Dr. George Crabtree
Director, Joint Center for Energy Storage Research
Argonne National Laboratory
Here is an optimistic perspective: the U.S. or Europe can regain a competitive and perhaps a leading position in lithium-ion battery manufacturing with no significant change in battery chemistry.
Two facts support this optimism.
First, 15 years ago China had little or no footprint in lithium-ion battery manufacturing. At that time, Japan and South Korea dominated the field. In the last 15 years, China rose from effectively zero to the leading position in lithium-ion battery manufacturing. This is a proof by example of a lagging country becoming a leading country within one to two decades. Admittedly, China’s technology system operates by different rules than those of the U.S. or Europe, allowing rapid and focused development following a few strategic decisions. However, China is not the only example.
The second fact is Tesla. Tesla has established a leading position in battery manufacturing with its Nevada gigafactory, with battery output (~20 GWh/y) equal to the largest competing gigafactories in China (China has more, but none with greater output). Tesla did this without special government support or treatment. Playing by U.S. rules, Tesla competes very effectively with China. This is a proof by example that the U.S. can compete.
Europe has taken this position to heart. It is now deliberately focused on creating a battery production industry within its borders that controls the entire value chain from raw materials to cell production to pack assembly and shipping to European electric vehicle manufacturers. The first European gigafactory in this mold will be Northvolt (https://northvolt.com/), scheduled to begin production in 2021.
For sure, the U.S. cannot lead without extensive hard work, strategic planning and clever maneuvering. However, the pieces are there to do this if we put our minds to it. Congress is concerned about the lagging position of the U.S. in battery and EV competitiveness, with over a dozen bills in preparation or on the table to promote US aspirations in energy storage, battery manufacturing and EV production. Last week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) proposed a $450 billion effort to replace about 20 percent of U.S. internal combustion engine vehicles with electric, hybrid or hydrogen fuel-cell automobiles in a decade. With significant policy and incentive support from Congress and the U.S. government, U.S. lithium-ion battery manufacturers can duplicate the successes of China and Tesla.
U.S. and European battery manufacturing can incorporate significant near-term changes in lithium-ion battery technology that may positively affect the economics of electric vehicles without disrupting current battery manufacturing technology. Keep an eye on three new technologies: Solid-state electrolyte+lithium anode, water-in-salt+lithium anode, and >50% silicon in a composite anode.
Solid-state lithium-ion technology is a popular and promising concept with many manufacturers actively working on solid-state electrolytes for automotive battery applications. Solid-state lithium-ion batteries may prove safer and more stable than existing lithium-ion batteries. If manufacturers can couple solid-state electrolytes with solid lithium metal anodes, they could potentially double the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries.
Water-in-salt electrolytes share many advantages with solid-state electrolytes. Water-in-salt works at >3V, eliminates thermal runaway while being cheap and abundant. This would be a significant step forward without disrupting lithium-ion manufacturing processes. Adding a lithium metal anode would provide the same higher specific energy as with a solid-state electrolyte.
Finally, adding silicon into composite graphite (or other) anodes is another candidate capable of significantly increasing the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. The challenge is that to get a major benefit from silicon, the anode material must contain a significant amount of silicon, as much as 50% or more. Battery manufacturers today are unable to incorporate that much silicon into an anode without negatively affecting cycle life and battery performance. However, many research institutes and startups continue to work on this problem.
None of these technologies requires disrupting current lithium-ion manufacturing technology. Each should be capable of being “dropped in” to the current lithium-ion battery manufacturing process. So waiting for a new technology to disrupt China’s current lead in lithium-ion battery technology may not be a successful strategy. These near-term battery advances offer significant gains in performance and can be incorporated into new gigafactories built in the US. This could be a winning strategy.
The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Energy or the United States Government.