General Motors is joining the list of big automakers picking their horses in the race to develop better batteries for electric vehicles with its lead of a $139 million investment into the lithium-metal battery developer, SES.
Volkswagen has QuantumScape; Ford has invested in SolidPower (along with Hyundai and BMW); and now with SES' big backing from General Motors, most of the big American and European automakers have placed their bets.
"We are beyond R&D development," said SES chief executive Hu Qichao in an interview with TechCrunch. "The main purposes of this funding is to, one, improve the key material, this lithium metal electrolyte on the anode side and the cathode side, and, two, to improve the scale of the current cell from the iPhone battery size to the size that can be used in cars."
There's a third component to the financing as well, Hu said, which is to increase the company's algorithmic capabilities to monitor and manage cell performance. "It's something that we and our OEM partners care about," said Hu.
The investment from GM is the culmination of nearly six years of work with the big automaker, said Hu. "We started working with them in 2015. For the next three years we will go through the standard automation approval processes. Going from 'A' sample to 'B' sample all the way through 'D' sample," which is the final testing phase before commercial availability of SES' batteries in cars.
While Tesla, the current leader in electric vehicle sales in America, is looking to improve the form factors of its batteries to make them more powerful and more efficient, Hu said that the chemistry isn't that different. Solid state batteries represent a step change in battery technology that makes batteries more powerful, easier to recycle and potentially more stable.
As Mark Harris wrote in TechCrunch earlier this year:
There are many different kinds of SSB but they all lack a liquid electrolyte for moving electrons (electricity) between the battery’s positive (cathode) and negative (anode) electrodes. The liquid electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries limit the materials the electrodes can be made from, and the shape and size of the battery. Because liquid electrolytes are usually flammable, lithium-ion batteries are also prone to runaway heating and even explosion. SSBs are much less flammable and can use metal electrodes or complex internal designs to store more energy and move it faster — giving higher power and faster charging.
What SES is doing has brought the company attention not just from General Motors, but from previous investors, including the battery giant SK Innovation; the Singapore-based, government-backed investment firm, Temasek; the venture capital arm of semiconductor manufacturer, Applied Materials, Applied Ventures; the Chinese automaking giant, Shanghai Auto; and investment firm, Vertex.
“GM has been rapidly driving down battery cell costs and improving energy density, and our work with SES technology has incredible potential to deliver even better EV performance for customers who want more range at a lower cost,” said Matt Tsien, GM executive vice president and chief technology officer and president, GM Ventures. “This investment by GM and others will allow SES to accelerate their work and scale up their business.”