Traditional gas-guzzling cars are currently outselling electric vehicles at a rate of almost 50 to one. A major reason for that gap is the high cost of the lithium-ion batteries under the hood. But a new manufacturing approach developed by researchers at MIT and startup 24M could significantly reduce the cost of the batteries while also improving their performance and making them more easily recyclable.
Lithium-ion batteries are the most widely used type of rechargeable batteries. They’re found in consumer electronics like smartphones and tablets as well as many electric cars (among other applications), so any reduction in cost — especially one as dramatic at this — could make serious waves in a bunch of industries.
A Better Manufacturing Process
The current process for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries has remained relatively unchanged since their inception two decades ago. “We’ve reinvented the process,” said Yet-Ming Chiang, Kyocera Professor of Ceramics at MIT and co-founder of 24M.
Unlike traditional lithium-ion batteries, which are made with solid electrodes, 24M’s batteries utilize a “semisolid” electrode. It’s a hybrid between so-called “flow batteries” (where electrodes are suspensions of tiny particles carried by liquid and pumped throughout the battery) and conventional solid ones.
Chiang says they’ve managed to ditch more than 80 percent of the non-energy storing materials in the battery while increasing the size of the electrode by over five times compared to a conventional lithium-ion battery.
The company claims this new design simplifies the manufacturing process, enabling them to produce batteries for half the cost and in one-fifth of the time of traditional batteries.
According to Chiang, the new system not only streamlines the manufacturing process — it also produces a more flexible and resilient battery. While traditional lithium-ion batteries contain brittle electrodes that tend to crack under pressure, 24M’s new system produces battery cells that can be bent or folded without failing. The company even claims that its battery cells can survive penetration by a bullet.
Chiang says this will improve the safety and durability of lithium-ion batteries. This could be a big deal for electric cars, where fire is a concern. Tesla stores its batteries inside an armored shell for precisely this reason. Eliminating the need for that shell could reduce weight and allow for easier maintenance.
The Future Of Battery Manufacturing?
24M has produced an initial run of 10,000 sample batteries to ship to potential partners and customers for testing. Right now, the company’s focus is on grid-scale installations, which are used to provide backup for renewable energy sources that produce intermittent output, like wind and solar power. Some of its early partners include an oil company in Thailand and Japanese heavy-equipment manufacturer IHI Corp.
Electric vehicles are also on Chiang’s radar. He actually has a longstanding interest in transportation applications: he spun 24M out of his previous company, A123 Systems, which produced lithium-ion batteries specifically for electric cars.
Chiang estimates that 24M will be able to produce lithium-ion batteries for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour of capacity by 2020. Venkat Viswanathan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University says that 24M’s new battery design “could do the same sort of disruption to [lithium ion] batteries manufacturing as what mini-mills did to the integrated steel mills.”
The implications of a cheaper and more efficient battery manufacturing process are clear. Savings at the manufacturing level can be passed down to the consumer, making for more affordable products and a greater incentive to choose electric cars over their gas-burning counterparts.
“For me, the ultimate win would be if this would become the de facto standard for battery production around the world,” said Chiang.
What do you think about 24M’s new approach to battery manufacturing? Would cheaper lithium-ion batteries have any major effects on your day-to-day life? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!