Northvolt goals for zero-emission aviation with “excellent” lithium-metal battery

Swedish low-carbon battery start-up Northvolt has seen a bit of a resurgence of late. The company recently announced a new collaboration with Scania to produce the longest lasting EV batteries on the market. Now its wholly-owned subsidiary Cuberg has unveiled a program to develop high-performance batteries for “safe and sustainable” electric flight.

Along with access to renewable energy, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to zero-emission electric aviation is battery technology. Today’s batteries are simply too inefficient and too heavy.

However, Cuberg says it has already achieved significant milestones in its next-generation lithium metal cell battery technology. This contains a lithium metal anode and a proprietary liquid electrolyte that the company says simultaneously solves the intertwined challenges of battery performance and manufacturability.

Additionally, Cuberg says it will have “superior performance and energy capabilities over today’s traditional lithium-ion batteries.” The aim is to develop a groundbreaking lithium metal cell with an energy density of 1000 Wh/l by 2025.

Significant achievements so far include construction and shipping a 20 Ah commercial size lithium metal pocket cell with a specific energy of 405 Wh/kg. In addition, the company has developed and produced an aviation module based on the 20 Ah cells with a specific energy of 280 Wh/kg and an energy density of 320 Wh/L.

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Cuberg’s aviation module has up to 40% higher specific energy than comparable lithium-ion technology. Credit: Northvolt/Cuberg

Importantly, during a verification testing campaign, the module platform achieved what is known as passive propagation resistance, meaning it can withstand the propagation of a thermal runaway from one cell to another.

Thermal runaway is one of the biggest safety concerns with lithium metal cells as it can cause the battery to catch fire or explode. Therefore, verification is considered an important step in the certification of batteries for aviation.

Extension of lithium metal cell cycles

Meanwhile, unlike lithium-ion, lithium-metal batteries can only be recharged a few times before they become unusable. This may raise other sustainability concerns given the environmental costs of lithium extraction.

However in one Third Party Validation In July last year, Cuberg’s cell life was confirmed to have been extended to 672 cycles, with an energy capacity of 380 Wh/kg, making it the world’s highest performing and longest-lasting lithium metal cell in a commercially representative cell size.

Credit: Northvolt/Cuberg

Northvolt ranks first on the list of the most funded startups in Europe raised a total of €5.5 billion to date. Besides, it has Contracts worth more than €50 billion secured from customers including BMW, Fluence, Scania, Volkswagen, Volvo and Polestar.

Northvolt acquired Cuberg, which was founded in 2015 and is based in San Leandro, California, in 2021 to support the startup Next generation scale lithium metal cell technology.

Play the long game of sustainable aviation

Relatively speaking, aviation as an industry is not such a big polluter; it is responsible for “only” about 2.5% of global greenhouse gases emissions. That can be compared on transportation as a whole (14%) and other industries such as agriculture, forestry and land use (24%).

However, as other industries begin to decarbonize, the hard-to-reduce aviation sector’s share of emissions will increase. Global passenger traffic is even more alarming expected to reach 19.3 billion by 2041versus the projected 8.4 billion in 2023.

It is true that the lion’s share of emissions come from long-haul flights, and aerospace engineers may still be a long way from developing a zero-emission, high-performance propulsion system.

Meanwhile, innovation has to start somewhere. Technology being developed today for the lower-capacity regional segment will later serve as the basis for more sustainable narrowbody and dual-aisle aircraft.

Therefore, the immediate impact of replacing short-haul aircraft with electric or hydrogen-electric aircraft may not be globally significant. However, the extrapolated impact of developments in areas such as battery and fuel cell technology combined with energy storage could be just one of the ways to solve aviation’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Countries like the UK, Norway and Sweden have already set deadlines to fully decarbonize domestic aviation within the next few decades. Swedish electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace has received firm orders for 230 of its 30-seat ES-30s, along with options for a further 100 and letters of intent for a further 108 units. The aircraft is scheduled to enter service in 2028, with a scalable upgrade path as “future battery technology matures.”

In addition, the global electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle (eVTOL) market has around 500 developers. In particular, Cuberg has already received orders from established companies such as Boeing and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) startups such as BETA Technologies, Ampaire and Volt Aero. The company says it will deliver modules to select aerospace customers throughout 2023.

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