The Powerhouse | Steve Levine

Summary of: The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War
By: Steve Levine


Dive into the fascinating world of batteries and their connection to the automotive industry with our summary of ‘The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War’. Steve Levine’s book will guide you through the high-stakes race to create the ultimate electric vehicle battery. With focus on the United States, China, and South Korea, learn how countries leverage their technological resources and, primarily, the NMC – the American-developed nickel-manganese-cobalt battery – to fuel global advancements. Discover the rich history of battery technology, its setbacks, and the challenges faced by automakers and researchers working to create more efficient, powerful batteries.

The Electric Battery Race

In the early 21st century, the world recognized the need for a new battery to power electric vehicles with equivalent strength to gasoline. A $100 billion-a-year industry by 2030 was at stake. Despite having a weak start, America had an advantage with the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) battery, the power source of Chevrolet Volt. However, the international battery race was not smooth sailing due to unforeseen problems. The pursuit of this technology required an international competition among researchers, governments, and businesses worldwide, instead of in tiny volumes and coin cells produced in national labs. Japan and South Korea could test designs, and the Chinese government had the authority to order the production of electric cars in a few years. Nonetheless, the improved NMC battery was a promising innovation that could potentially become a serious competitor to gasoline.

The Evolution of Lithium-Ion Batteries

From Volta’s invention to the NMC 2.0, this summary tracks the history of the Lithium-ion battery and how it changed the auto industry. The battery’s three parts (anode, cathode, and electrolyte) were modified using different elements and compounds, leading to the creation of NMC. NMC was the brainchild of Mike Thackeray and Chris Johnson, which made the Chevy Volt possible. They replaced cobalt with manganese, making the battery cheaper and more efficient, and added Li2MnO3 to stabilize the cathode. The Next-Gen NMC 2.0 would change the EV market, with an estimated worth of over $100 billion in the next five to six years.

The Rise of Envia Systems

Indian engineer Sujeet Kumar and his colleague Mike Sinkula quit their job at NanoeXa to start Envia Systems, a company that would market the NMC, a superior car battery. They raised millions in venture capital and presented to GM who proposed a joint deal, providing $7 million to start a $17 million investment round for Envia, with the additional $10 million coming from two Japanese firms.

Revolutionizing Energy Through a National Effort

Former US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, aimed to disrupt the fossil fuels industry by creating eight national project “hubs.” One of these hubs focused on developing a lithium-ion successor with increased performance capabilities. Under the direction of Argonne Battery Department’s director Jeff Chamberlain, a “militaristic Pink Team and Red Team” worked tirelessly to craft a proposal with the promise of producing five times the density of existing batteries at a fifth of the cost within five years. Ultimately, Argonne’s proposal won the coveted Battery Hub spot in late November 2012. This effort represented a pivotal moment in the push towards a cleaner energy future.

Revolutionizing Car Batteries

A race to improve batteries led to the revolutionary combination of silicon and graphite anodes, which increased the energy density of car batteries by three times.

The search for reliable energy sources for electric vehicles proved challenging due to the problem of “voltage fade” found in Envia’s NMC 2.0 battery, making it unreliable. To address the issue, a team was assembled, and voltage fade became the primary focus of battery research. Envia attempted to replace the graphite anode with silicon, which theoretically had three times the performance, but it was unsuccessful. However, this led to the concept of coupling a modified silicon anode with NMC 2.0, which won a $4 million grant from the DOE’s ARPA-E funding unit.

The combination of silicon and graphite anodes resulted in an increase in energy density to 400 watt-hours per kilogram, which was enough to power a car for 300 miles. This breakthrough proved to be revolutionary, with the potential to change the course of electric cars and outdo the then-popular Prius. The discovery became a turning point in battery research, and the search for better energy sources got an extraordinary boost from the successful coupling of silicon and graphite anodes.

Envia’s Revolutionary Battery Innovation

Envia CEO Atul Kapadia successfully delivered a high-density battery prototype to ARPA-E director Arun Majumdar. After recruitment of evaluation lab Crane, the technology was independently validated through 22 cycles. Envia’s innovation was presented by Majumdar during the next ARPA-E Summit as a cost-effective way to power a vehicle with one charge for a trip between Washington, DC and New York City. Nevertheless, Argonne researchers were skeptical and mentioned that the battery would need an extremely thick cathode to achieve a 10-year lifespan if used in a car.

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