narrow them down,” Mr. Lubbe said. “We’ll see it here.”
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