• Fayaz Ahmed

The Future of Batteries: Fayaz Ahmed's Interview with Paul Kageler

Fayaz Ahmed: First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and a little about your educational and professional background.

Paul Kageler: I grew up in Dallas, Texas and went off to Texas State University located in San Marcos, Texas. The hill country around San Marcos is beautiful, a great area to live in. I graduated with a BS in Chemistry and a minor in Mathematics. Upon graduating I took a job in Freeport, Texas with Dow Badische, a joint venture between BASF and Dow Chemical companies that quickly became wholly owned by BASF Chemicals.

Upon joining, it was the golden age of petrochemicals and an exciting place to work. I worked for a while as a Group Leader in the site applied process R&D group increasing plant capacity, improving yields, conserving energy, improving ensuring product quality, addressing safety & environmental concerns, etc. We worked in multifunctional teams with site manufacturing, engineering, ESH groups and had yearly international technology exchanges with colleagues rotating meeting locations between the plant sites in Germany, Belgian, and Texas.

Later I became the Manufacturing Representative for the new Polymin plant in Freeport. The Texas plant was based on the existing plant located in Ludwigshafen, Germany with many safety and environmental upgrades. The monomer was highly toxic, flammable, and reactive ethylene amine; so, lots of category II instrument interlocks were used as final protection against explosions, releases, fires, etc. The Polymin polymeric product was non-hazardous and used as a filtration and flocculating agent in the paper industry.

The project was my first exposure to extremely rigorous hardware & software technology that protected the workers, the local community, equipment, and the environment from potentially severe accidents in the hazardous industry.

The HAZOP study, design, commissioning, and start-up of the Polymin Plant was successfully completed and I moved into the Plant Manager position. However; the market for Polymin changed and the plant was shut down.

After some reorganizations, I became the Product Manager for the Freeport Acrylic Acid group. This included the commercially successful Glacial Acrylic Acid. Acrylic Acid can undergo a dangerous runaway free radical polymerization so I was put in charge of the acrylic monomer safety & handling product stewardship program for the Americas. All the producers of acrylic monomers cooperated on safety & handling to ensure the manufacturing, transport, storage, and customer usage followed best practice guidelines. I can say the cooperation between competitors and support from management was excellent with regards to industry wide safety and protection of the environment.

The economics of the Texas – Louisiana Gulf Coast petrochemicals Industry changed based on new fast growth markets in Asia and USA went from having some of the lowest cost pipeline natural gas in the world to the most expensive. The result was cutbacks in USA.

My next job was with Halliburton in drilling and completion fluids as a Fluid Engineer working on offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. I always enjoyed fast changing technologies and at that time favourable business conditions were driving technical advancements in drilling & completions on a global basis.

After becoming a Technical Professional after a year in the Houston office. I took on the role as a Global Technical Field Advisor for fluids supporting critical wells. Typically, I would travel to the overseas Halliburton office supporting the project, help design the job, go to the rig site to execute the job, and give a post job recap presentation to the customer. The total average time for each critical well assignment was a little over a month assuming no major delays.

The position as a Global Technical Field Advisor was an interesting job. I was able to see many different countries, gained exposed to different cultures, solve technical problems, learn new fluid chemistries/fluid handling technologies, and make friends during my travels. The oil field service industry is known for boom or bust and covid shut down most international travel so I found myself between jobs.

I had followed solar power for years as a hobby and considered changing career direction. The early solar power movement lost momentum based on unfavourable economics and changing government policies. Fortunately, several Asian countries continued pursuing solar power. This dropped the production cost and kept the technology moving forward. Combine this with the renewed interest in environmental concerns and solar/lithium batteries gained momentum in the US Markets.

Like many Americans, I was fascinated by early Tesla EVs that offered spirited acceleration and refined luxury without the noise, fumes, high maintenance, etc of typical high performance Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars. Early Tesla owners I knew liked owning an EV and I enjoyed an occasional ride in a Tesla. I gained confidence that EVs were not just a passing fad but could appeal to a wider group of auto buyers as long as affordability became less of a barrier.

Later I got involved with LFP (lithium iron phosphate) drop in batteries for swapping out lead-acid batteries in golf carts and fishing boat trolling motors. At first when only 12V LFP batteries were readily available, the surge & continuous power output could be disappointing. Along with installers not being readily available for those who wanted a quick and convenient swap or install held the market back. The early 12V LFP batteries were mainly focused on Do-it-Your (DIY) swap outs of deep cycle AMG lead acid batteries; typically used in solar plus battery systems and batteries for Recreational Vehicles (RVs).

Some of the mail order 12V LFP battery suppliers gave great service and customer support by phone & email. The batteries offered lighter weight and/or greater energy storage plus all the benefits of eliminating the maintenance, short life, and reliability problems that were common with lead-acid batteries. As time passed, fewer potential customers believed the myth that drop-in LFP batteries presented a significant fire hazard.

Once confidence in safety was established, the main barriers to acceptance included: LFP batteries not well suited as starter battery, not having the desired power output for performance situations, only available through mail order, and initial cost being ~ double that of an equivalent lead-acid battery.

A market developed for golf carts that were lifted, customized, had larger wheels, and in some cases had higher capacity batteries installed. Such carts can typically be driven longer distances on low-speed residential roads, are better suited for rougher terrain & steep hills, can still be used on golf courses, and look sporty. I helped a friend arrange for a golf cart dealership to change out six 8V lead-acid batteries with one ~8 kWh LFP battery on a customized cart. The result was a much more versatile and lower maintenance cart with a lot more range.

The swap out was turnkey and the installer tuned the speed controller as part of the job. Over the last four months many 48V LFP batteries have come to the USA market and the new generation of 12V to 48V LFP batteries have higher power output to accommodate mobile power applications as well as the traditional RV house battery and solar energy storage markets.

I have remained a Li-ion battery (LIB) enthusiast following advancements in electrochemistry, material science, engineering safe guards, mass production technologies, availability of LFP battery cells, and sourcing of 48V LFP batteries to replace lead-acid and small ICE.

Fayaz Ahmed: The Battery technology is poised to Power the World. How big of a role battery technology can play in the sustainable development and climate change mitigation efforts. Which applications of battery technology you are most excited about and why?

Paul Kageler: The LIB technology has enabled electrification, automation, and internet connectivity of more things. The ability to store electric power and move the power around without wires is improving quality of life in terms of a higher average standard of living in first and third world countries. This includes better communication, environmental protection, convenience, transportation, conservation of natural resources, lower volumes of solid & liquid waste, reduced noise pollution, reduced toxic emissions, less risk of climate change, and in general allowed for healthier living.

Going from the age of lead-acid batteries to LIB is a major step forward for those societies that can afford advancing technologies. As the global population increases and a greater percentage of the population becomes affluent consumers, the electrification of more industries/products along with minimizing the environmental impact of power generation becomes essential for achieving sustainability. Making LIB more affordable for all segments of society is a high priority and is already occurring.

I am most enthused about applications that I can directly make a difference. So far that is promoting and organizing the replacement of lead-acid batteries and smaller ICE on ranches, farms, construction sites, small marine, and recreation activities. As many enthusiasts, I am also a champion of lowering the cost to produce, distribute, and market LIB to accelerate electrification.

I also advocate making the network of utility grid and microgrids resilient, reliable, and affordable during the ongoing transition to more environmentally friendly power generation. With the electrification of society or the planet the availability of on demand power becomes even more important to prevent hardships throughout the community.

Experienced personnel who are knowledgeable in power generation, power storage, backup power generation, and distribution of power should continue to conduct risk assessments. Based on risk assessments performed in each area by multifunctional teams; proper engineering, construction, and maintenance must be funded to ensure resilience and reliability. Societies will not accept excuses for avoidable power outages especially if an entire regional grid becomes unstable and must shut down for an extended period of time. LIB located in utility grids, commercial microgrids, and homes is part of upgrading overall power resilience and reliability.

I have always enjoyed the great outdoors in remote areas and have a special desire to make motorized transportation less invasive to wildlife and people in terms of noise and fumes. Texas has many large working and recreational ranches which are an important part of our culture. I would like to see vehicle to load (V2L) power transmission become common. Government encouragement of dual propose EVs equipped with bi-directional inverters can shuttle power as well as provide transportation.

Finally, I am an advocate of each region becoming reasonably self-reliant on LIB manufacturing, the extraction of raw materials, the recycling of spent LIB, and the disposal of waste streams. Each region should move toward standardization for the common good by-passing legislation to repeal old obsolete laws that no longer serve the advancement of the planet and pass new laws to take non-value-added cost out of the supply chain. We can all help identify and promote good legislation to advance sustainability at the local, state, and federal level.

Fayaz Ahmed: Lithium-ion batteries are anticipated to have a high rate of deployment in the coming decades. Ideal applications of Lithium-ion batteries would be energy storage systems for renewables and transportation. Amongst Lithium-ion battery technology family which battery chemistry i.e. NCM and LFP has a better future and why?

Paul Kageler: The short answer is cell availability in some regions is an important factor that is sometimes overlooked. The EV grade modified LFP cells produced in China are also in high demand inside China which curtails exports. This means the new technology modified LFP batteries are not yet a viable option in some regions.

First, a quick review of the currently available LIB with China having the most options based on regional suppliers. There are now 4 different cost to produce LIB cell brackets with different energy densities for domestically manufactured mass-produced cells; standard LFP (~100 Wh/kg), modified LFP (estimated future energy density 200 – 240 Wh/kg), medium content nickel NCM (~250 Wh/kg), and high content nickel NCM (estimated future energy density 300 Wh/kg).

Below is a news announcement clip and performance chart taken from PushEVs showing how the modified LFP (LFMP) cells have improved capabilities and have the potential to expand into traditional NCM cell markets.

Some research & development specialist feel the high content nickel NCM battery cells may eventual reach ~350 Wh/kg if some remaining technical challenges are solved. Such cells will be capable of long range and still provide superior acceleration based on lighter weight or carry a greater payload if the gross weight of vehicle plus payload is limited.

It is also worth noting that 400 or even 500-mile ranges based on the conservative EPA rating system will be technically possible for full size SUV, buses, pickup trucks, commercial trucks, vans, etc. by using stackable pouch cells, prismatic LFP cells mounted on edge, or larger diameter (46mm) cylinder cells. In many cases, ambitious range goals can be reached with new generation modified LFP cells as well as NCM cells. The platform area available for mounting battery packs is much less of a constraint in regards to maximum energy storage capacity than in the past.

Below is a picture showing modified LFP cells mounted on edge using a cell to pack method which saves space and reduces weight.

BYD Blade LFP battery

Many marketing experts have stated that one of the most important goals to accelerate the transition to EVs is to reach cost parity with ICE vehicles. Based on cost to produce, the standard LFP cells and the modified LFP cells currently have the greatest global potential to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy assuming supplies eventually meet demand in most regions. Regionally wise, China is a leader in driving down the cost of EVs from the premium class BYD Han EV to the tiny SAIC-GM Wuling Hong Guang mini EV.

Below is a picture of the very low cost Wuling Hong Guang mini EV which is the top selling EV in China.

Two major challenges to overcome with respect to displacing ICE vehicles with EVs includes affordability and range. For developing economies and families on a tight budget initial cost is the top priority. Used EVs are not yet readily available and for families & individuals with limited income entry level EVs in some regions are still too expensive. As available, EVs with modified LFP batteries will help encourage cost sensitive buyers to purchase their first EV. On the other hand solar energy and storage systems are rapidly growing in these developing countries. So the infrastructure is being built.

Range is another factor that depends on the expectations and culture of a given region. As an example, luxury and sporty full size pickup trucks and SUVs are popular in much of the USA. These are highly desirable premium vehicles that achieve high sales volumes even with elevated pricing.

USA customers of full-size premium pickups and SUVs are accustomed to large powerful vehicles that are comfortable for multiple passengers & gear, capable of going far and fast on highways, and when desired capable of pulling a trailer loaded for recreation or work activities. In addition, many premium pickup and SUV owners want off-road capabilities.

The premium EV pickups and full-size SUVs will have superior acceleration and off-road capabilities as compared to ICE models. For affluent USA customers, range will remain a key consideration. Tesla, GM, Ford, Rivian, etc. are responding with full size comfortable vehicles that will offer maximum ranges of 400 to 500 miles based on the EPA rating system. In the future, range for these types of premium USA made vehicles will go up not down.

The high nickel content NCM battery cells will likely be the best fit for this important premium USA market segment that demands great acceleration, superior off-road capabilities, space for passengers, luxury, good towing capability, and state-of-art range for an EV. Some of the unique positives of full electric premium pickups & SUVs are low noise, no fumes, prolonged climate control capabilities when parked, and outstanding V2L power transfer capability (assuming bidirectional inverter).

Below is a picture showing how the GM-LG Ultium high nickel content pouch cells can be arranged to assemble battery packs up to 200 kWh capacity on a limited surface area platform.

Combining a ~200 kWh battery pack with a suitable bidirectional inverter will make it practical to sleep comfortable overnight when needed, provide prolong backup power to fixed structures, transfer power from grid fringe to remote work or recreational area, power up remote cabin or trailer, transfer power to future battery powered specialized farm, ranch, construction, or recreational vehicles, etc.

Back to decreasing the cost for electrification, the modified LFP cells now have sufficient range for many EV applications and avoid the cost and uncertainties of buying nickel & cobalt. The lower cost standard LFP cells are well suited for fixed Energy Storage Systems (ESS) and for some entry level mini-EVs. In the USA, Powin Energy is successfully selling utility scale battery packs with CATL (a major Chinese manufacturer) supplied LFP cells that includes a 20-year warranty and is exempt from select safety regulations based on passing rigorous safety related test procedures.

The standard LFP cells made in China with ~100 Wh/kg energy are being exported into other regions. One of the applications in the USA for imported LFP cells is the assembly into 12V to 48V battery packs for various applications. I would personally like to see new modified LFP battery cells manufactured in Europe & USA which I believe would further accelerate the transition to sustainable energies.

For now, outside of China is a different commercial situation. The medium nickel content NCM cells are manufactured in Europe, China, USA, South Korea, and Japan by several major suppliers giving very good regional and supplier diversity. Based on regional availability and multiple major suppliers, the medium nickel content cells are frequently the lowest cost option for EVs and fixed ESS products.

Using medium nickel content cells instead of the lower cost to produce LFP cells has the additional potential benefit of a higher energy density. To help compensate for the disadvantage of purchasing strategic metals that are vulnerable to high spot market pricing, major LIB suppliers are in discussion with Indonesia, New Caledonia, Vale, Glencore, etc. to increase mining to market supply chain capacities while establishing long term contracts that offer more predictable pricing.

Many LIB cell suppliers have successfully reduced the concentration of cobalt required to stabilize cathode particles and some suppliers have developed options to totally eliminate cobalt. Nickel shortages and pricing instabilities have now become a primary focus of several EV manufactures. Cobalt is a co-product of copper and nickel production which helps to ensure availability in moderate quantities.

As lower cost EVs, ESS, and LFP battery cells are introduced into different regions many finished product manufactures in Europe and USA recognize the need for large volume competitive LFP battery cell sourcing. Other options may include eventually enter LFP battery cell manufacturing partnerships or even manufacture LFP cells inhouse.

BYD is an example of a major international company that is leveraging their inhouse production of modified LFP battery cells and cell-to-pack Blade battery to gain market share in China and to export finished products into select international markets. The finished products include short range & long- range electric buses, electric commercial trucks, the premium Han EV, the 7 passenger Tang, and ESS. BYD promotes the unsurpassed safety record of LFP cells, having a pressure relief device on each cell, using ceramic separators, and passing standardized penetration test that simulate inadvertent battery cell abuse situations.

Examples of EV manufactures that are purchasing modified LFP batteries to better compete in price sensitive markets including exports outside of China are Xpeng, Tesla, and in the future, Renault. Tesla may switch most of their lower range models to modified LFP batteries to better compete on pricing and divert nickel batteries into the more demanding premium EVs, Cybertruck, and heavy semi-truck models.

There is a robust global competition between suppliers of high nickel NCM cells with factories located in Europe, China, USA, South Korea, and Japan. Many new factories are under construction including partnerships between an established supplier and a major auto company. It appears that 300 Wh/kg energy can be reached when limited amounts of silicon are added to the anode.

A technology improvement reported to extend cycle life of the cathode even at elevated energy densities is the use of mono-crystalline nickel vs poly-crystalline nickel.

The most popular high nickel formulation is 8:1:1 NCM cells which has an 80% nickel content. The GM-LG Ultium joint venture is based on NCMA cathodes with a reported 89% nickel. Tesla plans on producing their own high nickel cells using novel dry electrode technology once the Giga Berlin and Giga Austin factories are commissioned.

To gain a competitive price advantage, the high nickel NCM cells are mass produced in very large factories using highly automated reel to reel manufacturing techniques. The higher cost of high nickel content cells is justified in markets that place a high priority on energy density including some types of premium EVs, heavy trucks that are regulated by a maximum weight limit, power sport off-road vehicles, etc.

The objective of some manufactures with EV models planned across several price brackets is to have access to high nickel content NCM, medium nickel content NCM, and LFP cells. Tesla is an example of a major EV manufacture that may expand their battery cell portfolio to include three differently priced options. Including inhouse production of battery cells, the existing partnership with Panasonic, and purchasing cells from major merchant market suppliers such as LG Energy Solutions and CATL.

Volkswagen Group has a rapidly increasing demand for LIB cells and has arranged for several suppliers in different regions. Including a future joint venture with Northvolt in Europe. I expect Volkswagen Group to provide additional information in the near future with regards to battery cell strategy. If interested in a near future update, watch Volkswagen Power Day on March 15th.

In China the big push from the customer base and the government is for more affordable medium priced EVs and for very low-priced entry level mini EVs. China has a very diverse group of battery cell suppliers of different sizes, diversity of battery cell technology, ongoing research & development, and several factories under construction to meet rising domestic and export demands.

The Chinese government has aggressive programs to help drive down the price of entry level mini-EV allowing budget constrained families & individuals to drive a mini-EV instead of a motorcycle or scooter.

Fayaz Ahmed: To further improve the Lithium-ion batteries. There is a general trend of moving from graphite based anode towards a Li metal or silicon anode. On cathode side, committing to cobalt-free cathodes and moving towards a high nickel cathode design? What engineering and operational challenges battery industry need to overcome before mass manufacturing of these new electrode materials?

Paul Kageler: For high nickel content cathodes there is a lot of proprietary technology using combinations of metal dopants, coating, binders, and mono-crystalline nickel to increase energy density while not compromising cycle life, charge rates, or discharge rates. The use of some metal dopants, coatings, binders, mono-crystals, etc. can also increase cost.

As the concentration of nickel increases the energy capacity increases but the stability of the cathode structure diminishes resulting in a potential loss of cycle life. For this reason, metal dopants are added to strengthen and stabilize the crystalline structure to inhibit cracking, pulverization, etc.

Cobalt helps to stabilize nickel cathodes resulting in longer cycle life and stores lithium ions at about half the efficiency as nickel. This dual function helps make cobalt one of the best metal dopants performance wise for nickel cathodes. Due to cost and human rights issues many manufactures of LIB have developed proprietary material science techniques to reduce or eliminate cobalt while maintaining cathode stability and energy storage capacity.

Nickel has the highest energy storage capacity of cathode materials and does not significantly expand and contract as lithium ions move in and out of the crystal structure. The NCMA Ultium cell pouches have achieved nickel content of 89% while maintaining good cycle life.

Lots of interest in the anticipated inhouse produced Tesla high nickel cells planned for the semi-truck and Cybertruck. Jeff Dahn videos and articles show mono-crystalline high content nickel cathodes can have excellent cycle-life. A recent video also states that mono-crystalline nickel is already being mass produced and used by some major Chinese companies at a reasonable price. Must wait and see.

All of the current commercial anodes are based on graphite as the host material for Li-ions. Silicon can host a lot more Li-ions than graphite for the same weight but expands and contracts considerably as li-ions are hosted and released. Excessive expansions and contractions quickly cause cracks and pulverizes the anode particles which drastically shorten cycle life.

Doping graphite with silicon increases anode capacity regardless of the type of cathode and can be applied to LFP, medium content nickel, or high nickel content cathode cells. Some material science experts claim that 30% silicon is the absolute practical limit of doping before unacceptable cycle life. Several research groups have grown crystals with special nano-structures that can host additional Li-ions. The downside is these special crystals cost more than metallic silicon.

It is speculated that Tesla in planning on using lower cost standard silicon as a dopant and an elastomer coating to mitigate the negative effects of expansions and contractions. Tesla’s partner Panasonic has been incrementally increasing the silicon added to the anode in the Sparks Nevada USA Giga factory to ensure that cycle life is not compromised in mass produced cells.

Fayaz Ahmed: Tesla introduced new battery cell design on their battery day. Tesla says its new cell design should give its vehicles a 16% increase in range thanks to a 5x increase in energy. Cylindrical cells have been there for many decades but they seem to have come up with the radically different idea of building these cylindrical cells, right? Please tell us a bit about new cell design and what’s so innovative and exciting about it.