Samsung Electric Car Batteries Get A Boost … (But Few New Details)

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In the world of electric vehicles, batteries are gold. In the world of electric vehicle batteries, there are a handful of dynasties you must court if you want a competitive electric car. The most well known and promising names, the world’s EV battery leaders, are:

  • Panasonic (supplies Tesla and Toyota as well as certain models from Mercedes and Ford)
  • LG Chem (supplies Audi, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Nissan, Renault, smart, Volkswagen, Volvo)
  • Samsung SDI (supplies BMW, Fiat, Mercedes, Porsche)
  • SK Innovation (supplies Kia)
  • BYD (supplies BYD)
  • AESC (supplies Nissan, but it looks like Nissan is shifting to LG Chem)
  • GS Yuasa (supplies Honda, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Citroen)

This chart from late 2015 is still quite relevant:

The big question that comes up almost daily in comment threads on CleanTechnica is how much LG Chem, Samsung SDI, SK Innovation, and others are doing to keep pace with the Panasonic + Tesla partnership.

There’s also a question of whether Chinese producers can come in and steal the show just as the market heats up — like they did in the solar industry and also the wind industry to an extent.

On both fronts, Samsung SDI seems to be on the move. At the Frankfurt Motor Show this week, the Korean company introduced “multifunctional battery packs” that it claims can keep a car running for 700 kilometers (430 miles). Whether coincidentally or not, Mashable notes, “That would theoretically get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco with about 50 miles to spare.” California, of course, is one of the prime hubs of the electric vehicle revolution.

For a look at how that compares to the range of current electric cars, note that Tesla Model 3 range varies from 350 km to 500 km and Tesla Model S range currently varies from 400 km to 540 km. Of course, the Samsung-provided figure could be based on the unrealistic NEDC testing cycle (probably), which would drop the real-world range down closer to the range of a Model S.

Of course, total range only means so much — if you wanted to, you can stick battery cells into a pack for days and create a battery pack that could provides thousands of miles of range. Core factors for consumer electric cars are energy density (how much energy you can pack into a certain size battery), power density (how much power you can pack into a certain size battery — this influences how quickly the power in a battery can go to an electric motor and torque the car to a high speed), and cost (especially cost per kWh). We don’t have any info on those critical matters, but we do have some extra details and a ton of context around Samsung SDI’s battery push.

For one, Samsung SDI has started offering the 21700 form factor — just as LG Chem and Panasonic/Tesla now do. Additionally, the battery options the company has on the market allow for a lot of customization depending on how much capacity you want and how much you are willing to pay. This may sound revolutionary, but to be honest, Samsung was already quite far along that path, with the BMW i3 including several modules arranged into a pack. And I doubt any serious battery producer would say “no, we can’t make a battery pack that size”  if a major automaker came to them with a specific capacity request. Anyhow, this is how Samsung highlighted the feature in its press release published earlier this week:

“’Multifunctional battery pack’ of Samsung SDI attracted the most attention. Its users can change the number of modules as they want as if they place books on a shelf. For example, if 20 modules are installed in a premium car, it can go 600 to 700 kilometers. If 10 to 12 modules are mounted on a regular sedan, it can run up to 300 kilometers. This pack is expected to attract attention from automakers, because they can design a car whose mileage vary depending on how many modules of a single pack are installed.”

Samsung highlighted another slight but potentially significant battery innovation:

“Another groundbreaking product Samsung SDI exhibited is ‘Low Height Cell.’ This is a cell whose height has been reduced by more than 20 percent than that of other existing cells. If this cell is applied, it can decrease the battery load height in an EV. It raises interior space utilization, enabling automakers to develop EVs of various designs.”

Also, it’s a soft comment, but I know it’s one that will resonate well with readers here — Samsung presented itself as “a battery company preparing for the popularization of EVs” in this press release.

“Our products unveiled at the show are expected to advance the popularization of EVs because they use high technologies optimized to the needs of customers and the market,” Samsung SDI President Jun Young-hyun said. “We will keep leading the battery industry with our unrivaled technology.”

Lastly, how about the factories? Samsung actually covered that base as well (demonstrating how tuned in the company is to CleanTechnica‘s readers/commenters):

“Samsung SDI constructed an EV battery plant in Hungary in May, completing its worldwide production tripod with plants in Ulsan, South Korea and Xian, China. Samsung SDI is trying its best to meet the diverse needs of global automakers as a provider of total EV solutions including world-class cells, modules and packs based on cutting-edge technology.”

Yes, it would be good to share more details on those factories and future plans, but hey, it’s a start.

We wrote about that battery factory last year. Located 25 kilometers north of Budapest, production is supposed to start in the second half of next year (2018) and pump out enough batteries for 50,000 fully electric cars a year. No, that’s not dramatic and doesn’t equate to the “popularization of EVs,” so let’s hope there are much bigger factory plans underway.

More Samsung SDI Context

The most notable car company that Samsung SDI has been supplying is BMW. So, it’s worth highlighting that BMW pulled back its electric car plans last year after being an early leader. The details of what that means — and why the shift occurred in the first place — are up for debate, but one easy presumption is that Samsung’s EV batteries weren’t up to the competition yet for BMW to create compelling fully electric cars at attractive prices. Or maybe BMW had other reasons for pulling back and Samsung just lost out a bit in the process.

Some battery experts have claimed that Samsung SDI leads the market on longevity and thus long-term cost per kWh of its batteries. But that is something that is impossible to confirm before these batteries get much older in actual cars. In the meantime, a higher upfront cost/kWh (which seems to be what Samsung SDI offers compared to Panasonic and LG Chem) comes with obvious cons.

Regarding the giant Chinese market (which is basically as big as the rest of the world’s EV market combined, or bigger), Samsung got the picture loud and clear a while back that it had to put cash into China if it wanted to take cash out of China. As noted in the press release quoted above, Xian (China) is where one of Samsung’s three battery legs is planted. How much will that leg grow compared to the others? Presumably, a lot more.

For a short time, there was rumor that Tesla would start using Samsung SDI batteries. It seems that rumor either wasn’t based on much or the deal simply fell through — or maybe Tesla was just using it as a bargaining chip with Panasonic. Who knows? But last we heard, Samsung has no future with Tesla. Perhaps it just has an allergy to Silicon Valley.

Also worth noting is that Samsung SDI dropped a journey into the world of hydrogen fuel cells last year for a stronger focus on EV batteries. We presume that was an obvious decision, but yeah, let’s not even get into that discussion. The point is that Samsung sees a lot of potential in the EV battery market.

Additionally, the BMW i3 — the most famous electric car using Samsung’s batteries — has been getting semi-regular range boosts as new versions (new model years) of the car come out. That hints that Samsung keeps improving battery cost and energy density. There’s also talk that future long-range Audi electric cars will use Samsung SDI batteries — another good sign regarding the company’s progress.

And this is all after Samsung SDI bought an Austrian EV battery factory from highly regarded automotive supplier Magna.

The long and short: Samsung SDI battery progress marches forward. But we’ll get really excited when we see more compelling electric cars using its batteries.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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