EVs may be sales bonanza for suppliers

Source:Agencies-Global Times Published: 2018/8/10 0:03:39

Industry hunting for ways to extend driving ranges while cutting costs

Dele Fayemi, an engineer at 3M, tests lithium batteries in Novec in St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 14.


A test on how lithium batteries run at a set temperature in Novec Photos: VCG

In what seems to be a magic trick, Dele Fayemi runs a batch of batteries in a beaker of boiling water, a physical impossibility that should cause a short circuit.

But instead of a highly dangerous combination of water and electricity, the 3M Co engineer is testing the batteries in Novec, a non-flammable, non-conductive liquid the conglomerate has sold to cool supercomputers. It now aims to sell the product to automakers to cool batteries.

Maintaining a constant, low temperature helps electric vehicles (EVs) drive longer distances, so keeping batteries cool could help solve a key problem for automakers: a lack of range has been a major obstacle to the mass adoption of electric cars.

"As you can see, the temperature remains constant," at 32 C, Fayemi said, the boiling point of this particular batch of Novec, which 3M also wants to sell to data centers to keep servers cool.

"Automakers are trying to figure out how to get the absolute maximum out of batteries," said Ray Eby, head of 3M's automotive electrification program, which was created last year. "That's right in 3M's wheelhouse."

Lowering costs

Major automakers plan to roll out hundreds of new EV models over the next several years, fueled by investments that consultancy AlixPartners has estimated at up to $255 billion through 2023.

To put that in context, in 2017 all the world's automakers and suppliers combined invested $115 billion in research and development, with capital expenditures of $234 billion.

Much of that investment will flow to suppliers, but only if they can offer ways to cut EV manufacturing costs, which are still higher than for internal combustion cars. 3M and other automotive technology companies are looking for ways to adapt to EVs existing products that already have economies of scale from other markets.

Along with major suppliers like BorgWarner and Aptiv, others like aluminum company Norsk Hydro and synthetic rubber maker Trinseo are developing products to extend the driving ranges of EVs, attacking a significant barrier to higher sales.

Suppliers hope automakers will adopt their technology early in the development process so they can sell similar products to more than one customer.

With no set approach to developing EVs, automakers are pursuing their own paths, giving suppliers a rare opportunity to influence what parts and even what materials to use.

"Eventually we'll see more standardization in the high-voltage market, but it's not there yet," said Alan Amici, vice president of transportation solutions for TE Connectivity.

That's why TE and other suppliers have embedded teams of engineers at major automaker customers. From inside, suppliers can pitch existing products and materials, or ones they have in development.

Their customers are looking for ways to get more driving miles per charge, tackle technical problems such as electromagnetic interference or, most importantly, cut costs on vehicles that are as yet unprofitable.

US-based 3M formed its automotive electrification group as global automakers rolled out ambitious investment plans, the bulk of which are earmarked for China.

The Chinese government has enacted escalating EV quotas starting in 2019.

China expects annual NEV output to hit 2 million in 2020, with NEV sales making up 20 percent of the overall auto market by 2025.

3M will not disclose its spending on EV technology, but executive chairman Inge Thulin has said it is a "big, big investment."

The company has already provided "thermal management" technology for General Motors Co's Bolt EV to extend its range.

Taiwan-based auto start-up Xing Mobility is using Novec to cool the batteries in its high-performance Miss R model, and 3M said that other automakers are working to adopt the technology, although it declined to identify them.

3M also aims to repurpose filter technology used in cellphones for EVs to make infotainment screens and consoles brighter while at the same time using less energy, helping boost battery range.

It also has technology, again from cellphones, to cut electromagnetic interference. This would enable EVs to drive under power lines without various functions cutting out.

Lighter goes farther

Making vehicles lighter extends the range of EVs. Norsk Hydro, which already supplies Tesla, is figuring out how to marry up products from two of its own businesses, extruded body-frame parts and precision tubing, to develop new ways for cooling battery packs, said Mike Tozier, who leads Hydro's advanced product development in North America.

That way, Hydro should be able to provide automakers with more ways to lighten their loads and thus make aluminum a more attractive choice.

"Automakers are more comfortable with steel, so you're automatically fighting an incumbent material there," Tozier said. "But automakers are looking aggressively at more options because they have to remain cost competitive at high volumes."

The push to find ways to add to EV range extends down to the tires.

Trinseo has invested in a plant in Germany that will increase its synthetic rubber production capacity 33 percent to meet anticipated growth in EV production and help the supplier develop more efficient products. Tires made with synthetic rubber can boost efficiency by 12 percent compared with conventional tires, said Hayati Yarkadas, a senior vice president at the company.

"The development cycle requested for EVs is significantly shorter and faster than what we have faced with the traditional automotive industry," he said.


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