With automakers around the world planning to invest as much as $500 billion or more to bring electric vehicles to market during the coming decade the weak link remains the same as it’s ever been: the battery. While today’s lithium-ion technology has improved significantly in recent years, it still has significant challenges when it comes to weight, cost, range and charging times.
Finding a lighter, cheaper battery that can deliver extended range while charging up as quickly as you can fill a gas tank has become today’s Holy Grail. Most of the focus has been on improved versions of today’s lithium technology, such as solid-state batteries replacing their slurry of chemicals with a solid or foam-like material. But other technologies, including ultracapacitors, are also in the works.
Now, an Australian-based company called Graphene Manufacturing Group, or GPG, is jumping into the fray with an aluminum-based battery it claims can address virtually all the shortcomings of today’s lithium-ion cells. Among other things, its aluminum-ion battery can – at least in the lab – charge 60 times faster than lithium-ion cells.
That alone would be a potential game-changer. According to a report in Forbes, a coin-sized battery can be charged up in less than 10 seconds. Such batteries are a long way off from what would be needed in an automobile but, even in a much larger format, GPG says its new technology could be fully charged in well under 10 minutes, on a par with a conventional fill up.
One of the reasons is that the graphene-based technology is far less finicky than today’s state-of-the-art batteries. The problem with lithium is that it likes to operate at the same temperature as a human being, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So, an automotive battery pack needs a large heavy — and costly — climate control system. Resistance within lithium-ion batteries causes significant heat, especially when connected to a public quick-charger. That’s one reason those chargers normally cut off at about 80% of capacity.
“So far there are no temperature problems. Twenty percent of a lithium-ion battery pack (in a vehicle) is to do with cooling them. There is a very high chance that we won’t need that cooling or heating at all,” GMG Managing Director Craig Nicol told Forbes.
On top of that, preliminary data indicate aluminum-ion batteries could store as much as three times more energy as lithium cells. That could pay off in several ways: translating into vehicles delivering perhaps 1,000 miles per charge compared with today’s range leaders of 300 to 400 miles.
Alternatively, an automaker could maintain current range targets but get there with battery packs that would be significant smaller and lighter — and potentially far less costly.
If anything, GPG is promising its technology would be significantly less expensive. One reason would be the need for fewer battery cells. But the company also notes that it needs less costly ingredients. Raw aluminum currently costs less than a sixth as much as lithium — which has skyrocketed in price as more cars and consumer goods have started using batteries.
As the demand for batteries has soared, and the call for better battery technology has escalated, we’ve been hearing a lot about alternative approaches. The spotlight has lately been on solid-state technology. Honda, notably, said that its plan to start rolling out a new EV platform during the second half of this decade is paired with a goal of using solid-state cells. Other manufacturers, including Toyota and Ford, have hinted at similar targets for the technology.
But the Brisbane-based GPG could be the wildcard that changes everything — if its boasts prove out beyond the lab. A good sign came with a peer-reviewed report by the publication Advanced Functional Materials which declared GPG’s calls delivered “outstanding high-rate performance.”
That said, throughout the years, there’ve been many promising technologies that worked on the bench but not in a smartphone or, in particular, in the demanding environment a battery-electric vehicle must face.
We might not have to wait long to find out if GPG is onto something. It plans to bring the first aluminum-ion coin-sized cells to market this year or early in 2022. And it wants to have prismatic, or pouch-style, automotive cells in production by 2024.
There are plenty of questions that it will have to answer by then. Among other things, that includes the ability to mass-produce the technology easily and affordably.
But if aluminum-ion lives up to its promise, it could be the transformative breakthrough everyone has been looking for.