by Matt Blois
By the beginning of 2020, the range of new electric cars had surpassed 330 km, up from 130 km a decade earlier. But drivers in the US were still pushing for more.
“More range, more power, faster acceleration,” Vivas Kumar, then a principal with the battery material research firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said in a talk at Stanford University that spring. “That’s the kind of attitude that drives Western automotive design decision-making.”
To boost the capacity of their batteries, carmakers were increasing the amount of nickel they contained. Kumar, who previously managed Tesla’s battery material supply chain, predicted that they would continue to do so. But he warned that future shortages of nickel and cobalt could prove a roadblock for the industry.
After the talk, a university administrator introduced Kumar to William Chueh, a materials scientist working on batteries at Stanford. Over the next several months, they brainstormed ways to produce the high-capacity batteries drivers wanted—without using nickel and cobalt.
Iron-based battery chemistries, such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP), offered a potential solution. They were less expensive and less likely to catch fire than batteries made with nickel. While LFP batteries were popular in China, US carmakers weren’t interested because they didn’t store as much energy.
In 2021, Kumar and Chueh, along with Chueh’s former postdoctoral researcher Chirranjeevi Gopal, cofounded Mitra Chem to develop new iron-based battery materials that would store more energy than LFP and help wean carmakers off nickel and cobalt.
“We could come up with a better solution and better meet the specifications that a mass-market customer wants,” Kumar says. “We need to go beyond it.”
To go beyond LFP, Mitra synthesizes thousands of new battery materials every month. The company uses machine learning to predict which ones are most likely to store significant amounts of energy—the key characteristic carmakers are looking for currently.
Mitra can also use machine learning techniques to predict which materials will be cheap, safe, and long lasting or how they will behave in a large-scale manufacturing process. This helps the company quickly narrow the list of materials it will keep testing and ensure that it spends its resources on the most-promising candidates.
Chueh says this approach should dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to develop new battery materials.
“There’s no one bottleneck in the R&D process. It’s a bottleneck at every level,” he says. “It’s about ripping apart how material development is done today and reimagining how it can be done much faster.”
Last year, Mitra started shipping an enhanced LFP powder to battery makers for qualification. But LFP is just a starter product. The firm is working with General Motors to develop lithium manganese iron phosphate (LMFP) battery materials, which can store more energy than LFP. Kumar says Mitra is combining iron with other metals to develop new materials that will perform better than LMFP. In August, Mitra announced that it had raised $40 million in an investment round led by GM.
Chueh expects that all iron-based chemistries will use a similar manufacturing process, which means carmakers won’t have to retool their factories to switch to a more advanced iron formula. “We are future proofing our manufacturing capability,” he says.
One challenge for Mitra will be competing with Chinese manufacturers that have been working for years to improve iron-based battery materials. In May, China’s Gotion High-Tech announced that after a decade of research, it had produced an LMFP battery that could power a car for 1,000 km. And in August, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, also based in China, unveiled an LFP battery that could last for 400 km after a 10 min charge.
Sam Adham, a battery material analyst with the research firm CRU Group, says Chinese battery material companies are leaders when it comes to both lab-scale innovation and industrial-scale manufacturing. But he notes that the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers financial incentives to make battery materials in the US, will provide US companies with a major boost.
Kumar agrees that Chinese companies are ahead of the curve, but he’s undaunted. He says Mitra’s advantage is the ability to move new battery materials from research labs to battery factories quickly—and then start the process all over again.
“If all we’re doing is making the best powder, somebody else will copy it,” he says. “By the time they get there, we want to make an even better powder.”