Tesla taps tiny startup's tech to build cheaper, cleaner batteries
When Elon Musk took the stage at Tesla's Battery Day in September and promised to cut lithium-ion battery prices in half, he claimed some of the savings would come from reinventing the dirty and complex process of making their nickel-metal -Cathodes result.
"It's insanely complicated, like digging a trench, filling it in and digging the trench again," he said at the event. So we looked at the entire value chain and said how can we make this as easy as possible? "
The easiest way seems to be to do a little Canadian battery start - or at least its patent filings.
Two weeks before Battery Day, Tesla bought a series of patent applications from Springpower International, a small company based outside of Toronto, for a total of $ 3.
One such application describes an innovative process similar to that described by Drew Baglino, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Tesla, on the stage at Tesla's Fremont, California facility on Battery Day. The purchase of the patent application means that when the patent was finally granted in January, it was granted to Tesla with no mention of Springpower.
The manufacture of cathodes for electric vehicle batteries has traditionally produced large amounts of contaminated water - up to 4,000 gallons of ammonia, metal particles, and toxic chemicals per ton of cathode material produced. Thanks to the Springpower process, the chemical solution is cleverly circulated so that no expensive water treatment is required.
Baglino's presentation also showed a method that also reuses water and does not generate wastewater. Not only did he cut operating costs by more than 75%, but he also said, "Using the same process, we can also directly consume the metal powder that comes from recycled electric vehicle and grid storage batteries."
It's now likely that Tesla has bought more than just Springpower's intellectual property. A week before Battery Day, Springpower International's website was replaced with a single holding page. In the months since then, several Springpower researchers have changed their LinkedIn profiles to indicate they are now at Tesla.
Michael Wang, CEO of Springpower International, whose own LinkedIn page has dozens of updates from Tesla employees (including Baglino), didn't respond to a request for comment and calls to the company's switchboard went unanswered.
A Springpower International executive reached by phone would neither approve nor deny the purchase of Tesla and refer TechCrunch to Tesla's public affairs team. (Tesla no longer has a press office and emails to the company have not received a response).
Springpower International was founded in March 2010 in part by the Chinese battery company Highpower International as a research branch for its Springpower subsidiary in Shenzen. However, Highpower moved away from Springpower International within six months, writing off a $ 100,000 investment after deciding that its technologies were too far from commercialization.
James Sbrolla, an Entrepreneur in Residence on a government funded program, stepped in to oversee the young company. He helped him get some small grants and ultimately a (Canadian) Sustainable Technology Award of $ 3.4 million in 2018. However, he told TechCrunch that he hadn't spoken to anyone at Springpower International since late 2020.
Sbrolla wasn't surprised to hear the company might have been bought.
"It's a group of smart people, no question about it," said Sbrolla. "Technologies like Springpower's offer huge benefits with a smaller footprint, and being tied to a larger company makes scaling up much faster and easier."
If, as it likely appears, Springpower International was acquired by Tesla, it would only join a dozen or so others, including another Canadian battery company, Hibar, which was bought in similar camouflage in 2019.
Elon Musk spent a long time looking for expertise in lithium-ion batteries north of the border. In 2015, Tesla signed a five-year exclusive partnership with Jeff Dahn, a leading battery researcher and professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Dahn was featured in a number of recently issued Tesla battery patents, and in January Tesla extended Dahn's contract for an additional five years.
For years, Musk has endeavored to self-operate battery production and to reduce Tesla's reliance on its current suppliers Panasonic, LG Chem, and CATL. "Now that we have this process, we will begin building our own cathode facility in North America," said Baglino on Battery Day.
Musk added that the combined benefits of Tesla's new battery technologies could make a $ 25,000 vehicle worthwhile, but cautioned not to expect too much too soon: “We'll likely take a year to 18 months to get these benefits to realize, and about three years to fully realize it. "
Perhaps the role of Springpower International will become a little clearer at this point.
Can solid-state batteries be ramped up for the next generation of electric vehicles?
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