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Inside Innovation: The quest for a ‘million mile battery’ is key to future growth

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: The quest for a ‘million mile battery’ is key to future growth

The development of battery-powered equipment is rapid and relentless. We’re witnessing an increased diversity in cordless tools, larger and more powerful wheeled construction machinery and new electric pickups and long-haul transport vehicles.

Reduced dependency on fossil fuels is good news for the environment. However, as new products and prototypes roll out, there remains a question most prospective purchasers ask: “What is the useful range between recharges?”

It’s a question that haunts developers of larger trucks and construction machinery in particular. Widespread acceptance hinges on the answer.

Current state-of-the-art batteries use lithium-ion technology. Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium. The other key ingredient is cobalt. Most cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, raising a number of ethical questions surrounding the country’s mining practices.

From a performance standpoint, however, the main issue confronting lithium-ion batteries concerns their limitations.

Ever-larger electric machines will need more and more batteries to deal with anticipated workloads. For example, Tesla’s highly-publicized electric Cybertruck will require five times the number of battery cells than Tesla’s passenger cars, according to founder and CEO Elon Musk. Ford promises that its  electric F-150 will be the most powerful pickup in its line-up. That means big batteries.

Batteries are heavy. Adding more battery cells brings the weight of electric vehicles significantly above that of their gas-powered counterparts, increasing power drain and reducing useful range.

At the same time, the cost of lithium batteries has been rising rapidly due to an increased demand for electric cars worldwide. The result is a shortage of batteries, partially responsible for pushing back the introduction of both Tesla’s Cybertruck and Ford’s electric F-150 into 2022.

A battery technology breakthrough is needed now more than ever before, not only to increase the useful range of electrically powered machines but to also deal with what will likely be a long-term shortage of lithium battery cells for all types of modern devices.

Given its high profile, no company is more sensitive to the need for increased useful range and cell supply than Tesla. The company is responding by researching solutions on two fronts.

One is a research agreement initiated in June 2015 (recently renewed to 2026) between Tesla and Dalhousie University. The development of new high-performance materials for lithium-ion batteries is under the guidance of lithium-ion battery pioneer Jeff Dahn, the NSERC/Tesla Canada Inc. Industrial Research Chair and Canada Research Chair in Materials for Advanced Batteries.

According to a Dalhousie news story, “Dr. Dahn’s group has been filing patents on battery technology for Tesla that could lead to a new battery cell enabling a million miles in a battery pack.”

A “million mile battery” sounds like a Holy Grail quest. However, Tesla has another iron in the fire — using nickel in place of cobalt.

Nickel is relatively inexpensive and has high energy density, which is why its increased use in batteries is an important goal for everyone in the industry, Drew Baglino, Tesla senior vice-president of powertrain and energy, said during the company’s 2020 Annual Shareholder Meeting.

In fact, three new alternate battery types are under development, Musk told Tesla shareholders: iron phosphate for medium-range vehicle use and stationary power supply applications; nickel-manganese as a medium-plus; and high-nickel for long range applications like Cybertruck.

Musk sees another benefit in transitioning to nickel batteries.

“The battery for the first time will have dual use: as an energy device and as structure.”

He claims using batteries as part of the vehicle’s structural framework will result in a 10 per cent reduction in mass, a 14 per cent increase in range and eliminate 370 parts.

This “dual use” extends to the newly announced electric excavators from Volvo and Komatsu, where the huge batteries will also serve as counterweights.

Musk views Tesla’s technology investment as mandatory.

“We are not getting in the cell business for the hell of it, but because it is the limiting factor for rapid growth.”

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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