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Moving from Lab to Mass Production of Advanced Batteries

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For years, scientists in laboratories from Silicon Valley to Boston have been searching for an elusive potion of chemicals, minerals and metals that would allow electric vehicles to recharge in minutes and travel hundreds of miles between charges , Cost much less than all-in-one batteries now available.

Now some of those scientists and the companies they founded are approaching milestones. They are building factories to produce next-generation battery cells, allowing carmakers to begin road testing the technologies and determining whether they are safe and reliable.

Factory operations are mostly limited in scale, designed to have the right manufacturing techniques. It will take years for cars with high performance batteries to hit showrooms, and even before batteries are available in moderately priced cars. But the start of assembly-line production offers the lucrative prospect of a revolution in electric mobility.

If the technologies can be mass-produced, electric vehicles could compete with fossil-fuel-powered vehicles for convenience and cost them less. Harmful emissions from automobile traffic can be reduced to a great extent. Inventors of technologies can easily become billionaires – if they haven’t already.

For dozens of new companies working on new types of batteries and battery materials, emerging from the cloistered laboratories in the harsh real-world conditions is a moment of truth.

Producing a battery cell by the millions in a factory is much more difficult than making a few hundred in a clean room—a space designed to minimize contaminants.

Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of QuantumScape, a battery maker in San Jose, Calif., said, “Just because you have material that’s right to work, doesn’t mean you can make it work. ” silicon Valley. “You have to figure out how to make it in a way that is defect free and has enough uniformity.”

Adding to the risk, a slump in tech stocks has stripped billions of dollars of value from publicly traded battery companies. It won’t be as easy for them to raise the cash they need to build manufacturing operations and pay their employees. Most have little or no revenue because they haven’t started selling products yet.

Quantumscape was worth $54 billion in market share shortly after it went public in 2020. It was recently valued at around $4 billion.

That hasn’t stopped the company from moving forward with a factory in San Jose that by 2024, if all goes well, would be able to stamp out hundreds of thousands of cells allowing cars to be recharged in less than 10 minutes. Will happen. Automakers will use factory output to test whether the battery can withstand rough roads, cold snaps, heat waves and carwash.

Automakers will also want to know whether batteries can be recharged hundreds of times without losing their ability to store electricity, whether they can survive accidents without bursting into flames, and whether they can be manufactured cheaply.

It is not certain that all new technologies will live up to the promises of their inventors. Shorter charging times and longer ranges could come at the expense of longer battery life, said David Diek, a former Tesla executive who is now a consultant on battery materials. “Most of these new material concepts bring huge performance metrics but settle on something else,” Mr. Diek said.

Still, with the backing of Volkswagen, Bill Gates, and a man from Silicon Valley, QuantumScape shows how much trust and money has been put into companies that claim to be able to meet all those requirements.

Mr. Singh, who previously started a telecommunications equipment maker, founded Quantumscape in 2010 after purchasing the Roadster, Tesla’s first production vehicle. Despite the roadster’s notorious unreliability, Mr. Singh became convinced that electric cars are the future.

“It was enough to provide a glimpse of what could happen,” he said. The key, he realized, was a battery capable of storing more energy, and “the only way to do that is to look for a new chemistry, a chemistry breakthrough.”

Mr Singh worked closely with Professor Fritz Prinz of Stanford University and Tim Holme, a Stanford researcher. John Doerr, famous for being one of the first investors in Google and Amazon, provided the seed money. Tesla co-founder JB Straubel was another early supporter and is a board member of Quantumscape.

After years of experimentation, QuantumScape developed a ceramic material—its exact structure a mystery—that separates the positive and negative ends of the battery, allowing electrons to flow back and forth while avoiding a short circuit. The technology makes it possible to substitute a solid material for the liquid electrolyte that carries energy between the positive and negative poles of the battery, allowing it to pack more energy per pound.

“We spent the first five years looking for material that could do the job,” said Mr. Singh. “And just when we thought we had found one, we spent five years or so working on how to make it right.”

Although technically a “pre-pilot” assembly line, the QuantumScape factory in San Jose is roughly as large as four football fields. Recently, rows of empty chambers with black swivel chairs waited for new employees, and machinery stood on pallets ready to be installed.

In laboratories around Silicon Valley and elsewhere, hundreds of other entrepreneurs are not pursuing a similar technological goal, based on the nexus of venture capital and university research that has fueled the growth of the semiconductor and software industries.

Another prominent name is SES AI, founded in 2012 based on technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SES is backed by General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, Chinese automakers Geely and SAIC, and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation. In March, SES, based in Woburn, Mass., opened a factory in Shanghai that is producing prototype cells. The company plans to start supplying large quantities to automakers in 2025.

Shares of SES also declined, but chief executive and co-founder Qichao Hu said he was not worried. “It’s a good thing,” he said. “When the market is bad, only the good remains. This will help reset the industry. ,

SES and other battery companies say they have solved the fundamental scientific hurdle needed to make cells safer, cheaper and more powerful. Now it is a question of figuring out how to get them out by the millions.

“We believe the remaining challenges are engineering in nature,” said Doug Campbell, chief executive officer of Solid Power, a battery maker backed by Ford Motor and BMW. Solid Power, based in Louisville, Colo., said in June that it had set up a pilot production line that would begin supplying cells for testing purposes to its automotive partners by the end of the year.

Indirectly, Tesla has spawned several Silicon Valley start-ups. The company trained a generation of battery specialists, many of whom left for other companies.

Gene Berdichevsky, chief executive and co-founder of Silla in Alameda, Calif., is a Tesla veteran. Mr. Berdichevsky was born in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States at the age of 9 with his parents, both nuclear physicists. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, then became the seventh employee at Tesla, where he helped develop the Roadster battery.

Tesla effectively created the EV battery industry by proving that people would buy electric vehicles and forcing traditional car makers to engage with the technology, Mr. Berdichevsky said. “That’s what’s going to make the world electric,” he said, “with everyone competing to make a better electric car.”

Silla belongs to a group of start-ups that have developed materials that significantly improve the performance of existing battery designs, increasing the range by 20 percent or more. Others include Group14 Technologies in Woodinville, Wash., near Seattle, which is backed by Porsche, and OneD Battery Sciences in Palo Alto, Calif.

All three have found ways to use silicon to store electricity inside the battery instead of the graphite prevalent in current designs. Silicon can hold more energy per pound than graphite, making batteries lighter and cheaper and charging faster. The silicon would also reduce America’s dependence on graphite refined in China.

The drawback of silicon is that it expands to three times its size when charged, potentially putting so much pressure on the components that the battery fails. People like OneD’s chief technology officer, Yimin Zhu, have spent a decade cooking up various blends in labs full of equipment, looking for ways to address that problem.

Now, Sila, OneD and Group14 are in various stages of increasing production at sites in Washington state.

In May, Silla announced a deal to supply its silicon materials to Mercedes-Benz from a factory in Moses Lake, Wash. Mercedes plans to use the material in luxury sport utility vehicles starting in 2025.

Porsche has announced plans to use Group14’s silicon material by 2024, albeit in a limited number of vehicles. Group 14 chief executive Rick Luebe said a major manufacturer would deploy the company’s technology — which he said would allow the car to be recharged in 10 minutes — next year.

“At that time all the benefits of electric vehicles are accessible without any disadvantages,” said Mr. Luebe.

The demand for batteries is so strong that there is a lot of room for many companies to succeed. But with dozens if not hundreds of other companies chasing a market that will cost $1 trillion when all new cars are electric, there are sure to be failures.

“With every new transformational industry, you start out with too many players and it gets narrowed down,” said Mr. Luebbe. “We’ll see it here.”

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