Could this new battery slash the cost of an electric car?

Automakers are spending billions of dollars in a fierce battle to develop better batteries to power the upcoming industry shift to all-electric vehicles.
Image: Nikola One
Nikola One, a Class 8 semi.Nikola Motors

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

Automakers around the world are investing tens of billions of dollars to electrify their line-ups, but there are still a number of obstacles limiting mainstream acceptance — such as range and cost.

But Phoenix-based Nikola Motors may have found what its CEO describes as the “Holy Grail of batteries,” an alternative to today’s lithium-ion technology that could double the distance a battery-electric vehicle can travel between charges, while cutting battery costs in half.

“We are not talking about small improvements; we are talking about doubling the range of BEVs and hydrogen-electric vehicles around the world,” said Trevor Milton, founder and chief executive of Nikola.

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Nikola, a start-up that has focused on hydrogen and battery-powered heavy-duty trucks, isn’t offering many details about the new technology and, considering that other promised breakthroughs have failed to prove production ready, there are plenty of skeptics. Even if it does pan out, tech consultancy ABI Research warns it would likely take several years, at the soonest, to begin manufacturing.

What Nikola has revealed is that it plans to acquire an unnamed battery start-up that created the new technology. It says it will provide more information once that deal is completed early in 2020.

The company has offered some hints as to how the new technology works, suggesting it relies on modifications to current lithium-ion batteries, rather than completely replacing them entirely. It appears the key to the new battery is removing the binder material and electric current collectors used in today’s lithium-ion cells. That would reduce not only size and weight, Milton claimed, but also make the new batteries “more conductive,” translating into faster charging times.

Nikola claims that preliminary testing shows the batteries can withstand 2,000 charge and discharge cycles, or twice the current industry standard for motor vehicles. If that were to prove valid in real-world applications, it would suggest a truck could clock over 1.5 million miles before needing to replace the pack.

The technology also could find other applications, not only in passenger cars but even in consumer devices, such as cellphones, Nikola indicated.

Several technologies appear to offer promise, including “solid state” batteries that replace the chemical slurry in lithium-ion batteries with a ceramic material. Toyota is just one of the automakers sponsoring research into solid state technology which, proponents claim, could drop the price of an automotive battery from somewhere between $120 and $145 per kilowatt-hour today to less than $70, and perhaps as low as $50.

Driving down battery costs will be critical to achieving parity between EVs and gas-powered vehicles — something many auto industry watchers say could happen by the middle of the decade. And whoever comes up with a true battery breakthrough would have a significant leg up on competitors.