GM, LG Chem license Argonne chemistry for next-gen lithium batteries

  • 10-Jan-2011 09:43 EST
CPI prismatic cell for Volt.jpg

An LG Chem/Compact Power prismatic type lithium cell as used in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. Argonne's new layered/layered manganese-rich composite cathode material could obsolete this incumbent technology in most if not all metrics.

The next-generation of General Motors electrified vehicles may be “powered by Argonne”—at least as one key aspect of their battery-cell chemistry is concerned.

On Jan. 6, GM and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE)'s Argonne National Laboratory announced a global licensing agreement that allows GM to use Argonne-patented cathode material technology in its lithium-ion batteries for electrified vehicles. Argonne also licensed the technology to GM’s incumbent battery-cell supplier, LG Chem, to manufacture and use in its Li-ion cells.

The Argonne technology was described by Eric Isaacs, Director and President of UChicago Argonne LLC, as “a layered/layered composite” that combines lithium- and manganese-rich mixed-metal oxides. UChicago Argonne is a wholly owned laboratory management subsidiary of the University of Chicago.

Isaacs told a media teleconference attended by AEI that the cathode material has the potential to significantly improve the performance of lithium-type automotive batteries. It can extend a battery’s energy density by a factor of two, and potentially it will enable vehicle charging at higher voltages (leading to greater energy storage capacity).

The Argonne chemistry also can increase battery calendar life and ensure greater safety of Li-ion cells. Isaacs said the cathode material has been in development at the Illinois facility for about 10 years.

“This is the most capable cathode material of all the many we’ve looked at,” commented Jon Lauckner, the President of GM Ventures who is known as the “godfather” of the Chevrolet Volt. “We believe it can be the basis of the next-generation cathode.”

While Lauckner described the intellectual property surrounding the cathode material as “very promising,” he cautioned that significant development work and evaluation is still to come before the chemistry is production-ready. He did not forecast when that would be.

His caveats are shared by Mohamed Alamgir, Research Director of LG Chem’s Compact Power Inc. division that developed the Volt cells for production.

“We’re licensing a very broad patent portfolio of layered materials,” he explained in an interview with AEI following the teleconference. “They have high voltage potential,” up to 4.5-4.7, he noted.

The Argonne technology could spur all-new lithium cell chemistries, with new anode and electrolyte chemistries, and significantly improved performance compared with the spinel/layered makeup of the current cathode in the Volt’s Li-ion manganese-spinel (LiMn2O4) prismatic cells, said Alamgir.

If GM and other OEMs who license the Argonne cathode chemistry—it’s not an exclusive-use license, Isaacs pointed out—decide to architect future battery cells with it, LG Chem is ready to adopt a new and equally vital role in the automotive battery supply chain.

Where it currently provides all the cell intellectual property on Volt and the 2012 Ford Focus EV (to cite two early automotive customers), as well as development, testing, and productionization, the company would primarily take over the latter three functions regarding new cells using the Argonne cathode, Alamgir explained. (LG Chem continues to develop its own advanced lithium cell chemistries for automotive use.)

“The National Labs are not manufacturers,” Alamgir observed. “They generally work with small quantities of the materials. And they don’t have the interest or experience for the extensive development and testing [of new cells] in all conditions, in various power sizes, and in the high volumes required for the automotive environment. Our job would be to ‘tailor’ both the anode and cathode chemistry for the new cell. We’ll develop and improve it,” he said.

LG Chem’s Compact Power group tested the first-generation Volt cells for nearly three years leading up to the car’s production, he noted.

“The Argonne license is exciting for us, but the technology has a long way to go before it’s mature,” Alamgir noted. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

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