Envia Systems troubles puts cloud over GM’s 200+ mile range electric car claims

Nearly two years ago, Envia Systems wow’d the electric car world claiming to have developed lithium-ion battery technology that would slash battery pack costs, while giving a huge boost in energy density.   Ever since, GM’s CEO Dan Akerson talked about how GM would be building a 200+ mile range affordable electric car, in a short time, and since GM had invested in Envia systems it seemed GM was depending on Envia’s technology.

Unfortunately the too-good-to-seem-true part of Envia’s story is unraveling, and new information unveiled says the company’s claims were a sham.  Maybe.

An article on Quartz goes into a bunch of details about Envia, and how the claims are unraveling.

General Motors CEO Dan AkersonAnd, by the way, Dan Akerson reiterated the 200+ mile range affordable electric car claim in a recent interview.  He’s getting ready to step down as CEO, to be replaced by Mary Barra, and gave an exit interview to a Business Week.  Buried in the middle of the article he said GM is planning to introduce a 200+ mile range plug-in hybrid electric car (electric car with range extender) by 2016, that will cost about $30,000.  With such a car, GM plans to pre-empt Tesla’s affordable mass market electric car plans.  Tesla’s target is a 2017 release for a 200+ mile range electric car with a $35,000 MSRP.

Two companies are public with plans to introduce a long range EV in that price range.  Makes me think that’s the start of a trend, and I wonder where the battery technology is that will let them hit this price point.  It means higher energy density at a lower cost per kilowatt-hour.

In any case let’s get back to Envia Systems …

Four years ago the crisis of the moment seemed addressable with a switch to electrified vehicles, and therefore the Obama Administration threw a lot of weight into developing a domestic US battery industry in automotive lithium-ion batteries, as well as the cars to house them.  That made it attractive for materials scientists to try and grab money for research grants etc in those areas.

A bright electrochemist, Sujeet Kumar, was working for NanoeXa developing a team to develop technology in the lithium-ion battery market.  They looked around for intellectual property, and settled on a patent and technology developed at Argonne National Labs for a nickel, manganese cobalt cathode.

The technology was pretty raw, nowhere near commercialized status, but promised a huge jump in energy density.

In 2007, Kumar and a colleague from NanoeXa both quit so they could start their own company, Envia Systems, to develop nickel/manganese/cobalt battery technology.

Which obviously lead eventually to a lawsuit by NanoeXa against Kumar and Envia Systems alleging theft of intellectual property.

In any case, Envia began work and settled on using a Silicon anode.  The problem with silicon anodes is they undergo volumetric change during the charge/discharge cycle.  That’s a fancy word for saying the battery swells up, with the anode becoming 4x its normal size.  That causes the anode to crumble into dust pretty quickly, rendering the battery useless.

And indeed when Envia announced their results two years ago, a little noticed detail is that their cells only lasted for 8 charge cycles.  Total.  To be useful electric car battery packs need to last for thousands of charge cycles.

Envia got a large piece of attention at an ARPA-E conference, two years ago, and later GM Ventures invested a bunch of money into the company.

Their deadline was October 2013 to deliver a 350 watt-hours per kilogram lithium-ion cell, that could deliver 1000 charge cycles.  GM needed Envia to deliver in that time frame to get a car to market in 2016.

According to the Quartz article, based on reading documents filed in lawsuits related to Envia Systems, they failed badly to reach that goal.

The anode material turned out to not be their own, but purchased from a different company, giving them a questionable intellectual property situation.  Further, nobody could replicate the results reported to the ARPA-E competition in the first place.  And it was found that those results showed high energy density for only the first 5 or so charge cycles, and that after those the energy density fell to around the level of other lithium-ion battery technology.

Meaning that Envia’s technology was no better than anybody else’s.

GM was furious and ended up cancelling the contract in mid-2013.  There’s lots of details I skipped over in the article.

The bottom line though is whether this scuttles the idea of GM being able to build a 200+ mile range affordable electric car.  Akerson reiterated the story well AFTER GM canceled the contract with Envia Systems.  This suggests, and it seems highly likely, that GM had been funding multiple development efforts towards increasing energy density at lowered cost.  Because GM quickly cut ties with Envia it suggests they have another card up their sleeve.

With both Tesla and GM reiterating the same goal we have to assume something is coming soon that will enable this range and price combination.  Hopefully.  They’re both taking a huge risk by making such statements publicly, because if the technology falls through they’ll have to walk back all those claims which won’t be pretty.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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