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Elon Musk-backed EV battery tech becomes mainstream in China

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Elon Musk-backed EV battery tech becomes mainstream in China

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Official Chinese figures showed batteries using lithium iron phosphate, or LFP, technology accounted for 57% of China’s total vehicle battery production in 2021, up from less than half the previous year.

LFP batteries have taken the lead in China because they use relatively cheap iron in the battery cathode instead of more expensive metals such as nickel.

Their rise coincided with the emergence of electric vehicles as a mass product in China. In 2021, new energy vehicles, a category that mostly consists of electric vehicles, accounted for nearly one in six passenger cars sold in China, the world’s largest auto market by number of vehicles sold.

As Chinese car dealerships sell more EVs and a greater proportion of those EVs are equipped with LFP batteries, the production of iron batteries is increasing. In 2021, Chinese battery makers produced LFP batteries with a capacity of 125.4 gigawatt hours, more than triple the figure from the previous year, said the China Automotive Battery Research Institute, supported by the government.

American and European automakers have traditionally frowned on LFP batteries because they tend to have a lower energy density than nickel-based batteries, meaning the cars they power can’t travel as far with a single charge. LFP batteries are also more likely to suffer from poor performance in cold weather.

Over the past two decades, Chinese companies trying to catch up with Japan and the United States in battery technology have focused on improving LFP technology, not only because of cost, but also because batteries are less likely to catch fire. A change in Chinese government subsidies for electric vehicles, which previously favored longer-range cars, has also helped the technology gain an edge.

Lithium prices are rising as demand for the key ingredient in electric car batteries increases, amid a broader push to move away from oil and gas. But mining the metal is time-consuming and potentially harmful to the environment, and plans to produce more of it have drawn protests. Photo: STR/Getty Images, Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images

One of the strongest advocates is Tesla’s Mr. Musk, who said finding enough nickel at a reasonable cost is a major production concern. He pushed back against the idea that customers who buy an LFP car get a second-class product.

“Our intention with this pack is for the product experience to be roughly equivalent between nickel and iron,” Musk said. wrote on Twitter last August to a customer who was offered the delivery of a Tesla earlier if he chose the LFP option.

“I would personally go slightly for the iron pack as it wants to be charged at 100% while nickel prefers ~90%,” Musk said in the Twitter post.

Automakers in the US, Europe and Japan are all ramping up battery production and many are working on LFP technology, but they have generally not gone as far as Tesla and Chinese automakers to introduce the technology into battery production. mass.

Last October, Tesla announced that it would expand the use of iron-based batteries to all its standard line cars.


Photo:

Sheldon Cooper/Zuma Press

Tesla first used LFP batteries for its China-made Model 3 in 2020. Last October, the company announced it would expand the use of iron-based batteries to all of its standard-range cars. Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of batteries for electric vehicles, supplies Tesla with LFP batteries.

Other Chinese electric vehicle brands are also becoming large users of LFP cathodes. The Hong Guang Mini, a small sedan costing as little as $4,400, was the best-selling electric vehicle in China in 2021. It’s made by a joint venture of General Motors Co.

and two other Chinese companies.

Warren Buffett backed by BYD Co.

Ltd., a Chinese company that manufactures both electric vehicles and the batteries that make them up, has designed a blade-shaped LFP battery. He says his design has a higher energy density to give electric vehicles longer range.

“Almost every car brand you can think of is in talks with us about cooperation based on blade battery technologies,” BYD Vice President He Long said last year at a conference. battery announcement, according to the company’s social media account.

Write to Yang Jie at jie.yang@wsj.com

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