Jump-starting electric vehicle sales in the U.S. is one of the goals of President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, part of an agenda to shift the nation away from fossil fuels.
The proposal unveiled last week promises $174 billion worth of incentives including point-of-sale rebates for consumers who buy EVs, support for suppliers and workers who build the vehicles, and grants aimed at spurring the construction of a network of 500,000 chargers by 2030. However it appears to give short shrift to an important underlying component of EVs: lithium ion batteries.
Biden “omitted any vow to stimulate the manufacturer of actual batteries — the nerve center and most valuable single component of an EV, accounting for a quarter or a third of the sticker price,” wrote Steve LeVine, Medium editor at large, in a story for The Mobilist last week. “It’s equivalent to General Motors or Ford neglecting to nail down the sourcing of their engines.”
That means the U.S. could be leaving other countries, particularly China, to dominate that aspect of the industry. Citing research from London-based Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, LeVine wrote that China has 148 of 200 planned and existing battery gigafactories around the world. Europe has 21 and the U.S. just 11.
Then of course there are a host of challenges with the batteries themselves, which could also pose obstacles to the EV industry’s growth in the U.S. Among those are potential risks associated with some batteries catching fire or exploding; environmental concerns relating to lithium extraction; and the difficulty of recycling the batteries.
On top of all of that, there is also the problem of inconveniently-long charging times for EV batteries. Depending on the strength of the power source, an 80% charge could take half a day or maybe only 30 minutes. Most electric vehicles can go about 200 to 300 miles per charge, or roughly from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, author and technology policy consultant Levi Tillemann said Biden’s proposal for EVs is “already outdated” because it focuses on increasing the amount of charging stations, rather than a much faster solution of battery swapping. The concept, now employed in China, relies on robots to switch out depleted batteries for fully charged ones, allowing drivers to immediately get back on the road.
That option could also be greener as well as more convenient, Tillemann noted. Left to recharge batteries at a more leisurely pace, stations could rely on solar or wind power instead of electricity generated from natural gas or coal-fired plants.
But all hope is not lost. There are a host of startups working on these problems, and some may see a boost as the government encourages expansion of the market. Here is a handful of standouts in the space.
Recycling: Redwood Materials
Launched in 2017 by Tesla co-founder and former CTO JB Straubel, Redwood Materials helps partners recycle batteries, electronics, and end-of-life products with environmentally-sound processing and refining technologies to produce key elements for circular supply chains.”
According to TechCrunch, the Carson City, Nevada-based startup has swiftly become the largest lithium-ion battery recycling firm in North America. The company recently disclosed that it is partnering with electric bus maker Proterra to recycle batteries for the automaker.
Redwood Materials has a similar partnership with e-bike maker Specialized and has arrangements to process scrap battery materials from the Nevada Tesla Gigafactory and from Amazon, according to TechCrunch. The company also accepts electronic devices from consumers for recycling.
San Francisco-based Ample promises vehicles that use its battery-swapping stations will be ready to hit the road again in just 10 minutes. The company, founded in 2014, has opened five locations in California’s Bay Area, catering to Uber drivers.
Battery swapping has been tried by some other startups in the past, and did not gain traction. Ample has claimed that it will avoid those pitfalls by targeting commercial fleet vehicles, such as taxis and ride service cars.
By focusing on a limited number of automobile models, the battery stations can operate at lower costs than others have in the past, according to Forbes. The stations are about the width of two parking spaces, and includes equipment which hoists the vehicle in the air and robots that go underneath the car to exchange a fresh battery for the depleted one. The cost for the swap is a fraction of the price of a jolt of juice from a high-power fast-charging stations.
Safety: NOHMs Technologies
Co-founded by Cornell biomedical engineering researcher Shivaun Archer, NOHMs Technologies works on making breakthrough improvements to create “next-generation” lithium ion batteries using advanced electrolyte solutions. The company says its mission is to “provide materials and chemistry for longer-lasting, safer, and more sustainable lithium-ion batteries” that would also be lower-cost and non-flammable.
In business since 2011, the Rochester, New York-based firm was founded through an initial grant from the U.S. Air Force. It has also worked with the Formula E high-performance racing market, and has been working with NASA to create a “space battery.”
The company also sells solvents and chemical additives that can improve existing batteries.
San Jose-based QuantumScape, launched in 2010, is aiming to develop solid-state lithium metal batteries that can go much longer between charges and be replenished faster. The company has a joint manufacturing venture with Volkswagen that included a $300 million funding commitment.
Founded by Fritz Prinz, Jagdeep Singh and Tim Holme, the company also counts Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners as investors. The company went public through an IPO last year. Its stock price has been on a rollercoaster in recent weeks after announcing it was seeking financing in a secondary offering, and then successfully meeting an engineering milestone.
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