A new era for battery-powered airplanes, ships and trains could begin in the next few years, thanks to large-scale production of advanced lithium-metal batteries with double the energy density of conventional lithium-ion technology.
US start-up Lavle says it is building a gigafactory that will manufacture the next-generation battery modules at scale in the US by the end of 2023, with a final production capacity of about 7GWh a year.
The multi-million-dollar funding for the 1.5 million sq ft (14-hectare) facility — the location of which is expected to be announced in the coming months — is “pretty much in place”, Recharge has been told.
Doubling the energy density of lithium-ion technology will create a wealth of opportunities, explains chief technology officer Ben Gully.
“If you have an electric car with a 300-mile range, you swap out the battery for one the same size and weight and now you have a 600-mile range,” explains chief technology officer Ben Gully. “Or if you have a 300-mile range and that’s all you need, then you can cut the weight of your battery in half, and that gives you better performances.
“[The energy density] conceivably opens up whole new applications and battery use cases that we can’t even entertain right now.”
Lavle (pronounced “Lav-lee”) says its lithium-metal batteries will be able to achieve per-kWh cost parity with conventional lithium-ion once a supply chain is established and the cells are manufactured at scale.
But the company is not keen to get involved in the highly competitive, low-margin electric-car battery sector just yet.
“It’s in other markets where the benefit [of the energy density] is a game changer and opens up feasible products and systems that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” Gully tells Recharge.
One example, says chief operating officer Morten Pedersen, is medium-distance deep-sea shipping. “You could make all North Sea shipping electric — you would not see a single diesel [powered vessel operating] between any of the European countries.”
Another possibility is electric aviation. “The vast majority of flights are less than 30 minutes long, so there is a ton of applications [for the lithium-metal battery] for flights of less than half an hour,” he adds.
“There’s a couple of airline companies out that there have said they can fly 650 miles [1,046km] on 900kWh of batteries. That would normally require a 20ft container, so you could not fly anywhere near that far today. But our batteries would enable that.”
That would theoretically allow commercial flights from London to Prague (1,033km) to run on batteries charged with renewable energy.
The energy-dense batteries have already attracted the attention of the defence industry due to the potential for long-distance virtually silent flights with no heat signature. Discussions are under way with “research-oriented military groups”, the company tells Recharge, although, understandably, it declined to offer details.
Similar opportunities are also opening up in the railway and oil & gas sectors, as well as the emerging segment of electric trucks.
One of the downsides of conventional lithium-ion batteries is the possibility that they will catch fire — which is a dangerous prospect for deployment on planes, ships, trains and oil rigs.
It is no coincidence that Lavle already specialises in technology that safeguards against such incidents.
“The level of safety that we provide and have developed, which is intrinsic to the system, is basically unparalleled within our industry,” says Gully.
“When you’re putting 4-5MWh on a vessel that has 50 passengers one wall away, there is a very different level of safety required.”
Pedersen adds: “If you look at big freight trains in the US, some of them are a mile long. If one of those breaks down because the [battery-powered] locomotive breaks down, it’ll block a lot of road crossings and cause a ton of mayhem; it’s often transporting fuel or coal — you don’t want a fire too close to that. And in defence, it could be something mission-critical or relating to the safety of soldiers.”
Lavle’s battery management system has a “dual-redundant design throughout the entire ESS [energy storage system], ensuring that no single component failure anywhere in the system can take down more than a single battery string”.
Safety features include: a thermal management system that “entirely mitigates thermal runaway” — ie, when faulty charging causes the battery to overheat and catch fire; voltage sensors on every cell to prevent accidental over-charging; proprietary gas and leak detection technologies; high-security remote monitoring; and “rear blind mate connections that eliminate arc flash risk”.
The lithium-metal battery has been developed by Lavle’s electrochemical R&D partner, Japanese technology company 3Dom.
Gully explains that 3Dom’s proprietary next-generation technology is basically a lithium-ion battery with the conventional graphite anode replaced by an electrode composed from lithium metal.
He admits that other companies are working on similar batteries in the laboratory, but that 3Dom and Lavle are well ahead of the competition.
“The key is to get it to work. The key is the rest of the system. The key is the cell design, the electrolytes, the separator — getting all of those things to work together is the challenge,” Gully tells Recharge.
Plans for the future
Until Lavle’s gigafactory is up and running, the company will continue to focus on selling conventional lithium-ion batteries with its safety-first system management equipment.
But its long-term goal is to “take over the world with lithium-metal batteries”, says Gully with a smile.
“We have not even scratched the surface of utilisation of [these] batteries,” adds Pedersen. “There is stuff out there we probably haven’t even thought about yet.”
Gully adds: “I think the biggest thing we’re doing is opening the floodgates [to possibilities]. The theoretical energy density we can get out of that [lithium-metal] component is just monstrous.”