Run-up to World EV Day: India needs innovation in cell chemistry to leapfrog in the battery race

Indian government doesn’t have a national programme to fund research & development into latest battery technologies 

By Mrinal Tripathi
Published: Wednesday 06 September 2023
Photo: iStock

India has made significant strides in electric vehicle (EV) battery research and more government focus can spur innovation in cell chemistry. 

Last week, Hyderabad-based Altmin, a Hyderabad-based battery material production and cell engineering company, collaborated with the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials, an institution under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology in a novel public-private partnership to manufacture cathode active material for lithium-ion batteries (LIB). 

The capacity of this plant is 100 kilograms per day and the cathode chemistry that it is set to manufacture is lithium iron phosphate (LFP).

LFP is not the first and final battery chemistry. The battery research trajectory that started with lead-acid batteries isn’t likely to reach a conclusion any time in the near future. This is good news because with every new breakthrough in battery technology, there’s improvement in energy density (vehicle range), power density (charging time), safety, cycle life (battery life) and multiple other features and parameters. 

Tailored compositions

Even within the category of LIBs, there exist different chemistries with various energy densities, power densities, cycle lives and safety performances. However, there are trade-offs in some parameter improvements. For example, while LFP is better than the lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) chemistry in terms of safety and cycle life, it has a lower energy density than the NMC chemistry. (NMC has a maximum energy density of 220 watt-hours per kilogram.)

Nickel is lighter and has less volume but packs a large amount of energy in the cell. So, it improves the energy density of the battery. Thus, nickel-dominant battery chemistries are preferred in high-performance and long-range passenger cars. But these battery chemistries pose thermal runaway risks and the materials used in them are toxic for human beings. 

Therefore, LFP chemistry is being preferred in high ambient temperature areas or tropical countries like India. Besides safety and longer cycle life of the battery, LFP chemistry presents an opportunity for India to depend less on imports for cell manufacturing, as India is rich in both iron and phosphate. 

Considering the perspective of raw material availability, a new chemistry that holds promise is sodium-ion, which is a battery that’s completely independent of lithium. Although sodium ion batteries (SIB) do not yet match the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, they are going to be cheaper as sodium is the seventh-most abundant element on earth and more easily mined and manufactured than lithium. So, supply chain challenges will be minimised with the SIB chemistry. 

Moreover, it will never be too late to switch to manufacturing SIBs because the machinery in LIB gigafactories will be perfectly suited to SIB production, according to experts. Additionally, these batteries are thermally stable. 

Another advantage with them is the absence of copper and cobalt in their chemistry. SIBs use aluminium as current collectors in place of copper. The cathode composition also does not have cobalt, which is difficult to obtain (mined mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and often comes with dubious Environmental, Social and Governance parameters of the supply chain.  

Another major development in the battery world is the solid-state battery (SSB). These batteries eliminate the need for a liquid electrolyte. The solid separator doubles as an electrolyte, facilitating the flow of ions between the two electrodes while preventing the shorting of the cell. With the removal of liquid electrolyte, there is a reduction in battery weight with the same amount of energy packed in. Thus, SSBs offer better energy density. They are also less flammable and prevent the leakage of toxic electrolyte. 

In a breakthrough declaration in 2022 by Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd, a chinese battery manufacturer, SIBs were reported to have achieved an energy density of 160 Wh / kg and a cycle life of over 3,000 charge cycles, equivalent to an overall life of over 1.6 million km. 

Even within India, there are start-ups like Indi Energy and Sodion which have commercialised the SIB technology and are doing well. 

Government support to boost research

While the global EV industry has had an innovation trajectory of its own, India is not far behind when it comes to battery research. Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials and NonFerrous Materials Technology Development Centre have their own battery know-how and capabilities. 

Additionally, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has set up its own pilot plants for manufacturing batteries as well as cells at the Centre for Materials for Electronics Technology, Pune. 

The Department of Science and Technology has also been proactive in holding dialogues with various institutes of higher education like the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institute of Science and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and encouraging battery technology research and training programmes in these institutes.

However, EV battery research is lacking in government sponsorship. Even though the Indian government, through its Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme, has laid out Rs 18,100 crore for manufacturing of ACC, it doesn’t have a national programme to fund research and development into latest technologies like SIB and SSB. 

The world transitioned from nickel cobalt aluminium chemistry to LFP within 15 years, and is likely to shift to other latest technologies like SIB and SSB very soon. This is an opportunity for India to leapfrog in the battery race and put its money where the mouth is. 

Developments like Reliance Industries’ purchase of Faradion, a United Kingdom-based firm specialising in SIB, indicate that the Indian companies are keeping an eye on R&D breakthroughs in the battery space. 

With rapid advances in other battery tech around the world, it is essential for the government to encourage research into different technologies and support their manufacturing in the times to come. 

This is a part of a series of stories on India's electric vehicle ecosystem ahead of World EV Day on September 9, 2023. 

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