Big Change in the Cost of EV Batteries

A huge concern in the auto industry—always and everywhere—is cost. The cost of batteries for EVs is showing an impressive decline.

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the things about electric vehicle development that doesn’t get quite the amount of attention that it deserves is the rate at which the prices of lithium-ion battery packs are declining.

According to the US. Department of Energy Vehicle Technologies Office, the cost of a Li-ion battery pack declined 87% between 2008 and 2021, based on 2021 constant dollars.

The DOE estimates that the cost of a Li-ion battery pack circa 2021 is $157/kWh based on a usable energy basis (i.e., the battery pack may have more stored energy but it is not used because it is important to maintain the health of the battery).

Back in 2008 that number was $1,237/kWh.

Impressive decline in battery costs. (Image: DOE)

Recognize that what is happening is that there are improvements in technologies and chemistries, as well as in manufacturing economies of scale. (Did you notice that when people are talking about battery plants they typically refer to them as “gigafactories”? They’re big and make lots of batteries, which leads to the economies of scale. It is somewhat odd, if you think about it, to know that Mars makes about 15 million Snickers per day and there is no mention of a “megafactory.”)

The improvements in technologies and chemistries are probably the real, as they say, game-changer in batteries.

Realize that you have vehicle manufacturers, Tier One suppliers, battery companies, chemical companies, electronics companies, utility companies, energy suppliers, research organizations, universities, and undoubtedly others working on batteries.

Nowadays only a fraction of them are working on eking out improvements for internal combustion engines, which leads to the hypothesis that with time ICEs are going to run out of time.

That 87% is a big number. And the decline in price-performance will undoubtedly continue to change for the better.

Euros to Make More EV Batteries

Mercedes joins Stellantis and TotalEnergies

By Gary S. Vasilash

If nothing else, you’ve got to give General Motors credit for naming the jv company it is running with LG Chem for electric vehicle battery development “Ultium,” because it sounds like something from the Marvel Universe, which isn’t an entirely bad thing when it comes to attracting younger buyers for the EVs GM will have in dealerships.

Contrast that name with a Europe-based battery company, one that had been established by Stellantis and TotalEnergies (the company that used to be simply named “Total” before it recognized the need to expand its portfolio beyond petroleum) and has now been joined by Mercedes-Benz:

Automotive Cells Company.

Hope no one stayed up too late at night trying to come up with that.

They should have had the packaging designers work on the name because it is suitably of-the-moment. (Image: ACC)

ACC is also being supported by the French, German and European authorities because they don’t want Europe to be left behind when it comes to battery tech.

The company is still young, having been established in August 2020. With the addition of Mercedes, the investment is on the order of seven billion euros. Each company has a one-third equity stake.

By 2030 it may be making 120 GWh’s worth of batteries.

Given that both Stellantis and Mercedes have aggressive EV plans, they’re going to need capacity.

Beyond the Bolt Battery Problem

Yes, it is an issue right now, but it has serious ramifications going forward

By Gary S. Vasilash

The facts of the situation is that General Motors is recalling all of the Chevrolet Bolts that the company has ever built. About 142,000. “Out of an abundance of caution.” There is a manufacturing defect in the batteries that could lead to fires. The batteries are produced for GM by LG Energy Solution.

GM is going to replace the batteries in the vehicles.

All in, the price is going to be on the order of $1.8-billion.

2022 Chevrolet Bolt EV connected to a DC fast charger during the final stage of production at the General Motors Orion Assembly Plant. (Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet)

GM and LG are currently building two battery plants. But these plants are for a different type of battery—“Ultium” is the brand name—than the type of battery found in the Bolt EV and Bolt EUV. It doesn’t have a brand name.

The new GM EVs—which aren’t out yet—will  have the Ultium batteries, not the type found in the Bolt.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential problems with the Ultium battery somewhere down the road. But it does mean that there aren’t issues for those new vehicles—e.g., Cadillac Lyriq, HUMMER EV—right out of the box.

What could be a real problem for GM—no matter how well the recall is handled—is that of the perception of potential consumers.

There needs to be a sell of the whole idea of an EV. This is not easy. Everyone driving today is at least passingly familiar with pulling into a gas station. But charging is something else entirely. First of all, everyone (I know I am using this broad brush broadly, but let’s face it: we live in a transportation environment that is predicated on petroleum) knows where gas stations are. How many people know where charging stations are? (Yes, most haven’t had a need to look for them, but I have, and they aren’t easy to find, even if you know where they are.) So some people are going to be off-put by that. And there are issues like the comfort of plugging in, and the time required to charge a vehicle. (“What if it is raining?”)

These are real challenges. Non-trivial challenges.

GM now has a group of people who are going to be all the more trepidatious to get an EV that it needs to convince to buy EVs. GM wants the EV to be a mass-market vehicle, not something driven just by the rich or enthusiastic.

All OEMs—with the probable exclusion of Tesla—are pretty much faced with the challenge of convincing people about buying EVs.

GM now has a particular problem as a result of this recall.

Recycling Li-Ion Batteries

Sure, the electric vehicle market is growing. But there’s the non-trivial issue of critical materials for the batteries for all of those new cars, trucks and SUVs. . .

By Gary S. Vasilash

Ajay Kochhar, CEO and co-founder of Li-Cycle, points out something that should give everyone a bit of pause when it comes to the burgeoning electric vehicle market: In 2013 there were three electric vehicle battery plants. In 2021 there are 225 existing on the way.

According to the Critical Materials Institute, which is under the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the definition of critical material is: “Any substance used in technology that is subject to supply risks, and for which there are no easy substitutes.”

Things like lithium used in batteries. Or nickel. Or cobalt.

Lots of battery plants. Not a whole lot of readily available—to say nothing of environmentally available (mining is not necessarily conducted in places where there is more concern with getting the stuff out of the ground than how that ground will be after the important stuff is removed in an environmentally benign manner)—critical materials.

Kochhar and his colleague Tim Johnson once worked on the lithium-extraction part of the business, Kochhar says on this edition of “Autoline After Hours.” He also points out that there is a whole lot of work that occurs between the extraction of lithium and it ending up in a battery (here’s something amusing: cylindrical cells are sometimes referred to as “jellyrolls” and the pouch-style batteries as “chocolate bars”).

So Kochhar and Johnson established Li-Cycle, which is dedicated to recycling lithium-ion batteries in a safe manner.

(image: GM)

Kochhar says that they are able to recover approximately 95% of the important materials—like lithium, nickel and cobalt—from the batteries, which can then go back into the production of new batteries.

This past May Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution, announced that it had selected Li-Cycle to recycle up to 100 percent of the material scrap from battery cell manufacturing from its battery-manufacturing facility in Ohio. This will include things like offcuts and scrap, which, Kochhar says, may be comparatively small, but given that the plant in Lordstown will have a capacity of >30 gWh, it is a non-trivial amount.

While Kochhar acknowledges that even within the next 10 years the amount of recycled critical materials from batteries will be limited—perhaps no more than 20%–there is an important need to do this.

Kochhar talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Joann Muller of Axios What’s Next, and me.

And you can see it here.

Air Springs: Bet You Didn’t Know

Well, not exactly something you probably think about

By Gary S. Vasilash

Consider the tires on your vehicle. Even though that car or light truck weighs at least a couple thousand pounds, there is a tube of rubber (and other materials) that is full of air holding it up.

Air.

Think about it: What is a flat tire but the absence of air.

One of the leading tire manufacturers is Firestone.

So it knows a lot about creating automotive air-holding objects for purposes of improved ride and handling.

Turns out that the company holds the first patent in the world for air springs. And it has been producing them for some 75 years.

An air spring doesn’t look like what you think about when you think “spring.” No, it isn’t a rubber spiral full of air.

Rather, it is more like a cylinder.

Air springs provide better control of comfort and vehicle leveling. And to the point of leveling: they’re usually found on trucks due to the heavy loads that they sometimes carry.

Here’s another place where they have applicability: electric vehicles.

Reason: The battery packs are heavy.

In a Tesla Model 3 the battery weighs over 1,000 pounds. And as EVs get bigger, so do the batteries, so does the challenge of ride and handling.

So the folks at Firestone Industrial Products, which make air springs (among other things), are expanding the production capacity of the factory Williamsburg, Kentucky,  where the springs are manufactured. It is investing $51 million in the effort.

The rationale: “With the increase in vehicle electrification, Firestone air suspension systems are in high demand among the most innovative and forward-thinking original equipment manufacturers globally “Firestone air suspensions are optimally designed with electric vehicles in mind. Compared to traditional coil spring suspensions, our air suspensions are designed to help improve the handling and comfort of heavier electric vehicles and can even help improve EV range by lowering the vehicle to help improve aerodynamics. Advanced air suspensions are increasingly a ‘must-have’ technology on premium electric vehicles, and Firestone is committed to maintaining its leadership in this exciting and important market.”–Emily Poladian, president, Firestone Industrial Products.

GM Gets Ahead of the Curve on EV Battery Recycling

“GM’s zero-waste initiative aims to divert more than 90 percent of its manufacturing waste from landfills and incineration globally by 2025,” said Ken Morris, GM vice president of Electric and Autonomous Vehicles. This is one effort toward that end.

By Gary S. Vasilash

No one can say that General Motors and its partner LG Energy Solution aren’t being proactive.

The two companies operate a joint venture, Ultium Cells LLC. Ultium Cells will build the Ultium batteries that GM will use in its forthcoming electric vehicles (EVs).

Ultium battery for the GMC HUMMER EV Pickup. Those white slats slot into that container. (Image: GM)

GM’s current EVs—the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV—have lithium-ion batteries, but not Ultium batteries. That’s because the vehicles were developed pre-Ultium.

However, vehicles like the forthcoming Cadillac LYRIQ, which is to become available the first half of 2022, will have Ultium batteries on board.

Ultium Cells announced that it will be working with L-Cycle, a battery recycling company, to, well, recycle the material scrap from battery cell manufacturing.

Cobalt. Nickel. Lithium. Graphite. Manganese. Aluminum.

According to GM, 95% of the reclaimed materials can go into things like new batteries.

Li-Cycle says that the hydrometallurgical process it uses to recycle the materials is more energy efficient than other methods, like high-temperature “smelting” processes.

Which is fitting to what Ultium Cells is up to, as Thomas Gallagher, the company’s COO, said, “We strive to make more with less waste and energy expended.”

And at the very least, it undoubtedly beats the heck out of mining those materials.

The recycling process is scheduled to go on line later this year.

After all, they need to develop batteries so they can develop scrap.