Battery bonanza
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Morning Brew April 01, 2022

Emerging Tech Brew

Rabbit, rabbit: It’s April, a month with many obligations. April is simultaneously National Afternoon Tea Month, National Canine Fitness Month, National Fresh Celery Month, International Guitar Month, and, of course, Records and Information Management Month.

At the risk of overburdening these next 30 days, we’re adding another to the list: Battery Month. Throughout April, we’ll publish pieces exploring different short- and long-term challenges surrounding the power cells that underpin society’s transition to clean energy.

To kick things off, today’s issue is a crash course on the topic—look out for more in-depth coverage of the batteries throughout the month.

In today’s edition:
A conversation with Europe’s biggest battery maker
Battery updates aplenty in North America
ABCs of batteries

Grace Donnelly, Dan McCarthy

BATTERIES

The company that could fuel Europe’s battery-based future

Rendering of a northvolt factory Northvolt

By the end of the decade, Europe could be the world’s second-biggest producer of batteries—and a Swedish startup called Northvolt may be key to its potential rise.

Zoom in: Although founded only six years ago, Northvolt is the leading European battery maker. The company announced three new battery facilities in the first quarter of 2022, including a 60 gigawatt-hour (GWh) battery plant in the northern region of Germany in March.

  • In Sweden, Northvolt plans to build a 50 GWh facility that will supply EV battery cells to Volvo and Polestar and convert a paper mill into a manufacturing plant for cathode active materials and battery cells.
  • So far, it’s raised $6 billion to realize its plans.

All three gigafactories are expected to begin operations by the end of 2025, and manufacturing would ramp up in the years after, bringing Northvolt’s total potential battery production capacity to more than 170 GWh—enough to power at least 1.5 million EVs per year.

Global electric-vehicle sales more than doubled in 2021, and EVs could make up the majority of new cars sold in Europe as soon as 2025, according to a study by Element Energy. That will likely add up to ~6 million new EV sales annually in the region.

We spoke with Jesper Wigardt, vice president of communications and public affairs at Northvolt, about the company’s strategy for growth and the challenges of building out a battery supply chain in Europe.

Looking ahead...“We’re in the middle of a race for capacity,” Wigardt said. “We’re seeing a market being built up pretty much from scratch, but in a maybe eight- to 10-year period of time, that window will close. The suppliers will be picked and the supply chain will be set. So it’s really now that things are happening.”

Read the full interview here.GD

        

BATTERIES

March was a battery bonanza in North America

collage of a car with battery and lithium mines Francis Scialabba

The US trails China and Europe in electrifying its transportation, but as demand for EVs grows, the world’s biggest battery makers are turning their attention to North America.

The US accounted for less than 10% of global cell production capacity in 2020, but momentum around domestic battery making is gathering fast.

  • In the last few weeks, it’s been reported that the three largest battery manufacturers in the world could collectively commit more than $11 billion to building more than 135 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of new battery production capacity in North America.
  • Here’s a roundup of the announcements.

Some context: The flurry of battery news comes after a succession of big announcements in late 2021. In September, Ford and SK Innovation unveiled a historic $11.4 billion plan for US battery production, and just a few months later, Toyota announced plans for a $1.29 billion battery factory in North Carolina.

Those investments are just the start of the scramble to establish a domestic EV-battery supply chain. North American battery-cell production capacity could increase tenfold by the end of the decade, per Wood Mackenzie estimates, with US capacity growing from less than 60GWh to more than 700GWh.

Zoom out: On the last day of March, the Biden admin invoked the Defense Production Act to increase mining and refining of critical minerals for batteries, such as cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite, and manganese.

While the move was prompted by high energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, clean-energy advocates have long emphasized the importance of securing supply chains for these raw materials essential to batteries and other climate tech.

Read the full story here.GD

        

FROM THE CREW

Morning Brew is on YouTube! Our shows cover the tech, trends, and companies you care about—in a way that won’t make your eyes burn from jargon or boredom. If you’re wondering how the world works (that makes two of us!), let’s figure it out together. Check out some of our latest videos: How the gas supply chain actually works, The unlikely meme-stock investor who made bank, and Explaining the Metaverse from the Metaverse.

BATTERIES

The ABCs of batteries

The ABCs of batteries Francis Scialabba

Batteries come in all sizes, shapes, and chemical compositions—here’s a crash course in some of the key features of everyone’s favorite electrochemical device.

For starters, every battery—yes, even the hallowed potato battery—has the following three key components…

  • Anode: AKA the negative terminal, this is the place from which electrons are released before they enter into the electrolyte.
  • Electrolyte: This chemical medium—which is often but not always in liquid form—shuttles ions from the anode to the cathode in a way that safely enables the production of electricity.
  • Cathode: This is the positive terminal of a battery, meaning it accepts electrons that make the odyssey from the anode, through the electrolyte.

Now, where things get complicated is that these three components can be made of a wholleeee bunch of different minerals, in their many states (solid, liquid, semi-solid, and so on). Battery chemistry is more or less the study of how to safely combine these materials—cobalt, iron, lithium, manganese, copper, nickel, zinc, and so on—in order to most efficiently store energy.

All EVs on the road today are powered by lithium-based batteries, but even these come in many flavors.

  • Lithium manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) batteries have cathodes made up of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. These batteries are the most commonly used in EVs.
  • Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries are growing in popularity. This battery chemistry is less energy dense than NMC but less costly to produce because it doesn’t require more expensive cathode materials like cobalt and nickel.
  • Solid-state batteries, which have a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid one, have also been in the headlines recently. These next-gen batteries are actually lithium-metal rather than lithium-ion.

Go deeper: If the above breakdown is the AAA battery of explainers, this article is the 1,000-pound, EV battery-sized lesson.—GD, DM

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BITS AND BYTES

illustration of a silver electric vehicle plugged into a big battery Francis Scialabba

Stat: Global lithium-ion battery capacity could rise by more than 5x between 2021 and 2030, per Wood Mackenzie research. China is expected to maintain its huge lead in the space, though the firm projects its market share to fall from 90% to, uh, *just* 69% by 2030.

Quote: “When we started Tesla in 2003, the batteries were just good enough, but what we had noticed was that they got better at about 7%–8% a year, and had for a long time,” Marc Tarpenning, co-founder of Tesla, told WSJ. “It’s been 19 years, and we still haven’t had a step change in battery capacity—it just ticks along at 7%–8% per year.”

Read: Five charts explaining the future of EV batteries.

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WHAT ELSE IS BREWING

A brief break from the world of batteries to ensure you’re up-to-date on other news…

  • DeepMind has been accused by former employees of allegedly mishandling “serious sexual assault complaints.”
  • Waymo is expanding its Arizona-based, fully driverless robotaxi service into downtown Phoenix, after operating in surrounding areas for five years. ICYMI, we took 10 trips in Waymo’s AZ robotaxis last year.
  • Intel bought Granulate, a startup that uses AI to optimize computing workloads, for a cool $650 million, reportedly.
  • Masoyoshi Son has reportedly told Softbank execs to pump the brakes on investments.
  • Superpedestrian, an e-scooter software company, raised $125 million to roll out an AI system called “Pedestrian Defense,” which aims to rein in rambunctious and reckless riders.

GOING PHISHING

Three of the following news stories are true, and one...we made up. Can you spot the odd one out?

TECH THINGAMABOBS

For a quiz: Click here to test your battery knowledge.

For a delicious display of battery making: How to make a lithium-ion battery…using food.

For critical minerals 101: Everything you need to know about the materials that make batteries work.

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GOING PHISHING ANSWER

We haven’t come across any such announcement from researchers, but we did come across this Reddit thread, where a user claims it’d take 1 billion potatoes to power a Tesla Model S.

Do with that what you will.

 

Written by Grace Donnelly and Dan McCarthy

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