GM enters into partnership to lower cost, increase battery range

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. is entering into a joint development agreement with lithium metal battery company SolidEnergy Systems, a move that GM says will help cut the cost of the batteries in its next-generation electric vehicles.

The automaker expects the new technology to cut battery costs by 60% even while doubling energy density to increase range capabilities, GM President Mark Reuss told a Washington Post Live virtual conference. As part of the agreement, GM and SES plan to build a prototyping line in Woburn, Massachusetts, for a high-capacity, pre-production battery by 2023.

GM President Mark Reuss

GM has an ambitious aspiration to have a zero-emissions lineup of light-duty vehicles by 2035, but to get there it will need to address the barriers to consumer adoption: cost and range. The next-generation battery technology is expected to do both. 

"It's incredibly exciting," Reuss said Thursday. "It really can change the whole calculus of adoption, accessibility, and having people actually have electric vehicles as their primary vehicle in terms of range, cost and and being able to do that. It's a breakthrough that we're very excited about. And we're very hopeful for the future, the very near future of that."

What might also help is expanded production of battery cells. GM and battery-cell manufacturing partner, LG Energy Solution, already are teaming to build a plant in northeast Ohio and are in discussions to build another one in Tennessee near GM's Spring Hill plant where Cadillac EVs are going to be built.

Also on Thursday LG said it is investing $4.5 billion by the end of 2025 outside of its joint venture with GM to build additional manufacturing facilities. By June, LG plans to pick at least two locations for facilities that will manufacture various types of batteries in the U.S. The investments are supposed to create 10,000 jobs and bring the battery cells needed for the rush of EVs coming.

The industry "absolutely needs more cell production capacity," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst leading Guidehouse Insights, noting he expects to see additional investment announcements from battery makers this year. He called development of cells for lithium-metal batteries like the ones GM plans to use in its next-generation Ultium battery technology "an important next step."

With GM’s next-generation lithium metal batteries, the expected energy density increase could enable higher range in a similarly sized pack or comparable range in a smaller pack. The weight and space savings from smaller battery packs could help with vehicle lightweighting or create more room for additional technology. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

SolidEnergy Systems, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff company that GM invested in and built a relationship with beginning in 2015, claims its lithium metal technology offers a higher energy density, or the measure of how much energy is in a battery, which increases EV range. 

"That's important because a significant portion of the weight is the battery," Abuelsamid said. "In the Bolt,  the battery weighs over 1,000 pounds and it's a 65 kilowatt-hour battery. If you can double that energy density to 500 kilowatt hours per kilogram, now all of a sudden you're taking 500 pounds out of that car without changing anything else."

The increase in energy density could enable higher range in a similarly sized battery pack or comparable range in a smaller pack, GM said. And that weight and space savings with a smaller pack "could help with vehicle lightweighting or create more room for additional technology," GM said. 

"If you look at what a solid state, lithium-metal cell chemistry can do, we're talking about 500-to-600 miles of range in those battery packs, so these are big leaps," Reuss said. "Of course, you have to decide as a customer and a maker what level of range you really want and what you're willing to pay for."

The prototype factory between SolidEnergy Systems and GM comes a year after GM will launch its first-generation Ultium platform. The new Ultium battery offers a range of up to 450 miles or more on a full charge, according to GM estimates. 

The first GM product powered by Ultium will be the $112,595 GMC Hummer EV, coming out later this year. The Cadillac Lyriq and Celestiq electric vehicles will also be powered by Ultium. 

Chevrolet has announced four EVs that will use GM’s Ultium battery system, including a pickup and compact crossover. The brand has not yet disclosed any other product details or timing of their arrival. 

The new Chevrolet Bolt EV and Chevrolet Bolt EUV will not be powered by Ultium. They go on sale this summer. 

GM's EV transition is "a well-calculated bet, but we always bet our future on our company," Reuss said. "This is a long-lead capital business. You really have to have your intelligence and know the market better than anybody else for these bets to be successful."