SAN JOSE, California – Researchers in laboratories from Silicon Valley to Boston have been searching for years for an elusive magic potion of chemicals, minerals and metals that would allow electric vehicles to charge in minutes and travel hundreds of miles between charges, all for a much lower price than batteries available now.
Now some of these researchers and the companies they founded are approaching a milestone. They build factories to produce the next generation of battery cells, so that car manufacturers can start testing the technologies on the roads and determine if they are safe and reliable.
Factory operations are largely limited in scale, designed to perfect production techniques. It will take several years before cars with high-performance batteries appear in showrooms, and even longer before the batteries are available in cars with reasonable prices. But the beginning of assembly line production offers the tempting prospects of a revolution in electric mobility.
If the technologies can be mass-produced, electric vehicles can compete with fossil fuel-powered vehicles for convenience and underbid them on price. Harmful emissions from car traffic can be significantly reduced. The inventors of the technologies can easily become billionaires – if they are not already.
For dozens of start-ups working with new types of batteries and battery materials, the rise from monastic laboratories to the harsh conditions of the real world is a moment of truth.
Producing millions of battery cells in a factory is much more difficult than making a few hundred in a clean room – a room designed to minimize pollution.
“Just because you have a material that is entitled to work does not mean you can make it work,” said Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of QuantumScape, a battery maker in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. . “You have to figure out how to produce it in a way that is flawless and has high enough uniformity.”
In addition to the risk, the decline in technology stocks has removed billions of dollars in value from publicly traded battery companies. It will not be as easy for them to raise the money they need to build a manufacturing business and pay their employees. Most people have little or no income because they have not yet started selling a product.
A critical year for electric vehicles
As the overall car market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered cars worldwide increases.
QuantumScape was worth $ 54 billion in the stock market shortly after it was listed in 2020. It was recently worth around $ 4 billion.
That has not stopped the company from moving forward with a factory in San Jose that by 2024, if all goes well, will be able to knock out hundreds of thousands of cells so that cars can be charged in less than 10 minutes. Car manufacturers will use the factory’s production to test whether the batteries can withstand rough roads, cold, heat waves and car washes.
Car manufacturers also want to know if the batteries can be recharged hundreds of times without losing the ability to store electricity, if they can survive a crash without bursting into flames and if they can be produced cheaply.
It is not certain that all the new technologies will live up to the inventors’ promises. Shorter charging times and longer range can be at the expense of battery life, said David Deak, a former Tesla CEO who is now a consultant on battery materials. “Most of these new material concepts provide tremendous performance measurements, but compromise on something else,” said Mr. Deak.
Still, with the support of Volkswagen, Bill Gates and who’s who of Silicon Valley figures, QuantumScape illustrates how much faith and money is placed in companies that claim to be able to meet all of these requirements.
Mr. Singh, who previously started a company that made telecommunications equipment, founded QuantumScape in 2010 after buying a Roadster, Tesla’s first production vehicle. Despite the Roadster’s notorious unreliability, Mr. Singh was convinced that electric cars were the future.
“It was enough to give a glimpse of what could be,” he said. The key, he realized, was a battery that was able to store more energy, and “the only way to do that is to look for a new chemistry, a chemical breakthrough.”
Mr. Singh teamed up with Fritz Prinz, a professor at Stanford University, and Tim Holme, a researcher at Stanford. John Doerr, known for being among the first investors in Google and Amazon, gave seed money. JB Straubel, a co-founder of Tesla, was another early supporter and a member of QuantumScape’s board.
After years of experimentation, QuantumScape developed a ceramic material – its exact composition is a secret – that separates the positive and negative ends of the batteries, allowing electrons to flow back and forth while avoiding short circuits. The technology makes it possible to replace a solid material with the liquid electrolyte that carries energy between the positive and negative poles of a battery, so that it can pack more energy per pound.
“We spent about the first five years searching for a material that could work,” said Mr. Singh. “And after we thought we found one, we spent another five years or so figuring out how to produce it properly.”
Although the QuantumScape plant in San Jose is technically a “pre-pilot” assembly line, it is almost as large as four football fields. Recently, rows of empty cubicles with black swivel chairs awaited new employees, and machinery stood on pallets ready for assembly.
In laboratories around Silicon Valley and elsewhere, dozens if not hundreds of other entrepreneurs have pursued a similar technological goal, drawing on the connection between venture capital and university research that drove the growth of the semiconductor and software industries.
Another prominent name is SES AI, founded in 2012 based on technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SES has support from General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, the Chinese car manufacturers Geely and SAIC, and the South Korean battery manufacturer SK Innovation. In March, SES, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, opened a plant in Shanghai that produces prototype cells. The company plans to start delivering to automakers in large volumes in 2025.
SES shares have also plummeted, but Qichao Hu, CEO and one of the founders, said he was not worried. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “When the market is bad, only the good ones will survive. It will help the industry reset.”
SES and other battery companies say they have solved the basic scientific barriers required to make cells that will be safer, cheaper and more powerful. Now it’s a question of figuring out how to churn them out into the millions.
“We are confident that the remaining challenges are engineering,” said Doug Campbell, CEO of Solid Power, a battery manufacturer backed by Ford Motor and BMW. Solid Power, based in Louisville, Colo., Said in June that they had installed a pilot production line that would begin delivering cells for testing purposes to its automotive partners by the end of the year.
Indirectly, Tesla has created many of the Silicon Valley startups. The company trained a generation of battery experts, many of whom quit and went 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, both electrical engineers on nuclear submarines, when he was 9. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, and then became the seventh employee of Tesla, where he helped develop The Roadster battery.
Tesla effectively created the EV battery industry by proving that people would buy electric vehicles and force traditional automakers to count on the technology, Berdichevsky said. “That’s what’s going to make the world electric,” he said, “everyone is competing to make a better electric car.”
Sila belongs to a group of start-up companies that have developed materials that significantly improve the performance of existing battery designs, and increase the 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 power inside batteries, instead of the graphite that is prevalent in existing designs. Silicon can contain much more energy per pound than graphite, which means that batteries can be lighter and cheaper and charge faster. Silicon will also ease US dependence on refined graphite in China.
The disadvantage of silicon is that it swells to three times the size when charged, which potentially loads the components so much that the battery would fail. People like Yimin Zhu, OneD’s chief technology officer, have spent a decade baking different mixes in laboratories full of equipment, looking for ways to overcome this problem.
Sila, OneD and Group14 are now in various stages of increasing production at locations in Washington State.
In May, Sila announced an agreement to supply the silicon material to Mercedes-Benz from a factory in Moses Lake, Washington. Mercedes plans to use the material in luxury sports cars from 2025.
Porsche has announced plans to use Group14’s silicon material by 2024, albeit in a limited number of vehicles. Rick Luebbe, CEO of Group14, said a major manufacturer would use the company’s technology – which he said would allow a car to charge in 10 minutes – next year.
“At that time, all the benefits of electric vehicles are available without any disadvantages,” said Luebbe.
The demand for batteries is so great that there is plenty of room for more companies to succeed. But with dozens if not hundreds of other companies pursuing a piece of a market that will be worth $ 1 trillion when all new cars are electric, it’s guaranteed to be wrong.
“With each new transformation industry, you start with a lot of players, and it gets limited,” Luebbe said. – We’ll see that here.