Condensed Matter Battery From CATL Targets Electric Airplanes

There’s a new term in battery lingo today. At the Shanghai auto show, CATL, the world’s largest manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, announced it expects to begin production of “condensed matter” semi-solid batteries later this year. The company said the new batteries will have an energy density of 500 watt-hours per kilogram, which is significantly greater than the 300 watt-hours per kilogram common for lithium-ion batteries in use today.

Wu Kai, chief scientist for CATL, told reporters in Shanghai this week the new battery is a type of semi-solid state product with condensed electrolyte and new anode and separator materials, according to Reuters. The big news in the announcement is that batteries with that energy density may be just what the promoters of electric aircraft have been waiting for. The batteries available today simply do not store enough energy to offset the weight they would add to any airplane.

Wu said his company is currently working with unspecified partners to ensure the battery is qualified for aviation use in terms of safety and quality. Getting approval from aviation authorities for new technologies is a daunting and rigorous process, primarily because planes falling from the sky is very bad for business.

CnEVPost has more. It reports that CATL has built a micron-scale adaptive mesh structure that regulates inter-chain interaction forces for changes in the electro-chemical reactions of ultra-high energy density chemistries, according to Wu. The battery also introduces a series of innovations in isolation films as well as innovative processes, including a high energy cathode and a new type of anode, he said.

CATL & High Energy Density

At the present time, mainstream lithium-ion battery cells have energy densities of between 200 and 300 Wh/kg. Nio says it has a new 150 kWh semi-solid state battery that will be available in a few months that has an energy density of 360 Wh/kg.

Qin Lihong, co-founder and president of Nio, told the press in February that the new battery pack, which will power its soon to be introduced ET7 model, costs as much as its ET5 sedan. Higher energy density means greater R&D challenges and thus higher costs, CnEVPost reports.

The battery for Nio was developed by Beijing Welion New Energy Technology. There is a huge tussle going on between Chinese battery manufacturers for market share. It is partly because of competition from Welion that CATL last year agreed to supply its customers — particularly Nio — with less expensive batteries in the future if they agreed to use CATL batteries in at least 80% of their electric vehicles.

Longer range vehicles are a dream for those who are supporters of the EV revolution, but the assumption has always been that the batteries needed to make that possible would be get cheaper as time went on and economies of scale kick in. But now it seems premium range may only come at a premium price.

The paradigm shift that many people do not understand is that electric cars are not ordinary cars powered by infernal combustion engines. Those cars are like camels taking on a large load of water all at one time. Electric cars are more like hummingbirds, taking a sip of electricity here and another sip of electricity there.

The key to the EV revolution is not long range, but rather a greater number of chargers available with the ability to add 100 miles of range in a few minutes. Electric cars are different than conventional cars. If we insist they perform exactly the same as the cars we are used to, we will short circuit the EV revolution before it gets started. A Stanley Steamer was different than a horse, and an EV is different than a gasoline powered car. Vive la difference! as the French would say.

Also this week, CATL announced its target to achieve carbon neutrality with all its battery-making plants by 2025, and across its battery value chain by 2035. The commitments are important for CATL to meet increasing standards and regulations for the carbon footprint of its batteries in Europe and the United States as CATL expands into those markets, according to Reuters.

Robin Zeng, CATL Chairman, said last year that it is essential to reduce carbons emissions in the batteries, which account for nearly 40% of all carbon emissions produced in the cycle of battery-electric vehicles. He added his company had ramped up efforts since 2019 to analyze and seek solutions for carbon reduction in the battery manufacturing industry, saying battery-makers in China, Japan, and South Korea have a duty to reduce their very significant carbon footprints.

The Hunt For Solid-State Batteries

Svolt solid state battery

Notice these new batteries with high energy density are referred to as “semi-solid state.” The quest for true solid-state batteries goes on, but CATL itself said last year that they are far from being commercially available. The first generation of solid-state batteries, which will have roughly the same energy as current lithium-ion batteries, is expected to emerge by 2025, with their market share approaching 1% by 2030, CATL said.

It added that second generation solid-state batteries with new cathode and anode materials are expected to emerge after 2030, and the next generation of solid-state batteries is expected to enter the market after 2035. That prediction was based on a speech by Ouyang Minggao, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who said it would take about 10 years for solid-state battery technology to achieve large scale application and have a significant impact on the market landscape.

That was 15 months ago, and things change quickly in the world of batteries these days. Perhaps CATL is closer to true solid-state batteries now than it was in 2022. SVolt says it has a solid-state battery ready to go into production that has an energy density of 400 Wh/kg. If CATL can get 500 Wh/kg from a semi-solid state battery, maybe the quest for a true solid-state battery is not the primary goal.

Cost is perhaps less of an issue for airlines, which can spread their investments over thousands of flights and hundreds of thousands of passengers. The era of electric flight has been held back by the lack of suitable batteries. If that hurdle can be overcome, short- and medium-range electric aircraft may have just moved a lot closer to becoming a reality. Given the significant emissions from air travel, the ability to power airplanes with electricity could reduce those emissions significantly.


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