The 7 EV battery lessons we learned at ACT Expo

The 7 EV battery lessons we learned at ACT Expo

Battery experts weigh in on long-life vs. high-density, the residual value of older EVs, ethically sourcing EV battery materials and more.

For some fleets, adopting their first electric trucks might feel like taking a leap of faith simply because there are so many unknowns – many of which revolve around the true viability of the electric powertrain. What will the next generation of battery chemistries bring to trucking? Will the new electric truck you buy today hold its value better than a new diesel truck would five or 10 years down the road? How can we give higher consideration to ethics issues on the path to more sustainable operations?

At this year’s ACT Expo, a panel of EV battery experts came together to confront all these questions and more head-on. The panel included:

  • David Mazaika – Chief Executive Officer, Coulomb Solutions
  • Dustin Grace – Chief Technology Officer, Proterra
  • Dr. Chris Mi – Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Sand Diego State University
  • Mujeeb Ijaz – Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Our Next Energy (ONE)

Read on to hear their thoughts…

On the residual value of legacy EVs on the market

Dustin Grace: The batteries that we ship to our customers and the batteries that we integrate into the vehicles in any application are not intended to be replaced throughout their life. They will outlast the vehicle itself, whether that’s an eight-year, 10-year, 12-year life, we do some very long, extended warranties. The whole idea is to fully depreciate the value of that battery against, the cost of operation of that vehicle. And in doing so, you’re basically left with upside when we’re talking about residual value.

Mujeeb Ijaz: I really like [the idea of] this AI engine that’s thinking throughout the life of a battery in communicating the state of the battery, deciding at the end: Do I repurpose it? Do I recycle it? That’s actually the right, logical way to think about it. The batteries are going to go through different experiences in their life cycle. Some are going to age quicker than others due to market temperature, duty cycle, fast charge use, lots of different factors. In fact, batteries can have such a variability of end-of-life condition that it’s not a “time” thing. Even though we always look at 10-year [life], it’s more like what the battery went through, and how fast you aged it. It turns out battery companies have become good at building a library of how to abuse a battery and making it die as fast as possible, but the real world’s been kinder than our battery test protocols because it takes so long to get the data.

On long-life EV batteries (LFP, sodium) vs. high-density EV batteries (solid-state) for different trucking markets

Chris Mi: I think it really all depends on the application. A lot of people don’t really know that some of the current batteries with electric vehicles don’t last that long. A lot of them only last about 800 to 1,000 cycles. Those batteries are good for second-life applications, but in the vehicle they’re going to die. You might wonder why the OEMs claim to put 12 years of warranty on it. Well, because a lot of vehicles are going for longer distances, which means they have a larger battery pack and you don’t charge those batteries once a day anymore. In the future, I think electric vehicles will all be within 800 to 1,000 cycles where you can drive 500, 600 miles. Who cares about life cycles when you charge them every 10 days?

Mujeeb Ijaz: There probably won’t be a single chemistry that will dominate the market. I think it’s going to be a combination, and tailoring chemistry is an important idea when you’re delivering against an application’s need. We like lithium iron phosphate for its durability, cost, safety and supply chain capabilities, globally. And we’re settling in to create energy density through system design to make it competitive with nickel cobalt. Then, we’re augmenting this lithium iron phosphate battery in a second technology that makes a range extender and pair that range extender with LFP. The market’s interesting; it doesn’t necessarily need a durable battery for long-distance trips. You can have a second chemistry that’s less durable.

On effectively cooling EV batteries

Mujeeb Ijaz: We employ liquid cooling. We have a full plate design and integrate the cell and pack so that the cells all take advantage of a liquid-cooled plate underneath. As we understand, the importance of thermal management is to create a homogeneous temperature as much as it is to try to regulate the temperature down. Both are important, actually. If you have a persistent gap in temperature in the pack, a very cold spot or a very hot spot, 10 degrees or more off, you can change the impedance enough that you’re not discharging the cells uniformly. It’s hard to ever repair that if it’s persistent. We have electric heat in our battery packs but we can also accept heat through the cooling circuit as well.

Chris Mi: It is a compromise of cost, performance and customer expectations. If you look at the Nissan Leaf, for example, they have never had an active cooling system in many generations of their vehicles. Then you look at the Chevy Bolt, and they had liquid cooling which maintains the battery at a very narrow temperature range, which apparently supposed to be good for battery life. In the past three years, we have conducted level testing, and we found that batteries didn’t like high temperatures. More than 35 degrees tends to degrade the battery life, very much more quickly than it is at a lower temperature. Going down around 10 degrees didn’t really impact battery life.

On how federal rules/regulations are affecting the EV battery production supply chain

David Mazaika: The new IRA regulations coming out today aren’t directly related to commercial vehicles, but we expect over time that will change. That’s why we’ve signed this agreement now to onshore and start producing battery systems here in North America. It also enables us to provide much better service to our OEM customers here in the U.S. because with the supply chain coming from China, typically lead times will be 12 to 16 weeks, and that’s just too long for OEMs in production here. By onshoring the batteries over here in the U.S., we’ll be able to reduce that to just a few weeks.

Dustin Grace: I think it’s fair to say we’re in a transition phase right now. So if you’re buying cells today, if you’re buying LFP, it’s coming from China. If you’re buying a nickel base cell, it’s probably coming from Japan, Korea. And that’s been true for a long time, it’ll be true for a couple more years. I’m very appreciative of the IRA that it has created this transitional moment for us, and I think we’re going to see a lot of manufacturing opening up. This man sitting to the left of me is taking his part in that and likewise, Proterra’s made an investment in LG Energy Solution to produce a large gigafactory out in Queens Creek, Arizona. We’re going to have additional capacity out there, so very thankful for that.

Mujeeb Ijaz: I’ll add to what Dustin has described as a very beneficial impact, from the IRA perspective, in stimulating the U.S. supply chain. As Our Next Energy is building a gigafactory in Michigan to make LFP products, and then develop pack solutions as well. What we’ve seen is that this IRA legislation is helping to accelerate our ability to reach a larger scale market, which is absolutely necessary to drive cost out.

On the viability of giving EV batteries a second life

Dustin Grace: I think commercial battery packs as compared to passenger car battery packs are just a much better fit for a second life. your automotive battery pack is typically organically shaped. It might have multiple levels and bumps and a strange geometry on it that doesn’t really enable it to package well in a container. So, your up-integration energy density is going to take a pretty big hit. Likewise, the chemistries in those passenger car vehicles are typically pretty optimized for a lower cycle life. Commercial vehicle packs are very modular in nature. They’re cubic, they’re rectilinear, they’re stackable, their BMS [battery management system] was designed to be connected to other BMS’s, so that you could have 48 battery packs fully connected and communicating with one another.

Chris Mi: Talking about standards related to second-life batteries, it’s very difficult because you might get hundreds of different kinds of batteries, size, reading and so on. So I agree with my friend from Proterra in saying the bus and truck batteries seem to have a better chance for a second life if they’re designed with a really rectangular shape.

Now, from another perspective, truck and bus batteries tend to really have a problem towards the end of vehicle application, because every day you charge four cycles. Passenger vehicles charge maybe once a week or once every 10 days, so they tend to have more life than for the vehicle life. Another thing I want to mention is that right now vehicle batteries belong to the vehicle owner, especially for passenger vehicles, and they can choose however they want to dispose of their batteries. So the OEMs and all the battery manufacturers don’t have any control over the batteries. Just a few months ago, the European Union passed this guidance that OEMs have to track and own those batteries. They have to be responsible for those batteries. It’s not happening here in the U.S.

David Mazaika: To make things even more complex, standardization is so important when you’re trying to do the second life. Just like you have a AAA in your TV remote, or a D battery in a flashlight. I think we’re at a turning point right now, because if you look at when China started [ramping up] electric vehicles, they standardized many of their pack sizes. Well, we have rectangular battery packs, but they’re not all the same rectangular battery packs. They’re all different. They all have different cooling and different cooling rates. And we have many of the commercial OEMs coming to us and they want custom packs for new-generation vehicles. Those will be even more different than the standard wrapped chemicals that we’re making today.

On ethically sourcing EV battery raw materials

Mujeeb Ijaz: First and foremost, we have decided to go with zero cobalt. Cobalt is one of the most difficult materials to scale. It’s not geographically diverse and mining practices that are in the countries [where the majority of cobalt is] are universally recognized as bad practices, not obeying the human rights that ESG programs and that companies that are global leaders want. The second is for us to think about the development of our new supply chains in North America to make sure that ESG is a part of our supply chain sourcing strategy. You can go into supplier selection based on cost and performance, but making ESG and carbon neutrality and the source of energy [a higher priority] are actually very, very important as we develop this new supply chain. Otherwise, we’re just going to translate a set of problems into another set of problems. We think making ESG a high priority and a prerequisite to sourcing is a big deal in developing these supply chains.

Chris Mi: If you have a chance, you can search on YouTube and you can see some of the areas where they’re mining and you’ll see that this system tends to have a lot of issues. Some areas, for example, use underage workers and they don’t really give much attention to the environmental impacts and the pollution that comes with this mining. California is working very hard in the Salton Sea area to build this so-called Lithium Valley. We’re looking at different ways to extract lithium from that region, which are going to conform to the advanced environmental standards.

Also, we need to think about how to balance some of the disadvantaged communities where they don’t have access even to electricity. How can we make sure they have access to technologies that we develop? I think this is very important. Maybe that goes back to second life so that they can have access to electricity when there isn’t enough electricity to go around.

On the biggest fleet challenges to running EVs

Mujeeb Ijaz: I think there’s a really interesting battery algorithm that can help us with this topic of self-balancing. We realize that fleet customers are going to park their vehicles and plug them in, but some fleet customers are assuming it’s better to not have so many charging stations and instead just unplug one vehicle and plug the next one in save cost on infrastructure. The value of leaving it plugged in overnight is to let everything balance. Balancing circuits have really a tiny current, like 200, 300 milliamps compared to 500 amp hours of capacity. It takes so long to make sure that things can balance. So, we’ve thought about an algorithm that gives a green light that charging is complete, but doesn’t change the 99% to a 100% until balancing is complete. I think it is important that we educate on this topic of balancing to fleets. Automotive customers are not going to probably pay too much attention to that, but they’re also naturally going to just leave their vehicles plugged in overnight. They’re probably more likely to let the battery balance, and not try to just take it off and switch it to another vehicle. In the context of education, fleet customers need a lot of discussion on the topic of maintaining balance.

David Mazaika: I think one of the biggest challenges out there today is charging infrastructure. We see this everywhere, many fleets buy heavy-duty electric vehicles and utilities are so far behind that they can’t get the chargers put in fast enough. I would just reach out to all the utilities and say, “Please try and change the paradigm. Come up with a new way, because 18 months to two years is too long.”

Dustin Grace: I’ll say capital inflows. We absolutely have to have more capital inflow into this market. I know it sounds like we’ve got all the support we need, but in general, this industry is not going to scale itself, and it’s not going to be scaled by the U.S. government alone.

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