6K has a new formula for long-lasting EV batteries
EV manufacturers have relied on longer-range EV batteries to gain an edge over the competition, but range can only get you so far. Sustainable manufacturing is also gaining momentum, as automakers seek to reduce the long trail of energy, water and waste that trails behind their zero-emission vehicles.
Sustainable manufacturing and EV batteries of the future
There is a lot of room for improvement in making EV batteries, in a sustainable way. The American firm 6K gives a good illustration. The Massachusetts startup just won $50 million in funding from the Biden administration to manufacture longer-lasting electric vehicle batteries nationwide, by deploying a proprietary high-tech process it calls UniMelt®.
The federal dollars will go towards the construction of a $107 million manufacturing facility to be located somewhere in the southeastern United States. The goal is to demonstrate that the U.S. energy storage industry can leave behind its foreign competitors and produce EV batteries that cost less, perform as well if not better, and leave behind a smaller manufacturing footprint for energy, water and waste. .
The manufacturing model adopted by 6K does not imply the need to invent an entirely new battery architecture. For example, his new setup can run on NMC 811 lithium-ion EV batteries, referencing the now familiar nickel-manganese-cobalt cathode formula.
NMC sparked a lot of discussion around EV battery circles a few years ago, when manufacturers like SK Innovation and LG Chem started tweaking the standard formula to include more nickel. As Research Interfaces explains, the NMC 811 was “meant to be the next-generation cathode – ‘better and cheaper’, pushing EVs beyond 500 km (~300 mi) range and soon to parity of price with the internal combustion engine. ”
According to 6K, its new UniMelt process can produce the latest generation of NMC 811 batteries while generating 70% less greenhouse gases than manufacturing conventional batteries. 6K also claims that its processes use only 10% of the water and 30% of the energy used in conventional methods.
The important national supply chain
Concerns have swirled around the availability of lithium for electric vehicle batteries. The domestic lithium industry in the United States has yet to pick up speed (more on that in a second), but manufacturers like 6K aren’t waiting for the grass to grow under their feet. They rely on lithium mined from used electric vehicle batteries and other end-of-life energy storage devices.
“6K will demonstrate the ability to leverage domestic sources of raw materials, freeing the United States from its current dependence on countries in conflict. This will be accomplished first by recycling recycled materials from end-of-life batteries, followed by the digestion of 6K’s own metals,” says 6K.
The company also stresses that responsible sourcing is an integral part of sustainable manufacturing. In addition to avoiding materials from conflict zones, this means adhering to the Biden administration’s equity and environmental justice goals.
“Over time, the project will create up to 150 well-paying jobs and through education, recruitment, training and retention initiatives, it is expected that at least 40% of employees will come from disadvantaged communities and that the workforce will reflect the diversity of the community,” says 6K.
How it works?
You may be able to DIY your own UniMelt-er at home if you have a microwave oven and a few other tools at your disposal to push the limits of plasma chemistry, but keep in mind that you will need to reach a temperature of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. UniMelt is a production-scale, high-efficiency, high-throughput microwave plasma process.
“A combination of high heat, highly reactive ions, and engineered chemistries creates the perfect environment to reduce processes to previously unreachable time periods,” 6K explains.
“For additive manufacturing, the UniMelt process precisely spheroidizes metal powders while controlling the chemistry and porosity of the final product,” 6K notes. “For battery material, the same sustainable process is used to synthesize chemical elements and control particle size and microstructure to produce advanced battery material at a fraction of the time and cost of conventional processes.”
Short version: Conventional production processes involve multiple steps and different batches that consume time and energy. Batch-type methods are also vulnerable to contamination and loss at various stages.
6K states that its microwave plasma process is a single continuous-flow operation that takes approximately 2 seconds, or 1/100,000th the time of today’s conventional batch production technologies.
More EV batteries for the southeastern United States
So far, 6K hasn’t specified the exact location of its new plant, but the idea of locating a sustainable electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in the southeastern United States might seem a bit counterintuitive. -intuitive at first glance, primarily because the region as a whole has lagged other states in renewable energy capacity.
UniMelt or not, 6K will have some explaining to do about whether its new, more sustainable EV battery manufacturing plant runs on natural gas or coal.
Part of the problem for renewable energy developers in the southeast is a technological challenge, as wind speeds in the region are less than optimal for harvesting inland wind power with conventional turbines. The United States Department of Energy has tried to distinguish this with the support of tallest wind turbine towers and longer turbine blades.
The offshore wind industry faces a similar wind speed hurdle in the Gulf of Mexico, although the emergence of green hydrogen and green ammonia have made it possible to improve the economic conditions for the exploitation of offshore wind resources.
The Atlantic coast is a whole different story. Political fortunes have been the biggest obstacle among Atlantic Coast states since 2010, when South Carolina, Georgia and Florida all refused to join a new multi-state effort to coordinate and accelerate offshore wind development along the Atlantic.
Solar energy to the rescue
The Southeast’s solar power record is mixed, but looks brighter. Georgia and Florida are currently among the Top 10 States in Installed Solar Capacity, as do the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. South Carolina is also catching up and currently owns the No. 14 spot.
Other southeastern states are much lower in the solar pecking order, including Alabama (#31), Tennessee (#28), Louisiana (#38), and Mississippi (#37), Kentucky brings up the rear in 46th place.
Kentucky may not remain a regional laggard for long. Last year, GM designed a new agreement on solar energy for its Corvette plant in the Bluegrass State. The Tennessee Valley Authority is providing assistance, as part of its pivot to renewable energy. A movement is also underway to convert the region’s depleted coal mines into solar panels and energy storage.
Ford is another automaker look for more solar power for EV batteries and other manufacturing facilities in the southeast. Wherever the 6K goes, the prospects for a solar-powered manufacturing plant are much better now than just a few years ago.
follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Plasma-based method for manufacturing electric vehicle batteries and other industrial applications courtesy of 6K.
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