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Battery breakthrough could bring electric cars to all

A startup working on battery technology says it’s developed a key breakthrough that could one day lead to an electric car that has a 300-mile range and could cost around $25,000 to $30,000. Envia Systems, backed by venture capitalists, General Motors, and the Department of Energy, plans to announce on Monday at the ARPA-E conference that the company has created a lithium ion battery that has an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, which Envia CEO Atul Kapadia told me in an interview could be the tipping point for bringing electric cars to mainstream car owner.

The secret sauce

Energy density is how much energy a battery can store and provide for the car with a given battery size — the more energy dense the battery, the less volume and weight is needed. For electric cars it is particularly important to have a high energy dense battery because electric cars need to be as light weight as possible (any extra weight just drains the battery faster), and batteries that are smaller and use less materials can also be lower in cost.

Kapadia tells me that current lithium ion batteries deliver an energy density of around 100 to 150 watt-hours per kilogram, while Envia’s battery can deliver 2.5 times that energy with about the same weight as the current electric cars that have hit the market. To build a 300-mile range electric car with standard lithium ion batteries, it would cost around $40,000 just for the batteries alone, says Kapadia.

Envia says with an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, its battery cell costs could be at $125 per kWh. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said recently that he sees battery cells dropping in price to below $200 per kWh in the coming years. Current electric cars like the Volt have been reported to be closer to $500 to $600 per kWh, and the Nissan LEAF at $375 per kWh.

Envia, founded in 2007 in the Palo Alto public library, began its business by developing technology for a low-cost cathode. A battery is made up of an anode on one side and a cathode on the other, with an electrolyte in between. For a lithium ion battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way. After Envia developed its cathode technology, it started working on a silicon carbon anode, and then paired these two innovations together, with a high-voltage electroloyte.

Kapadia says the innovation is also important because many scientists have thought that the lithium ion battery had certain limits on how efficient and cheap it could get: “The rumors of the demise of lithium ion batteries are greatly exaggerated.”

Kapadia also says: “Gone are the days of relying on ancient consumer batteries for automobiles and stifling this revolution by making expensive electric cars.” And in case you didn’t get this reference, Tesla Motors (s TSLA) uses small format standard lithium ion batteries like the ones found in laptops for its cars.

Getting the battery into cars

Charging up the Volt

Envia is announcing at the ARPA-E conference that it has reached this 400 watt-hours per kilogram milestone in tests, but the company is still in the prototype stage, and an Envia battery will probably take about three years to move into the commercial auto market. Envia plans to work with battery and auto partners, potentially licensing or creating joint ventures to get the batteries manufactured. Kapadia tells me that Envia plans to avoid the capital intensive model of trying to be a startup that does all its own manufacturing.

General Motors is one of Envia’s high profile investors, and invested $7 million into Envia about a year ago. GM has said that Envia will provide battery technology for future generations of GM’s Volt electric car. Other investors in Envia include Japanese giant Asahi Kasei, Pangaea Ventures, and Redpoint Ventures.

Envia received a $4 million grant from the DOE’s ARPA-E program to attempt to hit the 400 watt-hour per kilogram milestone. Expect Envia to be touted throughout the ARPA-E event, as proof that its program is working to develop green innovation in the U.S.

Images courtesy of Envia Systems.

37 Responses to “Battery breakthrough could bring electric cars to all”

  1. Philip Niro

    This battery is a game changer if it performs as advertised. Charging times at 60 to 80% are absolutely great. Its probably a good idea not to let the battery discharge beyond 80% anyway.
    300 miles,240 mile range with these recharging times makes it practical for all kinds of driving I am sure Service centers located along highways will be installing charging stations very quickly to attract customers. Have a coffee and,lunch and resume your trip. I can’t wait for this to happen soon enough.Gm should stick this into their Volt as well as swap out their existing battery for their customers. This would make for a great marketing push to move their cars and get people into electric cars. Work this out and get it on the market in a year. Envia and GM can do it. Push!

  2. Where with the energy come from to charge the batteries so you can drive X number of miles. If you live in the USA then 50% will come from coal. So you drive a coal powered car….. this will not help CO2 reductions. It will just move you from spending money on gas to spending money on your electric bill. I am all for these new technologies but until we come up with a cleaner supply of electricity at a more affordable rate you are still looking at spending more money on an electric car than a comparable gas powered car and still spending more per a unit of energy (from your wall outlet instead of a gas pump)than it is worth. But whatever makes you feel better I guess.

    • Try doing some research before you spew. Yes, the majority will come from coal but:

      1) Even from a coal plant, the CO2 emissions are lower. It is much easier to get economies of scale in terms of CO2 scrubbing at a centralized plant than millions of cars.
      2) I pay some of the highest electrical rates in the country (PG&E) and it is still way cheaper to pay for electrical charging than $4+ gasoline. Especially with time of day pricing (and charging at night).
      3) You are now agnostic to how the electricity is generated. You can take advantage of alternative energy sources to eliminate your basic argument. With an ICE, you have no choice.

  3. Hello guys, you should come to Paris and try the 1st electric car sharing system. Cars are amazingly easy to drive, fast to accelerate.. According to my readings it is a Bolloré #Bluecar with a unique solid battery through lithium-polymere battery technology. They are porduced in Canada (Montreal) and France (Brittany). Come and try, 500 cars are already used by Parisians…

  4. Katie,

    Did hitting the 400 Wh/Kg milestone somehow unlock some funding? This battery cell is a great breakthrough and I’m happy about it, but if you go to their website and look at their charts then this battery doesn’t stay a 400 Wh/kg battery for that many cycles. It’s still a good cell though.

    • I have to revise this comment. Envia have been commenting on all the articles on the web. It’s a cool thing to do. I like that they are doing that. From their comments I have found out that the big drop in the first 4 or so cycles is because for these cycles they were discharging 100% of the capacity of the cell. The rest in the chart were discharges to 80% at 1/3 C.

      • Katie/Sasa, The 400Wh/kg at $125/kWh (cell level) breakthrough should enable an affordable 300-mile EV. Current state-of-the-art in automotive is $250-$350/kWh (cell level). This price point and energy density together enable a larger pack and fundamentally solve the “range anxiety” problem affordably.

        To answer your question, the charge times are similar to other batteries. e.g. 60% – 15 min, 80% – 30 min. Its the last 20-30% that takes a few hours. However, since the packs are for a 300-mile range, 60% is 180 miles in 15 min. So even though there’s no fundamental breakthrough in charging times, there’s a customer benefit on that metric also.

        Hope that helps.

  5. It would be totally awesome to not rely on foreign countries for our transportational needs.and having them in turn wanting our superiour techknowlogies. At least we know there is no limitations.except those set within our own minds. To dream it .is a goal. To set about achieving it is to bring about the perfect mind set. Achiwving what others think is. Impossible. But impossibility becomes possible and then the minds reality. Making it happen. A once dream now a reality

  6. Even when our vehicles are powered by motors using batteries, we will need oil for lubrication, as well as for all the other products that are derived from petroleum. We will also need reliable and efficient charging technology.

    • Raymondjram

      There will always be a need for oil for lubrication, but this battery technology will eventually eliminate the burning of oil products and the import of foreign oil. America has sufficient oil to keep itself running as long as we can stop burning it, which is what regular internal combustion engines do every second. Electric vehicles and better battries are the solution.

  7. What will happen is auto manufacturers will use a battery 1/3 the size and shave a bit off the msrp to make e-cars more attractive.
    In the end the consumer gets the same car with the same crappy range, just at a slightly lower price.

    • I actually see this splitting the market. As you say, you’ll have cheaper short range vehicles that will be great for commuters; but I foresee more expensive longer range vehicles for cross-state and multi-state excursions…as long as they can get the charging time reduced to minutes or create the infrastructure for battery swap stations.