Welcome back to The Electric!
Save the date: As it has done for decades with oil and OPEC, the world is relying on a single point of supply for its future electric vehicle batteries—China. But how can the U.S. and Europe catch up and establish their own, competitive battery metals supply chain? One answer: by reinventing how battery metals are refined. To discuss the broad movement to streamline the refining of battery metals, I’m delighted to welcome Dan Blondal, CEO of Nano One Materials, for a live pop-up chat. RSVP here for the event Feb. 17 at noon ET.
On to today’s piece: In September 2020, two companies went public with battery announcements that, combined, triggered a mania in both batteries and electric vehicles. One of them was Tesla. The other was the lesser-known QuantumScape, a lithium-metal startup. Today we examine how, in the intervening year and a half, QuantumScape’s tendency to boast has spilled over into a scrap in the ordinarily decorous battery-making world.
For five decades, battery researchers had toiled on a single exasperating problem: how to deploy a pure lithium metal electrode to get a 50% lift in battery energy density—without igniting a fire. Then in September 2020, QuantumScape, a San Jose, Calif., battery startup backed by Volkswagen, emerged from a decade of secrecy to assert that it had solved the mystery. Though it said it still had to scale up its single-layer battery cell, the company claimed it had invented a ceramic material that safely cordoned off lithium metal and enabled an electric vehicle battery that would charge in 15 minutes, last 150,000 miles and allow EV prices to drop to just $30,000. Most important, QuantumScape had eliminated the threat that spiky dendrites would grow on the lithium, the primary cause of the fires that had been plaguing such batteries. Two months later, the company went public in a reverse merger. Although it had no revenue, its share price rapidly soared fivefold, sending its market cap to $59 billion, higher than General Motors’.
Since then, QuantumScape’s shares have plunged to $16.42, well below their launch price, and its market cap to about $7.2 billion as investors have fled high-flying early EV and battery companies. Yet the company’s penchant for bold and showy claims about its batteries, which it aims to commercialize by the middle of the decade, has persisted. In the 14 months since it went public, QuantumScape has boasted that its early-stage batteries don’t require the usual external pressure devices, which would considerably boost energy density. And in its most recent assertion, the company said its batteries could not only charge in 15 minutes, as it has claimed from the start, but do so 400 times consecutively, all without suffering internal damage. If true, that too would be a breakthrough for lithium-metal batteries. All the while, CEO Jagdeep Singh has needled lithium-metal rivals, accusing them of wasting their time on the wrong technological approach to the problem, and promised considerable riches ahead for those who embrace his company.
The claim about fast charging—made in a public hourlong webinar held on QuantumScape’s website Jan. 27—has caused something of a fracas among rival battery makers and independent researchers. In the subsequent days, they have raised questions about whether the company has been cutting corners by conducting its tests on small, one-layer cells that aren’t anywhere near the scale actually used in batteries. Richard Wang, CEO of Cuberg, a rival battery company, has spearheaded the criticism in a private battery industry chat group. In an interview with me over Zoom, Wang suggested that QuantumScape’s tests are stunts meant to distract investors and researchers from the phenomenally difficult challenges it must overcome to reach commercial scale.
Others have joined in. “What looks great in small cells may not look as good as the scale increases.…Issues start to pop that you don’t see/anticipate when you are operating at smaller scales,” Venkat Srinivasan, a leading battery researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, told me in an email. ...