It’s no secret that Elon Musk’s bold commitment to deliver a line of premium electric cars, built in the U.S. has spurred on tremendous global battery chemistry and cell development. Adding to the motivation to transition away from the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) model was the tweaked environmental testing results involving diesel powered cars, which once caught, forced German companies to commit to new alternative power-drive platforms as a form of penance.
Musk knew early on that if this new commitment to alternative transport via rechargeable battery technology was going to be accepted on a global scale, both the volume of available quality battery cells would need to increase and that the technology would need to improve to deliver higher energy density, longer cycle life, and safer chemistry. He also knew that shear volume would eventually lower the cost per kilowatt hour.
Following the niche sales of the original roadster, which became his proof of concept, Musk implemented the next phase of his automotive plans with his successful launch of the Model S. Originally mocked as nothing but a vehicle for the 1%, it became apparent, once the accolades were published and a demonstratively loyal fan base developed, competitors and all levels of traditional mobility platforms started to take notice.
Realizing the need, Musk undertook at the time, one of his most ambitious efforts to shore up the supply chain. In a partnership with Panasonic, he set out to build the single largest lithium battery manufacturing facility in the world. Pitting states and cities against each other in a bidding war, he landed in Northern Nevada (with the help of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development) with the very first Gigafactory.
To understand the size and scope, you must realize that when done, this one 4.9 million square foot facility will be the single largest structure in the world. More importantly, to outfit 500,000 cars a year, he needs an average of 7100 individual, cylindrical cells to make up the multiple battery packs in a single drivetrain. That adds up to 3,550,000,000 (3.5 billion) cells. Best of all, this does not take into account his need for his other large energy storage products.
Collectively, based on a 60 hour work week, times 52 weeks, the facility needs to produce 316 cells per second to meet the auto demand. Having spent a great deal of time inside of battery cell manufacturing facilities in China, Korea, and Japan, I can say unequivocally, that collectively the whole bunch of them don’t produce that many cells in one year.
The scale of the Gigafactory production lines are giant by comparison to any other cell line. The width of the rolled substrate, the double-sided coating process, the slicing and rolling equipment is on a scale never seen before. In reality, they needed to design, engineer, construct, and install equipment never produced before to accommodate the projected volume.
The real irony for China, is that many of the larger commercial cell producers gave up on the production of traditional 18650 cylindrical cells, as they could not compete with Samsung, Panasonic, and LG both in quality and sheer volume. Most manufacturers transitioned to prismatic and pouch polymer cells as the new way to produce higher energy batteries.
Fast forward to today and we now have more than 100 companies attempting to produce PEVs, trucks, forklifts, PTVs, boats, airplanes, and motorcycles. According to reports, as of June 2016 more than 1 million electric cars are on the road. As of the same time one year later (2017), 1.9 million cars.
Between the emerging domestic market in China, and the growing competitive arena among the world’s leading automotive brands, projections indicate that by 2020, we could be looking at fifteen million units on the road.
But beyond that we will see smaller, more compact personal electric transport growing at even faster rates. Reports indicate the current number of electric bicycles operating on the roads today to be 200 million, with a projection that by 2020, two billion bikes will be electrified.
New Demand For Battery Technology
While the initial concepts and patents for commercial, rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries was developed jointly, by a host of academics starting in the early 1970s, in university labs in Binghamton, TU Munich, University of Texas at Austin, UPENN, Stanford University, and Oxford University. The exercise demonstrated viability, but the U.S. government did not see the commercial value. The initial patents stood, but it was Japan’s Asahi Kasei Corporation that released the first commercial Lithium-ion battery in 1991 for Sony.
While there have been small incremental developments in the cell chemistry to meet the growing needs of compact consumer electronics, there was limited need to develop larger, more dense cells. It was the tried and true method to multiply smaller individual cells together into both parallel and serial connections to deliver higher voltage and larger wattage.
But the higher the capacity output, the more volatile the cells became. The combination of rapid charging, blended with a higher capacity discharge to power motors and devices to greater speeds takes its toll on the internal cell structure. Anode electrodes (the negative) move towards the cathode electrodes (the positive) through the electrolyte fluids to discharge a constant output until it can’t any longer. That makes Lithium-ion cells so unique. There is very little taper, or fall-off of energy output during the discharge phase by comparison to traditional SLA batteries. During the charging of the cells, the reverse process happens. All of this movement internally, slowly damages the crystal surfaces that the electrodes attach themselves to. As the surface degrades, it holds less and less energy. As the surface is chipped away, pieces and particles create opportunities for higher heat generation which makes the cell expand under pressure.
When the pressure inside of a lithium cell becomes too great, you get a process known as Thermal Runaway. The rapid heat causes the cell structure to become so pressurized that it bursts. Cylindrical cells pop open at the seam or joint where the cap meets the sidewall. Pouch cells look like the foil envelope the cheese comes in when making macaroni and cheese. The envelope expands like a pillow until one of the side seams pops open. While there is a potential for fire from within, the real issue is that the highly toxic fluids inside release super hot gases.
As with virtually all larger battery packs, they are made up of a number of these individual cells. Typically, all of the cells within a pack are stored right next to each other. Most make contact on at least two sides. If one cell is defective in this bundled scenario, the heat transfers to the cells around it and force internal damage in many of them. Add into the mix leaking super hot chemicals and you have the Runaway effect. Included in all of this is the wires that connect the cells to the circuit board known as the battery management system. Three thousand degree chemicals coming into contact with wires and circuitry, makes for fires.
So we know that there is a high rate of volatility inside of a battery cell with liquid electrolyte chemistry. We know that some heat is required to produce higher energy, but too much heat creates real damage. We also know that the original chemistry makeup required a fairly reactive liquid electrolyte activator to jump start the battery energy process.
With these “knowns” engineers have been working on a number of fronts to development the next generation of cells. Here are some of the key objectives:
In terms of existing chemistry and form factor, Tesla and Panasonic, as well as Samsung and LG are now producing larger cylindrical cells. The current 18650 which is the abbreviation for 18mm in diameter and 65mm in length. The new format is 2170 which is 21mm in diameter and 70mm in length. Inside the cell is a 32” long copper foil substrate strip that is coated on both sides with the lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide mix that is applied in a coating form and dried into a jelly-style paste. This is then rolled with a membrane separator, wrapped in an aluminum casing and the electrolyte activator is injected in before the cap is sealed on top. This new format actually meets the first two initial requirements. The new size delivers 30% more energy capacity and the chemistry mix provides for a reported 20% increase in cycle life.
Solid state cell design addresses the volatility of the liquid electrolyte chemistry by creating a solid polymer electrolyte that can be laminated to the substrate. This reduces the flammability and allows the use of a greater selection of electrode chemistries. The solid polymer also is less affected by temperature, especially lower ranges where the liquid could freeze.
We have seen where these types of cells can withstand punctures, without combustion, and still deliver 90% of their electrical output.
High volume production of these cells is still a short time away but we anticipate these to be ready for applications in 2019.
Battery chemistry is often dependent on rare earth materials where nation states often have majority controlling interest in the mines and processing, even if it is in a foreign land. Cobalt is a perfect example. Often listed on the Conflicts Mining Report, companies are seeking ways to avoid the child and slave labor environments often used in third-world nations to extract this material from the land.
The use of iron is an example. Christopher Wolverton, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University has been working with iron phosphate but it also requires oxygen which is the real challenge. Computer models show promise and early stage prototypes are helping to prove the practical side.
Engineers at Penn State has devised a pre-heating function made of nickel foil that is linked to the battery management system, which includes a temperature sensor. The system detects when the cells are below room temperature and uses a small amount of energy from the charger to heat the cell back to above room temperature through foil and then introduces the charge.
The use of Graphite as part of the chemistry mix has added real storage capacity benefits. Universities are working on synthesized porous carbon that when compared to graphite, can hold 2x the amount of lithium-ions allowing the cell to charge quicker.
Blends of super and ultra-capacitor cells into traditional lithium battery packs have demonstrated the ability to incorporate a 2-stage charge process to where the capacitor cells charge almost instantly and then feed the traditional lithium cells are the rate they can accept. At the same time, the ultra-capacitor cells can deliver a much higher discharge rate under full demand.
On The Other Side
Everyone from computer chip makers, to electric drive controllers are seeking ways to produce more efficient IC that uses less power to do more. The use of thinner circuit boards, carbon nanotubes, and denser circuits on a single chip have yielded an average of a 22% reduction in power consumption each year.
Software is also an important tool to conserve power. Applications that build an AI user profile and control power consumption to meet the individual user’s needs is a way to reduce power and keep a necessary reserve based on historical needs.
The Future Of Production
It seems that Musk is about to finalize his second Gigafactory somewhere in Germany, but the EU is not waiting and has built a consortium of leading automotive manufacturers to develop their own production lines. China is also mobilizing its cell manufacturing capabilities but is still behind in terms of advanced large capacity cell production and a weak IC production capability to produce battery pack management solutions. Yet, with one of the largest economies for urban personal transport, they have the biggest incentive to succeed.
Each group will invest in promising research to vet out the possible chemistry alternatives and improved formats. Lithium is like clean water and both are quickly becoming the new petroleum.
(This was originally published as an article on LinkedIn on June 20, 2018)
Pick virtually any sport out there and at some point a professional level is created and competitions are built around it. Tennis, Golf, Skiing, Cycling (road, BMX, MTB), Snowboarding, Skateboarding, even Volleyball and Badminton offer professional competitions with sponsorships and prize money!
The idea of racing electric bikes has been confusing to skeptics as the marketing message for an eBike is often to attract aged-out riders with ailments that keep them from enjoying traditional cycling. But as we know, it's human nature to be competitive. Even logging in at just the right moment to get a lower boarding number on a Southwest flight has become a competitive sport!
Racing of any kind feeds three distinct objectives. The first is for the early adopters and purists who want to compete against each other for simple bragging rights. The second is where manufacturers use the competitive element to test new products, materials, and techniques to get the most out of their offerings. The third, is for marketing, where being able to promote a brand and the winners behind it, creates consumer demand.
Speaking about cycling and being even more specific, about electric, pedal-assist bicycles, the oxymoron is the idea of taking a bike that has built-in power assistance and adding a rider to compete in a race. Why? But truthfully, the analogy is similar to any motorized or gravity-fed vehicle used in competition. From NASCAR to the Soapbox Derby, each vehicle must meet very stringent specifications by class and often the driver’s skill is the tipping point.
It doesn’t take much prodding for two recreational eBike riders to start a friendly competition as to who can climb the hill faster or travel a particular length course quicker with the final accolades being given to the one with more stored battery power at the end. Compound that simple scenario into a multi-leg, multi-day, team event and you have a great race that combines human skills as well as technical management.
The biggest challenge for any cycling race, specifically Mountain Bikes, is that the race setting is often in remote areas and the course itself is long, often treacherous terrain, and certainly not spectator friendly. This can be the kiss-of-death for brand marketing because only the real purist is willing to travel to the remote race location and then hike up to a section of the course to potentially see a few key turns on the entire route. The purists are already the converted and marketing is not typically focused on preaching to the choir.
This leaves potential consumer interaction solely at the start and finish lines where pavilions, tents and team facilities can be set.
For traditional cycling competitions, at least in the US, roads and approved MTB trails can be secured for events with the proper permits, security, crowd, and traffic control. But for any type of electric bicycle competition this would be limited to a secured permitted or private facility (road route or off-road private land) as public federal land is typically out of the question.
In Europe where pedal-assist mountain bike competitions have become relatively normal, access to challenging trails through dramatic vistas like the Italian Dolomites, are available and offer a compelling backdrop, but still create a marketing challenge to get the public to venture to a remote site just to learn more about the sport.
While some brands attempt to avoid the obvious comparison between electric-assist mountain bike cycling and motorcycles, the reality is that 2-wheel off-road enthusiasts seek all types of vehicles to keep their passion going, and as pointed out before, the competitive aspect creeps in at every turn. Speed and endurance are the two most addictive aspects.
In full disclosure, we are the group that has cultivated the idea, along with major motorcycle industry publisher Bonnier, to integrate arena-based motorcycle racing with a modified version of the indoor track to accommodate performance-oriented electric-assist mountain bike racing on the following day. This collaboration has developed a new version of the nationally recognized EnduroCross Race Series, and will play host to four eMTB races inside of their six stop, 2018 tour.
The idea of building a competitive series that offers a highly compressed, indoor obstacle and “trials” style race track, while being located in regional suburban markets, addresses the consumer experiential and marketing objectives in one fell swoop.
During our own research to evaluate this opportunity, we learned that a majority of the competitive EnduroCross riders used mountain bikes as critical training aids for their motocross skills. We learned that the medium price for a used (but competitive) motocross bike would set a rider back $5,000.00 to $6,000.00 and a new basic motocross bike would run around $6,500.00. Most competitors indicated their true costs would be closer to $12,000 to $15,000 once they got done modifying the bike with performance aftermarket components to make the bike work for them.
Even the recreational off road rider assumes that they will upgrade a number of components shortly after purchase. In both cases once the motorcycle riders experience the added thrust from the electric-assist on an eMTB, they are hooked. It’s the speed, any speed that gets them.
For the eBike community, the traditional commuter bikes and street cruisers average around $2000 to $3500. Well constructed electric-assist mountain bikes tend to run from $4500 to as much as $10,000 with all of the technical advancements and performance components.
Building an eMTB Experience that is set right in the midst of an EndurCross event introduces a strong subset of enthusiasts to test ride pedal-assist, electric MTBs and capitalizes on the riders energy already built into the surroundings. These are people that have traveled, paid to watch, and are wandering the paddock area to see the competitors and their machines up close. There are literally thousands of them that make their way to these races.
The idea of going from a passive role of watching to actually testing a full series of products on a scaled version of the indoor race track, with built-in dirt banks, obstacles, rocks, tires, hills, and trees is an adrenaline rush. For those that know anything about the true costs of off-road motocross riding, virtually any of the eMTBs they test will be a great value alternative.
Adding In Consumer IntelligenceAsk any product marketer and they will tell you that large crowds are important as opportunities for business development and consumer sales is a game of numbers. The simple math of a select percentage of solid leads grows proportionally with larger crowds.
But equally important to size is the level of pre-qualification and the data collected during the interaction. Understanding the consumer’s predisposition about pedal-assist cycling allows marketers to adjust the message and talking points. Just understanding whether they intend to take a product and compete with it or just follow along at a recreational level can be groundbreaking.
In a similar analogy, many golfers buy the latest driver because Dustin Johnson or Rory Mcllroy uses that exact same one on tour. Even with this new club, odds of them breaking 90 is still a pipe dream. This is the same mentality for the vicarious rider who wishes to be like motocross champion Cody Webb. Understanding that inner goal going into the conversation with a potential customer, strikes an amazing cord of opportunity.
Unlike a traditional cycling event with thousands wandering around aimlessly, knowing through advanced demographic profiles collected as part of the initial registration, what the majority of the attendee base knows about the products, has interest in, and what they perceive their own skill level to be, can change a brand's target and focus.
The debate then becomes, 'would I rather have thousands of unknown potentials, or hundreds of pre-identified attendees where I have measurable knowledge about the majority going in to it.' What if I knew significant details about everyone that tested one of my products? What if collecting this data didn’t require the staff to query every rider before they jumped on the product?
For the brands that participate in the eMTB Experience events that are associated with the EnduroCross eMTB Challenge race series, getting that consumer intelligence is part of the overall package. Capturing the enthusiasm from the motocross competition or witnessing for the first time, indoor eMTB Racing, can be contagious and motivate a consumer’s purchasing decisions. The use of passive RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags allows the collection of volumes of data without a forced interrogation of each attendee.
How would you handle a knowledgeable off-road dirt crowd where less than 50% had every ridden a pedal-assist electric mountain bike? What if you knew what type of mountain bike they currently ride and based on your own knowledge what they spent to get that? What if at the end of the event you knew every bike that a specific attendee test road before and after they tried yours? What if by looking on a live map you could see where all of the attendees that tested your bikes lived and how far they were from the closest dealer of your products?
What could you do with that data?
Building A Story To Enhance A Product’s Competitive CapabilitiesA common thread in off-road racing, whether it be motorcycles, cars, or bicycles, is often how the added performance aftermarket components made all the difference. Better tires with aggressive tread patterns and stiffer sidewalls, longer travel suspension systems, bigger brakes with more cylinders for stopping power, or stronger chains with more gears that can take the punishment of the added torque. All of these things can change the characteristic of the rider’s bike.
The challenge for many of these performance aftermarket brands, is how to showcase the actual benefits and differences these performance upgrades can deliver? One way is to take a closed-loop, outdoor terrain test track that can legitimately challenge a rider and let them experience the difference between a bike with and without the product. This is the best way to validate the offer of improved performance.
Feature by association, is a way for manufacturers to create links to those competitors who are currently using the brands products and how these items have helped a particular racer with a competitive advantage. Tying the point-of-sale messaging to the sponsored riders and teams, suggests to the consumer that by adding this component to their bike, they too will become part of the affiliate team.
The hands-on eMTB Experience with it’s professionally built terrain test track, custom manufacturer exhibit pavilions and associated retailers will sit adjacent to the EnduroCross arena in each of the four cities and provide a festival atmosphere for attendees interested in the motocross competitions as well as the eMTB series.
The venues are in or closely adjacent to major metropolitan markets, making it easy for even the casual consumer to make the short trip to experience, watch, and learn more about the eMTB competitive programs. Prescott Valley, Arizona; Reno/Sparks, Nevada; Denver, Colorado; Boise, Idaho. All of these are well vetted locations for the outdoor, off road riding enthusiast.
Electric Mountain Bike manufacturers and distributors, specialty parts manufacturers, performance safety and rider apparel suppliers and independent bicycle shops focused on mountain bikes will all find a place in these events and will have access to a trove of energized consumers.
For more information, visit: www.ElectricBikeEvents.com