Although billions of dollars have been spent on pursuing breakthroughs in electric vehicle batteries, global automakers General Motors, Hyundai, and Honda believe there is still a long way to go to bring next-generation battery technologies to the market.

Speaking on Dec. 14 during an online conference held by SES, a New York-listed battery maker, executives from the world’s major automakers said they are still looking for a pathway to scaling lithium-metal batteries, which could offer higher energy density at a lower weight than existing batteries.

Backed by a list of big auto names that includes GM, Hyundai, and Honda, SES now expects its lithium-metal batteries to be mass-adopted first in drones for freight delivery services over the next three years, according to chief executive Hu Qichao. He added that the company would not introduce EV batteries until after 2025.

Lithium-metal batteries have pure metal lithium in the anode and come without the carbon materials that existing lithium-ion batteries use. Their adoption could allow automakers to develop EVs with a longer driving range and more cabin space.

Industry players are also racing to develop solid-state batteries with a lithium-metal anode, which has a solid electrolyte to enable charging and discharging and is viewed as being safer than those currently in use. SES’s products use liquid materials like today’s lithium-ion batteries and therefore have been considered “a bridge” between existing offerings and solid-state ones.

Other than the challenges in commercializing the newest battery technologies, representatives from the three automakers, SES, Canadian mining group Ivanhoe Mines, and Chinese lithium producer Tianqi Lithium talked about the ongoing US push for supply-chain decoupling from China at the Dec. 14 event.

The text below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Timothy Grewe, director of electrification strategy, General Motors

We’re very excited about the lithium-metal battery and accelerating it into the marketplace. General Motors has a dedicated EV architecture that we call Ultium, and we specifically designed it to accept this new technology with minimum disruption in the manufacturing process. 

We’re aggressively pursuing this technology and trying to accelerate it as fast as possible. We think we’ve proven the durability of SES’s battery samples with 150,000 miles demonstrated in the lab. The next step is: “How do we get it into people’s hands?”

As we expand into this light-duty, high-volume application, there’s going to be a natural localization. That’s true for anything that we do in a high-volume automotive business. And now we have some of these accelerants, such as the Inflation Reduction Act or some of the other moves by the miners to make the supply chain more local where people use products and we can develop the whole ecosystem.

One of the most important things in high-volume manufacturing is always securing a stable supply. That’s always high value to us and fundamental in our business model. How do we make sure we never get a production interruption? We have numerous processes and contracts to make sure that happens.

Yongjun Jang, global R&D master, Hyundai

To make a battery with higher energy density, lithium metal could be the next-generation material for the anode, and there are two different pathways within it: the liquid approach and the solid-state approach.

Lithium-metal batteries use high-concentrated liquid electrolytes, so it is necessary to induce stable redox reactions to prevent excessive depletion of the liquid electrolyte and the lithium-metal anode at the interface. On the other hand, all-solid-state batteries use solid electrolytes, and it is necessary for solid electrolytes to maintain continuous close contact with lithium metal and prevent short circuits of the battery.

For these reasons, both electrolytes are important factors in determining the long-term durability of higher energy density batteries. It becomes even more sensitive and important in large-format batteries than in smaller ones. We should solve these issues before the commercialization of these new batteries.

SES is developing lithium-metal battery technology rapidly with the manufacturing completeness of large-format, 50Ah high energy density battery cells. If the long-term stability of the battery is secured by applying artificial intelligence technology, it will greatly help automotive companies.

Yoshiya Joshua Fujiwara, expert engineer, Honda

Honda focuses on safe, reliable, and low-cost technology, such as all-solid-state battery technology with lithium-metal anode. We think that’s the holy grail of low-cost battery technology due to its high energy density. We hope to realize commercialization within this decade, before 2030.

The approach SES is making is a more hybrid-based, lithium-ion-like manufacturing process. Honda is working on both technologies simultaneously. We don’t know which one is a cheaper way at the moment, but all-solid-state technology is new compared with what SES is utilizing.

Localization is one of our principles. We have been operating facilities and building supply chains locally in the US since the beginning of the last century. Honda will do the same for electric vehicles, and we are focusing on the US and China, the two major markets where we need to establish our supply chain individually. In particular, it is urgent for us to establish a supply chain in North America due to the Inflation Reduction Act. We believe it is important for us to control and integrate our supply chain locally.

Alice Lei, senior analyst, Tianqi Lithium

As an upstream player in the battery supply chain, Tianqi focuses a lot on lithium-related material innovations, such as lithium sulfur and lithium metal. That’s why we invested in SES, as we are trying to work with downstream battery cell makers to ensure we know what kind of lithium materials they want. We are quite excited about introducing new battery technologies to the market, but it will take a lot of courage and time to commercialize a disruptive technology like full solid-state battery.

We believe that the globalized battery supply chain that has been built in the past decade will probably be changed to be more localized in the next few decades. The Inflation Reduction Act has clarified that most of the critical minerals and materials could be produced in the US and we think it’s a trend that Europe will probably have its own battery act in the future. Therefore, it is important to choose our next location of expansion to comply with the trend and deal with geopolitical tensions.

Hu Qichao, founder and CEO, SES

Regarding ramping up the supply chain for new technology, our lithium-metal battery shares a lot of the supply chain with the current lithium-ion batteries, such as the cathode and manufacturing process. However, there are different parts and the current supply chain for lithium anodes is very fragmented and insufficient.

So we are working with partners to make the process, from mining to the final anode, as simple, streamlined, optimized, and with as few players involved as possible. I think that could be a really key factor to ramp up the supply chain for lithium-metal batteries. 

On geopolitical issues, we do recognize this manufacturing renaissance in North America where there is a lot of potential for battery manufacturing: abundant raw materials, fairly low-cost electricity, and access to well-trained labor and high technology. So we are preparing to build this entire supply chain in North America, for example, electrolyte, anode, and battery cell. This trend offers a lot of opportunities.

Robert Friedland, founder and executive co-chairman, Ivanhoe Mines

Every action begets an equal and opposite counterreaction. When you Balkanize the world economy, you stress the integrated world economy on the supply side. That means the critical raw materials we need to enable this energy revolution become even more important and that’s why we call this the revenge of the miners.

We’ve identified very important lithium resources in the US that can produce lithium metal quickly and efficiently. We’ve been looking at new ways to make lithium metal foil and the types of deposits that will enable us to actually do that. All of these instruments will be part of the orchestra that’s required for the US to have its own secure domestic supply chain for new battery technologies.

Lithium metal has the highest energy density on the anode side of the battery. So we will be a very low-cost lithium-metal producer and solve part of that problem. For the copper, nickel, and cobalt, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past decades. We intend to ensure that the entire supply chain can be audited, carefully studied, and done in a better and more responsible way.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen