Nanomaterials Produce Better Batteries at Half the Cost

A new manufacturing process could drastically reduce the price of batteries for electric vehicles, behind-the-meter storage, and grid-level energy storage systems.

Helped by a $4M grant from the Canadian federal government, Vancouver upstart Nano One has developed and patented a process that decreases the cost and improves the performance of Li-ion batteries. If the technique proves itself feasible on a large scale, we could see electric vehicles with more range and energy storage systems with higher capacities, all with a lower price tag.

After in-house proof of concept and third party validation, Nano One recently completed construction of a large-scale pilot plant. According to project manager Robin Sweeny, “The pilot will showcase Nano One’s patented technology, simulate full-scale production of cathode materials for the electric vehicle market, and initiate commercial scale-up opportunities with strategic interests.”

Reducing the Cost of Li-Ion

Making the cathode is one of the most expensive parts of Li-ion battery manufacturing since the lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt blend requires a multi-stage process that takes several days and enormous amounts of heat. Nano One’s patented process combines the elements chemically rather than mechanically, producing the cathode material in hours using considerably less energy. The method also allows manufacturers to use low-cost lithium carbonate instead of the pricier lithium hydroxide that’s currently used by most battery producers.

The chemical process quickly produces cathode material with nanometer-sized crystals, which Nano One says improves the stability of the cathode, making a longer-lasting, higher performing battery.

Although the supply of lithium looks good for the next five years or so, industry insiders believe that a rapid increase in the demand for electric vehicles and energy storage systems could result in a lithium shortage. Nano One’s process uses less of the element, which helps extend the supply.

Improving the Performance of Li-Ion

Nano One claims that the new method produces batteries that maintain a nearly constant voltage across the entire range of discharging which, according to Principal Scientist Dr. Stephen Campbell,  “reduces heating, aids durability, and simplifies the power management systems.”

Tests show that Nano One batteries deliver a higher specific energy (energy per unit of mass) than today’s NMC  Li-ion technology. They also outperform current batteries at higher discharge rates, so Tesla drivers wouldn’t see quite as much of a decrease in range when they punch it into Ludicrous Mode.  

Lower cost, better performance … anything else? How about more charge/discharge cycles? Early testing suggests that batteries made with Nano One’s process maintain their capacity over more cycles than current Li-ion batteries. That means consumers and utilities won’t have to replace their batteries as often, resulting in a lower total cost of ownership for EVs and energy storage systems.

Plays Well With Others

Nano One believes that its process can reduce the cost of Li-ion batteries by up to 50%. I asked CEO Dan Blondal if this technology could be used by existing battery manufacturers without significant retooling. He said, “Cathode materials made by Nano One’s process should work well with existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing. The material properties and battery chemistry would be the same. The differences lie in the way we make the cathode materials – which enables (1) a wider range of lithium sources, (2) fewer steps and lower capex/opex and (3) improved phase purity (crystallinity) and performance.” So if Tesla, Panasonic, and other battery makers want to license the technology, they can do so without major changes to their existing factories.

When asked if Nano One is willing to license its process to other companies, Mr. Blondal responded, “Nano One’s business plan is based on a license model – i.e. to provide technology (patents, know-how, people) and to provide an engineering package (plans to build at full scale). The equipment needed is pretty standard to chemical producers and much of the equipment (reactors, dryers, furnace and balance of plant) is already in place. Many cathode lines are expected to be coming on line to meet rapid LiB growth projections, and as such, there is a real appetite for manufacturing technology that can give players a sustainable and differentiable advantage.”

Here’s Dan Blondal explaining the process:

Video courtesy of BNN

Nano One’s in-house bench testing produces about one kilogram of cathode material per day. The pilot plant is expected to deliver ten times that amount. If all goes well, the company believes that the process can generate up to 2000 kg (two metric tons) per day on a production scale. That’s a lot of Powerwalls!

Images courtesy of Nano One Materials


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