The line separating EV batteries from hydrogen-fueled mobility is getting thinner, and Stellantis provides a good example. Last year the global automaker made some big moves in the fuel cell truck area and threw down a cool $200 million for a stake in the US battery startup Factorial Energy, too. Stellantis is already showcasing Factorial’s new solid-state EV batteries this year, which leads one to wonder if they have any new fuel cell news up their sleeves for 2023, too.
The Search For Perfect EV Batteries
Lithium-ion is still the technology of choice for EV batteries. However, automakers are always looking out for the next big thing. Solid-state energy storage is in the running because it offers performance and safety advantages over the liquid electrolyte used in conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Eco-friendliness is another attraction. In recent years, automakers have been courting favor with the environmentally sensitive members of the car-buying public. They are leaning on their supply chains to use more sustainable materials, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and follow ethical business practices.
Solid-state EV batteries generally use more lithium than conventional batteries, which can raise some sustainability issues depending on how and where the lithium is obtained. On the plus side, some automakers see an improved potential for recycling solid-state EV batteries, helping to relieve pressure on virgin sources. Solid-state technology also uses significantly less graphite and cobalt, both of which are fraught with environmental and ethical issues.
In particular, the US Department of Energy has raised the alarm on cobalt. “Right now, Co can make up to 20% of the weight of the cathode in lithium ion EV batteries. There are economic, security, and societal drivers to reduce Co content,” the Energy Department explains.
“Cobalt is mined as a secondary material from mixed nickel (Ni) and copper ores. This means the supply is not independent of other commodity businesses and introducing new recovery projects is expensive,” they add. “Moreover, the United States does not have large reserves for Co, and the extraction and early stage processing is concentrated in a small number of countries outside the United States.”
The Diversification Solution
Similarly, fuel cell electric vehicles are not off the supply chain hook. That’s partly because almost the entire global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas, along with other fossil sources to a lesser extent.
The surging green hydrogen market is beginning to tamp down that fire. Most of the green hydrogen activity centers around deploying renewable energy to push hydrogen gas from water. Landfill gas and other forms of renewable waste are also in use.
Green hydrogen or not, other sustainability pitfalls remain. A new fuel cell supply chain assessment released by the US Department of Energy last February describes them in detail.
Nevertheless, legacy automakers are beginning to pivot into fuel cell EVs as well as battery EVs. That’s partly because fuel cells have an edge in the truck market and other heavy-duty uses. Automakers may have also spotted opportunities to spread out their supply chain risks.
The UK startup Tevva illustrates another emerging option. The company’s long range, zero emission truck uses a battery pack for its primary power source, and it also incorporates a fuel cell range extender.
Better EV Batteries For Passenger Cars
Despite a surge of interest in fuel cells for heavy duty vehicles, fuel cells have yet to crack the passenger car market in the US. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Stellantis’ commitment to Factorial Energy’s solid-state EV batteries.
“Apparently Factorial has achieved enough progress to attract the big bucks. The company emerged from stealth mode in April, and just few months later, in October, it gathered Kia and Hyundai into its investor fold. Now here comes Stellantis (Dodge, Fiat, Chrysler, etc.) and Daimler (the Mercedes-Benz folks) piling on, with great enthusiasm,” we observed.
The Stellantis investment came with the signing of a joint development agreement for Factorial’s solid-state battery technology.
“Our investment in Factorial and other highly recognized battery partners boosts the speed and agility needed to provide cutting-edge technology for our electric vehicle portfolio,” said Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares at the time. “Initiatives like these will yield a faster time to market and more cost-effective transition to solid-state technology.”
“Factorial has developed breakthrough solid-state technology that addresses key issues holding back wide-scale consumer adoption of electric vehicles: driving range and safety,” Stellantis added.
Stellantis brought everyone up to speed at CES in Las Vegas last week, previewing a 100 Amp-hour version of Factorial’s “next-generation solid-state battery cells.”
“After already successfully creating automotive relevant sized cells of 40 Ah capacity, Factorial is introducing even larger format cells to meet the key performance requirements from their global leading automotive OEM partners,” Stellantis explained.
Tavares emphasized that the latest iteration of the solid-state battery weighs less, uses less cobalt, and delivers up to 30% more energy density in comparison with conventional lithium-ion EV batteries.
Stellantis also chipped in with a reminder that the new battery costs less to produce and takes less time to produce, too.
Whither Hydrogen Fuel Cells?
That leads to the next question, which is what are Stellantis’s plans for hydrogen fuel cell EVs?
That’s a good question. If all goes according to plan, sometime this year Stellantis will announce the closing of a deal with Faurecia (of Group FORVIA) and Michelin to acquire a “substantial stake” in their joint venture Symbio, which Stellantis describes as “a leader in zero-emission hydrogen mobility.”
“Symbio’s technical roadmap perfectly matches with Stellantis’ hydrogen roll-out plans in Europe and in the U.S.,” Tavares explained.
“This move will foster the speed of development to bring low emission products to our customers, beyond traditional electric vehicles,” he emphasized.
Fuel cell skeptics need not freak out just yet. For now, Stellantis plans to build on its previous fuel cell work with Symbio, which resulted in the launch of a mid-sized van last year. A scaled-up version of the van is in the works, and Stellantis also states that it is looking into the heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell truck market.
The focus on the light- and heavy-duty commercial market lands Stellantis within the emerging fuel cell consensus among auto makers, which concentrates on more on larger vehicles.
As for fuel cell passenger cars, the US market shows little sign of splitting open any time soon. Keep your eye on fleet vehicle operators, though. Fleet managers have helped to push the market for battery-powered EVs, and they could do the same for hydrogen. If fuel cell cars have any kind of future in the US, fleets could be the first sign of movement.
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Photo (cropped): Solid-state EV batteries courtesy of Factorial.
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