Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft companies like Lilium seem to be a dime a dozen these. Many people have the perfect outlandish design for the electric air taxi of the future — or so they say. While most of these startups will never make it out of the basement, there are some that we have watched closely for years, and one of those is Lilium.
That’s not to say it will succeed. Getting to commercial production and profitability is about as hard as carrying a redwood tree on your back (not advisable for multiple reasons). But we are still dreaming about a potential flight on a Lilium jet.
Good design imo
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2019
Lilium × Zenlabs
The latest news from Lilium is that it has chosen a battery cell supplier, which happens to be a battery startup it invested in just last year. (“As an investor in Zenlabs since 2021, Lilium has exclusive rights to use the battery cell technology in commercial regional eVTOL applications,” the company notes.) On the one hand, it’s good to see that it still has faith in the batteries. On the other hand, one must also consider the role conflict of interest or over-investment might have in such cases. It’s a possibility to keep an eye on. Though, Lilium hasn’t just announced that it will use battery cells from Zenlabs, the battery startup mentioned above. The eVTOL aircraft visionaries also explained in decent length and detail why they are smitten about the Zenlabs cells.
An interesting few lines that jumped out to me from Lilium’s article about the news are these:
“While we’ve seen massive progress made in cell performance and industrialization over the last 15 years in everything from electric cars to consumer electronics, designing cells for the unique needs of the aviation industry has probably not been a priority.
“Lilium has been hard at work developing a high-performance aviation battery system for our jets centered on the two key drivers necessary to achieve our mission: performance and scale, while working towards anticipated certification requirements. Now that Lilium has progressed in filing patents to protect IP and independent 3rd party testing of its target cell technology has been completed, we can share more about our plans in this domain.”
It’s true — as great as batteries have gotten for electric cars and trucks, who is designing batteries for the aviation industry? To fit the need, someone has to focus on that.
As far as Zenlabs, it also wasn’t a shot in the dark. “Our team scouted more than 100 companies along the entire battery value chain from raw material suppliers through to cell developers, manufacturers, and recycling companies,” Lilium stated. “Based on that research, we concluded that Zenlabs’ pouch cells, lithium-ion batteries using high-silicon anode and high-nickel cathode, offered the best solution for achieving our needs through performance, certification, and into scale production.”
Furthermore, the company says that Lilium engineers have been working with Zenlabs engineers for two years. Taking the next step now implies that those two years have been fruitful.
Let’s roll through a few of the charts Lilium published along with this news.
Lilium/Zenlabs Battery Cell Stats
“Figure 1 compares a commercially available state-of-the-art high power cell (black), a commercially available state-of-the-art high energy cell (red), and the Zenlabs cell (green).
“You can see that the advantage of the Zenlabs cell is its combination of both superior specific energy and specific power capabilities. With this comparison, the Zenlabs cell surpasses both the specific power capability of the high power cell and the specific energy capability of the high energy cell.”
In short, the Zenlabs batteries can sustain high power output for a decent length of time without quickly draining the energy stored within. That’s what planes need.
While I’ve always thought the Lilium design looked quite cool and appealing, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that what makes an EV is its batteries. Yes, design is huge and critical, but batteries are as well. What I had never given a lot of thought to was that the aviation industry would need to develop its own batteries tailored to its own specific needs.
There’s more in the Lilium article about the specific needs Lilium has established and how Zenlabs meets those, but let’s jump to another critical matter — battery production.
Lilium Battery Mineral Supplies & Production
Going back a little bit further, on May 27, Lilium announced that was collaborating with Livent to further advance R&D of high-performance batteries suitable to electric aviation. Livent is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium products for batteries. That partnership alone is one big step toward production, even if that’s not specifically what the news was about.
“Collaborating with Livent, a pioneer in lithium technology innovation and a global leader in lithium production for nearly eighty years, is an important step towards securing Lilium’s future access to the high-performance battery cell technology that will power Lilium’s jets.” Indeed. “Livent supplies lithium to many of the world’s premier electric vehicle brands and battery makers. As a fully integrated lithium producer, Livent uses its differentiated technology processes to both source raw lithium and manufacture a range of specialty lithium products in an environmentally responsible, safe and sustainable manner.”
Livent wouldn’t mess around with an eVTOL company that it didn’t think was eventually headed toward commercial viability, or at least that had a solid chance at that.
Marina Yakovleva, Director of Research & Development and New Business Development for Livent said: “The Livent R&D team is excited about the opportunity to work closely with the leading scientists and engineers at Lilium to advance the state of the art in e-mobility and battery technology. Innovation is in the DNA of both companies, as is a shared commitment to advancing electric transportation and sustainability solutions. Together, we hope to drive meaningful progress in realizing the potential of next generation battery technologies and decarbonizing air travel.”
The second part of the slightly more recent Lilium press release about the Zenlabs battery development was focused on production and a new production partner, CUSTOMCELLS. “CUSTOMCELLS is one of the world’s leading companies in the production of highly specialized lithium-ion battery cells for tightly regulated industries,” Lilium writes. “They have already shown their ability to build highly reliable batteries at scale with all sorts of unique capability sets for several battery-powered applications from sports cars to the maritime industry and even medical devices.” That doesn’t imply that they are going to break any records for low-cost lithium-ion battery production. However, it highlights an important point and again shows the Lilium exec team’s keen foresight: the aircraft industry is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and you need manufacturing partners that are accustomed to working in high-regulation environments.
Naturally, cost is also key, and I’m sure the two partners will work together to drive down costs as much as possible since both of them will achieve orders of magnitude more success if Lilium can compete in the cut-throat and well guarded aviation industry. “We’ll never be able to achieve our mission and effectively contribute to the decarbonization of air mobility if our batteries cannot be built in very large quantities, with aerospace levels of quality, and at a sustainable price,” Lilium soberly pronounces.
Battery cell production began in February 2022.
Lilium’s goal is to have an eVTOL aircraft that can fly ~250 km (155 miles). When will the company’s Jet glide into the air? We’ll see, but certifications are well underway. The Munich-based company aims to make that happen in 2024 in Germany, the United States, and Brazil. The company currently employs more than 750 people, including 400 aerospace engineers.
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