Batteries are ubiquitous in our modern lives. Take a look around you and count how many items need be plugged in and recharged. If you’re at your desk, the answer might be four or five. If you’re out for a run, perhaps two or three. If you’re in a garage, there may only be one, but it’s a big one: your electric vehicle.
In fact, despite the ubiquity of battery technology, it’s EVs that are driving the industry forward because of the sizeable batteries required. When battery makers consider this growth, along with the capacity requirements of EVs compared to consumer devices like laptops, they see a clear direction in which to turn their efforts.
“The primary growth in batteries is being driven by EVs, there’s no question about that,” said Phillip St Baker, Managing Director of battery company Novonix.
Novonix was founded in Canada in 2013 to bring high-performance battery testing equipment out of the lab and into the hands of battery manufacturers. The company’s founders, Chris Burns and David Stevens, were part of a battery research group at the Dalhousie University in Halifax that was led by the renowned battery expert Jeff Dahn. There, they helped develop testing technology to respond to the changing needs of the battery industry. The battery requirements of EVs are different from those of other industries, so with EVs on the rise, battery manufacturers had to adapt.
A primary requirement of EV batteries is long life, St Baker explained. “Historical battery production was centered around your personal devices: laptops, cordless equipment, which doesn’t require as long a life as EV and grid storage.”
“The big question that we asked ourselves at the time was: How are we going to…do research on materials and cell designs that are going to impact batteries that need to last 10+ years?” said Burns, now the CEO of Novonix. “As the market was changing from consumer electronic cells to electric vehicle and energy storage cells, this was the big question.”
The answer to that question lay in what is Novonix’s flagship product today: high-precision coulometry technology.
The technology Burns and Stevens helped develop at Dalhousie was called high-precision coulometry, or HPC. Coulometry is a measurement technique that can be used to determine the performance of battery cells, but at the time, there were no coulometry systems that could compare the high-performance cells needed for EV applications. The testing methods that were available were both imprecise and slow.
“We developed equipment that could measure the efficiency of the battery in the early cycles much more accurately than traditional equipment,” Burns explained. “And what that allowed us to do was measure the stability of the chemistry and the rate of degradation of the chemistry in only a matter of a few weeks, whereas [with] traditional testing you’d have to run the battery for six months or a year or longer.”
Novonix says the improvement in equipment performance comes from both the hardware design with turn-key systems and in the analysis software. The company offers equipment that was designed to minimize the sources of error in these coulometry measurements as well as different thermal chambers that can be integrated into the systems for precise temperature control of the batteries on test.
This technology made it possible to accelerate the development of new battery designs, allowing manufacturers to iterate more quickly to find longer-lasting designs.
“When scientists around the world are changing chemistries, trying to select better materials to go in their batteries, or making tweaks to the design of their batteries, our technology helps them get verification about the effectiveness of those changes…in weeks, rather than waiting for up to a year or more,” said St Baker.
Novonix was born out of the clear market value that Burns and Stevens saw in their HPC technology.
“Enough big companies came knocking on the door that we decided to start the company and build this technology,” Burns said.
Starting the company turned out to be a smart move. Novonix currently sells its HPC technology to high-profile customers around the globe, including the top five battery manufacturers in the world: Panasonic, CATL, LG, Samsung, and SK Innovation. Other batter manufacturers are “lining up,” according to St Baker. But it’s not just battery makers buying Novonix’s testing equipment. Automakers and electronics manufacturers also buy Novonix technology to help them evaluate the best batteries for their products.
“All major battery makers and all companies starting to spend time heavily on battery R&D are buying Novonix’s flagship HPC technology,” St Baker said.
Novonix’s success in selling its HPC technology prompted the company to dive even further into the battery industry. In a joint venture with the battery consulting company Coulometrics, Novonix established a company called PUREgraphite to develop and manufacture anode materials for the EV battery market.
“We expect to be the first significant player outside of Asia providing an alternative supply of premium end graphite anode material for the battery market,” St Baker said.
PUREgraphite says that its material is easily processed from powder into battery electrodes which result in cells with high capacity and long life, both of which are critical requirements to the growing EV and ESS markets. With proprietary manufacturing processes, PUREgraphite can deliver this material to customers cheaper than the current price of competitive materials coming from Asia.
Based in Tennessee, the company is in the midst of building its first manufacturing plant, which it expects to be operating at commercial levels by this summer. According to St Baker, PUREgraphite’s anode material has been tested both internally and externally to be up to EV standards.
“We’ve confirmed…that this material is as good as any other material in the market or better. So it performs very well,” he said.
That material may soon be even better, thanks to Novonix’s recent return to its research roots. In October 2018, the company signed a partnership with Dalhousie University to sponsor one of its battery research groups. That sponsorship has already begun to pay off, as Novonix has filed its first patent for silicon-infused graphite developed by the Dalhousie team.
“For years and years, companies have been trying to put silicon into graphite to give the battery more capacity,” explained St Baker. “But the problem is the silicon expands and contracts and damages the graphite and [shortens] battery life. So this has been an ongoing problem that the industry has been dealing with. The guys working for us in Dalhousie have managed to get the silicon inside the graphite particles. Not only do they get the silicon inside the particles, but they do it in a manner which is very cheap.”
The results of that research should come to light within the next few months. In the meantime, Novonix is in the process of filing a second patent that’s focused on battery cathodes rather than anodes.
Long live batteries
Today, Novonix is divided into two main parts: battery technology and battery materials. The original HPC technology that spawned the company has found its way into the hands of key players around the globe, and Novonix can only hope the same will happen for its forthcoming graphite anode materials. The company plans to have production capability of a thousand tons of material this year, and someday it hopes to hit one hundred thousand tons per year.
After all, if the EV industry continues at its current pace, we’re going to need as many batteries as we can get.