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Magnesium Batteries: Another Potential EV Future


NASA Prototype Lithium-Ion Polymer Battery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

An interesting article last week about research into the use of Magnesium instead of Lithium in batteries for, amongst other things, the electric car raises some interesting points concerning which players are lower risk investment in what may become a rapidly changing technological space.

First, the attraction of Magnesium. It is available in large quantities in the earth´s crust and is also relatively cheap. A breakthrough in the use of Magnesium in batteries for the electric car would certainly be very interesting for the industry as a whole.

This has been known for a long time – magnesium can be used as a very effective anode in battery technology. The problem has been to find a cathode with which it works well. A number of companies, such as Toyota, have been pursuing this mission.

However, recently one such company, Pellion Technologies, gave an interview to GreenTech Media suggesting that their own research is progressing quite well.

GTM quotes Josh Nevin, Pellion’s VP of Operations and Business Development, as offering the following insight:

“Because magnesium-ions transfer two electrons per atom, if you intercalate magnesium instead of lithium into a suitable cathode, you get twice the energy density right off the bat……. The other key is the magnesium metal anode, [which] provides much higher energy density than conventional lithium-ion anodes. The net result is a battery with up to three times the energy density of state-of the-art lithium-ion batteries.”
Nevin also suggested in the same interview that batteries using a Magnesium anode would have a much longer life than those using a Lithium anode:

“When you cycle a lithium anode, the lithium metal that plates grows like moss on a tree. This can eventually lead to problems…….. We don’t have that problem with magnesium, [which] plates in a nice, uniform distribution. Our team has been able to demonstrate over 3,000 cycles at 100 percent depth of discharge with less than 15 percent capacity fade.”

You can read the full GTM article on the interview here. The bottom line is that Pellion seems to be suggesting that the company has narrowed the range of potentially usable cathodes which can be partnered with a Magnesium anode to a handful:
“The company has zeroed in on about a dozen materials — Nevin won’t go into further detail — which it is testing and cycling in its lab”.
Intriguing. And of course another reason to suggest that new innovation has significant potential to drive down EV battery costs. Whether or not a breakthrough with Magnesium lies ahead is uncertain. The point is that it is just one of a number of potential futures for the EV.
One crucial point for investors: betting on a specific provider of EV batteries, such as A123 Systems (AONE), has the addiitional risk that the EV is successful – but on the basis of a more efficient alternative approach to battery technology.
Once again, this tends to suggest that Tesla (TSLA) remains the preferred bet. Tesla, of course, purchases its battery packs from Panasonic. As a result, the availability of new battery technology would only allow them to bring their costs down and compete even more effectively against luxury vehicles based on the internal combustion engine. 
That is a flexibility that may prove to be useful.
Disclosure: I am long Tesla.