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9 November 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 8:03am

A battery material capable of powering a revolution

Johnson Matthey has developed a material that will help match EV engines with regular engines on speed, cost and safety.     

By Alan Nelson

Batteries are going through a period of transformation, and this change is bringing a future in which electric vehicles are the norm closer every day. Johnson Matthey is, at its core, a science and technology company; we spend approximately £200m every year on research, and for us, helping to develop battery capability to meet the needs of an electric-vehicle future was a natural extension of our expertise.

Leveraging our 200 years of technology excellence, Johnson Matthey has developed a new type of cathode material called eLNOTM – for use in electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries. This material has been developed to support widespread electric vehicle (EV) adoption, by improving the driving experience thereby encouraging the purchase and use of electric vehicles.

The majority of lithium-ion batteries that have been researched and produced over the past 30 years were developed for consumer electronics purposes. These products have very different requirements to EVs, and so do their batteries. For example, a mobile phone needs to be charged once a day, which is sufficient, and the battery needs to last for about two to three years. Needless to say, a car battery is required to perform in a very different way.

With this challenge in mind, we at Johnson Matthey asked ourselves what it would take to develop a cathode material that would support a lithium-ion battery not for consumer electronics, but which would enable electric vehicle usage on a grand scale. We looked at a number of strategic factors that are crucial to the success of electric vehicles – total cost of ownership, driving range, safety, acceleration, recharging – and developed our new cathode material, eLNO, with these consumer priorities in mind.

One critical aspect that holds back the wider EV industry is how far you can drive between charges, as it is currently limited by the batteries in use. So we developed eLNO with a view to enabling long-range driving between charges – up to 300-400 miles – to help get EV batteries to the same point as internal combustion engines. eLNO also has excellent power characteristics which means that a battery containing eLNO will actually enable faster acceleration for an EV than a standard car, and the recharging times can be quicker.

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Of course, safety is a significant parameter for consumers and for the industry in general, and by making energy storage safer, we have managed to improve the overall safety of electric vehicles using batteries containing eLNO. Finally, total cost of ownership is an essential consideration when buying a car.

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For EV adoption to really take off, consumers – unsurprisingly – want to pay the same price as they do for a regular vehicle, or close to it, and they want to have the same refuelling costs, whether their vehicle uses petrol, diesel, or electricity. This is a key differentiator with eLNO: we have worked hard to remove cost as a barrier to EV adoption, and the material we have developed keeps costs down for the consumer.

There are many batteries on the market that are good at one of the aspects I have mentioned, but successful EV batteries need to be good at all of them – only then will they rival the vehicles we drive today. We have used our science and chemistry to create a holistic approach to accelerating the adoption of EVs, but looking to the future there are a number of challenges that Johnson Matthey, and the wider industry, is facing before mass rollout can take place. In order to commercialise our new cathode material and get it “out there”, we need the support of a nationwide, focused strategy on electric vehicles and electrification, which needs to be driven by the government.

Johnson Matthey is playing an important role by developing a battery material that enables longer-range driving, and reduces total cost of ownership, but in order to really see a big acceleration in broad EV adoption, we need charging points and more widely rolled out EV infrastructure, and we need these vehicles to compete on price with those powered by internal combustion engines. In turn, a strategy of this type would lay the basis for developing a steady and secure development supply chain.

The government is already very supportive of research, but an ambitious strategy and financial backing are needed to turn that research into practice. The US Department of Energy recently commissioned a number of studies on the cost of taking brand-new technology from the laboratory into commercialisation, and found that for every $1m spent on basic research, another $10m is required to scale up that technology, and $100m is required to actually move that technology into large-scale manufacturing. The industry is very grateful for the firm backing of government in pursuing this EV agenda, but the amount of investment required to take this technology forward is not something the private sector alone can provide.

Johnson Matthey, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with the scaling up of this transformative product at our pilot facility in the North East of England. Earlier this year we announced investment in a demonstration skills facility in Clitheroe in Lancashire and initial investment in a commercial-scale facility to be located in mainland Europe, close to where we expect our major customers to be. This facility will come online in 2021/22 and we expect to have our material powering EV platforms thereafter.

And we are continuing to innovate, as we have done for 200 years, with products such as eLNO that help to improve lithium-ion batteries to meet a critical need for industry, society and consumers, and to help make the world a cleaner and a healthier place.

eLNO is a trademark of Johnson Matthey. Alan Nelson is Johnson Matthey’s chief technology officer.

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