Climate

Our Next Energy debuts exotic new battery made from cheap, abundant metal

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Our Next Energy's anode-free prismatic cell stands on a table.
Image Credits: Our Next Energy

The energy transition is just getting warmed up. For proof, see Our Next Energy. The Michigan-based startup is developing a trick dual-chemistry battery pack that’s the sort of innovation that’ll likely come to define the climate tech economy.

The heart of ONE’s technology is a battery management system that allows an EV to use two different cell chemistries: one for daily driving and the other for longer road trips. It’s an innovation that has allowed the company to look at materials that had previously been cast aside, those once thought unfit for EV duty.

Manganese is one such metal, and today, ONE announced a manganese-rich, anode-free battery that can extend an EV’s range by an estimated 300 miles.

If the company can produce the cells en masse, it could help alleviate some of the EV supply chain crunch because manganese is quite abundant — only 11 elements are more commonly found in the Earth’s crust.

Many EV batteries already contain the metal, but in smaller amounts. It’s possible for rechargeable batteries to use a lot more, but they don’t tend to last long — maybe a few hundred charging cycles. Automakers typically want cells that last 10 times as long. That’s pushed car companies to offer larger battery packs that rely on expensive minerals like cobalt and nickel. That’s allowed automakers to reconcile their own requirements with consumers’ desires for road-trip-ready EVs, albeit at a steep price.

ONE’s Gemini battery design offers a more elegant solution. The pack’s daily driving cells are durable and power dense, currently made up of lithium-iron-phosphate, or LFP, which is able to charge and discharge fully without degrading significantly over time. They directly drive the electric motor. That frees up the range-extending cells to be made from a more exotic chemistry — one that’s made from materials like manganese that can’t live up to traditional EV requirements.

The cell ONE announced today contains 70% manganese and 30% nickel and would cost $50/kWh when in production, ONE founder and CEO Mujeeb Ijaz told TechCrunch. Later this year, the company will be adding it to a prototype BMW iX that it’s been using as a test bed.

The new cell comes in a prismatic form factor — a metal canister, basically — and it’s already withstood over 300 charge cycles. That’s short of what automakers look for in a traditional cell, but when paired with a durable traction battery, Ijaz said the dual-chemistry pack should last for at least 10 years and 250,000 miles.

The Gemini cell also does away with the anode, which is usually made of graphite, though advanced designs call for increasing amounts of silicon. By eliminating the anode, ONE’s design simplifies manufacturing and opens room for more material in the cathode. Together, it has allowed the company to boost cell energy density to 1,007 Wh/liter. By comparison, Panasonic’s cylindrical cells used by Tesla store about 700 Wh/liter.

ONE’s new cell could also cut materials costs. Manganese is cheap, about $5 per metric ton. Cobalt and nickel, which are used in most long-range EVs, cost $51,000 and $22,000 per metric ton, respectively. Removing or reducing those minerals could save thousands of dollars per pack. ONE’s battery management system will cost about three times more than a conventional system, Ijaz said, eating into some of those savings.

The inspiration behind the pack design happened a few years ago when Ijaz was staring at U.S. Department of Transportation surveys, which reported how far people travel in a single day. The vast majority of people don’t drive much more than 25 miles, something that automakers have mentioned repeatedly as the reason they launched low-range EVs first.

But Ijaz dug deeper. “I watched how that histogram collapsed at around 100 miles,” Ijaz told TechCrunch. After 150 miles, 99% of all trips are finished, he added. In other words, the automotive industry approached the range problem by selling cars with batteries tailored for 1% of all trips.

“That was probably my light bulb. I stared at that [histogram] and I’m like, why don’t we actually divide this into two problems, not one problem?”

ONE’s battery management system is the heart of the technology, which we explored in our exclusive look at ONE’s patents. It monitors the state-of-charge of the traction battery, and when that dips below a certain point, the BMS taps the range-extender cells to recharge the traction side.

ONE’s design isn’t just limited to long-range EVs, though. Ijaz said that ONE is actively exploring a few other markets, including school buses. While many school buses follow short, prescribed routes, a significant number have “an excursion problem,” he said. One day, a bus might take a soccer team to a tournament across the state after its normal rounds. On another, it might take a second-grade class on a field trip to the zoo and blow through its daily range, leaving it depleted just before its afternoon rounds.

“Gemini is perfect for that. You can put twice the amount of range on board without a significant weight penalty. And even more than twice — you could stack it to where a school bus that could do 400 miles becomes possible,” Ijaz said.

ONE’s dual-chemistry battery could also find a home in cold-climate, last-mile delivery trucks, where frequently open doors require drivers to blast the heat. That can drain up to half a truck’s range, and some delivery companies have asked drivers to refrain from turning it on. Refrigerated trucks hauling produce and frozen foods could be another application.

Given that the battery management system is what makes it all possible, Ijaz said that ONE isn’t just limiting itself to its own cells. It’s open to other chemistries from other companies. “If we put our targets out, and others are like, actually, I have something that even could work better than that — we would be willing to talk to them.”

Expect more of this sort of disruptive thinking in the coming years, both from ONE and from others in climate tech. It’s part of the reason why the market will be worth $1.4 trillion in just five years, freeing up plenty of headroom for clever new hacks that could crack markets open even wider.

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