Electric vehicles

SES says its next-gen battery could be in cars by 2025

The Singapore-based battery-maker unveiled the first lithium-metal battery big enough to power a car, but has some hurdles to clear before it’s available to all.
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SES

· 4 min read

While lithium-ion batteries are industry standard for EVs today, automakers are placing bets on companies racing to develop the “holy grail” of EV power: lithium-metal batteries.

So far, no one has put a lithium-metal battery into a car, but one company says it has moved closer to that goal.

Lithium-metal batteries are much lighter than the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs today. With higher energy density, these batteries could offer increased range and faster charging—capable of driving 500 to 600 miles on a single charge (compared to a top EV range of around 400 miles in 2020) and cutting charge time down from hours to minutes.

SES, a Singapore–based battery maker, announced today that it has built a 107 amp hour (Ah) hybrid lithium-metal battery—the largest in the world and the first big enough to power an electric vehicle.

“Until today, all these next-gen lithium-metal batteries that people have seen are with these very small cells, up to the size of an iPhone battery,” SES founder and CEO Qichao Hu told Emerging Tech Brew. iPhone batteries are about 4 to 6 Ah, but to power an EV, these batteries need to be about 25 times that size.

“Being able to demonstrate these large-format liquid-based cells with lithium-metal anodes is something that hasn’t really been done before, so showing that working at an automotive-performance level is definitely impressive," James Frith, BloombergNEF's lead analyst on energy storage, told us.

While the EV world had estimated next-generation batteries wouldn’t make it onto the roads until at least 2030, SES is now aiming to have a lithium-metal battery ready for commercially sold cars by 2025, Hu said. To make that happen, SES announced plans to build a 300,000 square-foot lithium-metal battery facility in Shanghai by 2023.

The company began construction on the Shanghai Giga facility in Q3. Hu says it will be able to produce 1 Gwh of lithium-metal batteries annually once completed.

“Compared to lithium ion, which has hundreds of gigawatt hours of capacity globally, it doesn’t seem like a lot. But for lithium metal it’s by far the largest,” he said.

Testing, testing

Before a battery makes it into consumer vehicles, it has to go through a testing process with three rounds of samples—A, B, and C—prior to commercialization that typically takes about five years.

SES is working with GM and Hyundai to deliver A samples of its battery next year, making it the only company that has entered into joint development of lithium-metal batteries with automakers. A samples are for demonstration purposes only—once the company is able to deliver B samples and C samples, Hu said the company will begin building larger plants and entering into contracts with automakers.

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SES is headquartered in Singapore with operations in Boston, Shanghai, and Seoul, but the locations of the larger manufacturing facilities will depend on the location of the OEM partners, he said.

The battery maker began as a research project at MIT in 2012 and has been working with GM since 2015. SES has raised more than $325 million and other investors include Hyundai, Kia, and South Korean battery giant SK Innovation. Ford and BMW, for their parts, are partnering with battery company Solid Power, and Volkswagen is partnering with QuantumScape.

Much of the excitement around next-generation batteries has been focused on “solid-state,” meaning a battery with no liquid electrolytes, but not every lithium-metal battery fits that description.

“The term solid-state so far has been used in the very broad sense, so sometimes it gets confusing,” Hu said. “Basically it means fashionable. If you have a new technology in this industry, it’s called solid-state, which makes no sense. But from a pure technical perspective, there’s all solid-state, there’s hybrid, or there’s liquid.”

SES uses a hybrid electrolyte, which means the battery has a solid protective coating on the lithium-metal anode and a liquid in the cathode. On the other hand, companies like QuantumScape and Solid Power are working on batteries that are totally free of liquid, while Northvolt–owned Cuberg is developing batteries that use a nonflammable liquid electrolyte.

“There’s pros and cons to each approach,” Hu said. “No one approach is perfect.”

Looking ahead, SES also plans to go public via a SPAC merger with Ivanhoe Capital Acquisition Corp.—led by mining titan Robert Friedland—in a $3.6 billion deal expected to close by the end of 2021.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the significance of the period that we’re going through,” Hu said of the automotive industry. “I’ve never seen it in the past century, and it probably won’t happen again. There is a ton of money and resources being poured into the development of new battery technologies.”

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