Car Companies Take Battery Design into Their Own Hands

By James Morra, Associate Content Producer

The battery is a delicately engineered device, with the power density and recharging speed determined by the cell’s chemical composition, shape and size, and its reaction to extremely high and low temperatures. Now many automotive firms are bringing battery expertise in house, so that they can focus on battery integration and manufacturability.

BMW recently said that it would open a research center with an eye toward working out the battery formula that enables longer electric vehicle driving ranges and lower costs. Over the next four years, the company plans to invest $237 million in the laboratory to match the pace of global rivals pouring billions into the electric car market.

To drive down battery costs in its electric cars, BMW is trying to improve the energy density, lifespan, and recharging speed of battery cells, said Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s head of research and development. He said that BMW may not manufacture the battery cells it develops, though it runs battery factories. In October, it officially opened its third such factory in Shenyang, China.

Today, the average cost of a single battery pack is around $209 per kilowatt-hour, according to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. But the report claims that the cost could fall below $100 per kilowatt-hour by 2025. That is the price where many analysts believe that electric vehicles with around 200 miles of range will be cost-competitive with gas guzzlers.

“The knowledge we gain is very important to us, regardless of whether we produce the battery cells ourselves, or not,” said Oliver Zipse, BMW’s head of production, in a statement. Electric cars are still not big business for BMW—the company is on track to sell 100,000 electric cars worldwide by the end of the year, which would only be around 5% of all the cars it sold last year.

If it does handle manufacturing, BMW would be taking a well-worn page from the industry’s playbook. Tesla fabricates its own batteries in its Gigafactory, which it built with Panasonic for $5 billion. Last year, Tesla said that it would make a new format of lithium-ion batteries that measure 21 by 70 millimeters, which it claims will lower the battery cost of the Model 3.

Toyota and Panasonic said that they were considering a partnership to speed up battery development. That could help Toyota meet its goal for hybrid and electric cars to comprise half its global sales by 2030. The partnership would target prismatic cells as well as solid-state batteries, which could be a safer and higher-density substitute for lithium-ion.

Fisker Automotive, the electric car start-up revived by China’s Wanxiang Group, recently filed patents for solid-state batteries that could be used in vehicles with 500 miles of range. They could enter production by 2023. The development team was led by Fabio Albano, Fisker’s vice president of battery systems and one of the founders of battery pioneer Satki3.

Not every car company puts the same stock into battery production. In August, Nissan agreed to sell its stake in the battery manufacturing business it created with NEC Corp. a decade ago. Even though it was the third largest supplier in the world, Nissan admitted that it could buy electric car batteries more cheaply from outside suppliers.

BMW believes it alone can squeeze the most performance out of its electric car components. It recently revealed that it had built a new electric drivetrain that combines the motor, power electronics, and transmission. When combined with BMW’s modular batteries, the system to be released in 2021 extends the range of battery-electric vehicles to up to 434 miles.

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