US Battery Player Advises Focus on Next-Gen Frontiers

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Many have warned about steep risks from relying too heavily on one nation on the road to vehicle electrification. Notably, the US — the world's second-largest auto market by sales and production — is already about 10 years behind China when it comes to electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing. The US could work to gain some of this lost competitive ground — and curb dependence on China-made batteries for its domestic vehicle sales — by steering its focus toward next-generation batteries, says John Warner, chief customer officer at battery pack manufacturer American Battery Solutions (ABS).

In an interview with Energy Intelligence, Warner says the current situation makes little sense — in which US players develop EV battery technologies and then rely on China and other nations for the manufacturing. This “breaks the innovation cycle," Warner explains. “If we can't manufacture those developments here, we're going to be losing out significantly because we are losing the learnings from being able to build what we design. As soon as you build, you learn, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work, this does work. We can do this faster if you change this.’ By building here and manufacturing here, we're going to improve that significantly. But it's going to take us a decade to get there.” Warner is also chairman emeritus of the industry trade group the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries and has authored two books on battery packs and chemistries.

Innovation Cycle 

ABS isn’t anti-China — in fact, it partners closely with Chinese firms — but notes the country has a “near monopoly” on EV battery materials and processes. China produces some 75% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, greater than 70% of the anode and cathode materials going into those batteries, processes about 60% of the raw materials, and has been buying mines to produce raw materials.

The US, given the largesse of its economy and auto market, doesn’t have enough natural resources to fly solo on battery manufacturing. But diversifying its partnerships with regions besides China would be healthy, Warner says, pointing to US legislation now under discussion that would create a consortium between North and South America on battery minerals access. “That's the kind of thing we need from a policy perspective. Once we've got that, it's getting the manufacturing running.” The Inflation Reduction Act takes steps to ease dependence on other countries by altering the eligibility of federal EV purchase tax incentives over time depending on where the battery minerals and batteries themselves are manufactured — with extra-tough stipulations on products originating from China.

The US could also streamline permitting for new facilities, including new mines. Warner says a good example to follow is Australia, where the government sets a time limit on responding to project applications. “If we’ve got an asset and we can’t utilize it, we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Building domestic capabilities isn’t just a matter of natural resources, but also human resources. Forming battery engineering degree programs would go a long way, Warner feels. “I don't need a battery class. I need a battery engineer. I need someone who comes out of the university ready to roll, with the knowledge of all of the aspects.”

Aiming for Advanced 

Since the US is far behind China in traditional lithium-ion batteries, it makes sense for the US to “leapfrog” by focusing on advanced batteries and thus “get a jump on the industry,” Warner says. “Because we will never lead China in lithium-ion based on the lead they've got on us.”

Promising battery chemistry alternatives explored today by research teams include solid-state batteries; sodium-ion batteries; batteries that make greater use of sulfur, an abundant element; and so-called NMx batteries, a variation of the widely used nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) batteries that wouldn’t use cobalt. Solid-state batteries, for example, would replace the traditional graphite anode with lithium metal and replace the liquid electrolyte with a gel or solid material and offer expanded driving ranges, but a number of surface and interface engineering challenges remain to be overcome, Warner says. “We’re getting there,” he adds, pointing to solid-state research under way by Toyota and other automakers.

‘I Can Write You a Check Today’ 

ABS, which launched four years ago, provides battery packs for vehicles like construction vehicles and boats. It is about to unveil agreements with a large bus manufacturer and a large delivery van manufacturer in first-quarter 2023. “When people ask me if electrification is going to hit, I say 'if?' I literally can't deliver fast enough,” Warner shares. “We've had customers say, I can write you a check today if you ship packs out to us next week, but we've been in the middle of our production process.”  

Global supply-chain kinks are piling on added time constraints. “If I can't get parts, I can't build. If I can't build, I can't test. So it's been a snowball effect for us,” Warner says. “We think we've got it under control now, but as an industry, we've got a lot of work to do.”

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