A partnership between Martinrea International and Montreal graphene producer NanoXplore Inc. could give birth to Canada’s first “mega-battery factory.”
The joint venture, dubbed VoltaXplore, will be housed in a small plant in Montreal. There, it will try to prove that enhancing lithium-ion batteries with graphene can greatly reduce charging times and increase electric-vehicle range, addressing two of the biggest industry concerns with EVs today.
According to Merriam-Webster, graphene is an “extremely electrically conductive form of elemental carbon” composed of a single layer of atoms arranged in a repeating hexagonal lattice.
“In order to develop graphene’s use in batteries not just for ourselves but for other folks, the best thing to do is to prove it out,” Martinrea Executive Chairman Rob Wildeboer said. “If you can demonstrate it and make a business case, there’s no reason why we can’t, together with [NanoXplore], build Canada’s first mega-battery factory.”
That could end up being about one million square feet (90,000 square metres), employ more than 2,000 Canadians and produce one billion battery cells per year, according to Martinrea. The company envisions selling those batteries to automakers producing vehicles in Canada.
NanoXplore CEO Soroush Nazarpour said the construction of such a factory would take four to five years to complete, so the JV’s initial proving facility will allow VoltaXplore to build relationships with automakers as they build out their electrification plans.
“This is a long-time validation process,” Nazarpour said. “You know in auto how things work. You need to have something, otherwise you’re just going to wait until you have the first [battery] cell. And then it’s already too late.”
Nazarpour called graphene, one of the strongest materials known, “carbon fibre on steroids.” If Martinrea has its way, graphene could be a game changer for battery technology and also for the Ontariobased auto supplier and the industry at large.
A major battery factory would be a notable development in Canada’s quest to become an EV manufacturing hub. Over the past year, the Detroit Three have announced billions of dollars in EV related investments in their Canadian plants, but, so far, the country lacks an automotive battery plant.
The Canadian and Ontario governments want the country to be a one-stop shop for all things EV, from the mining of raw materials needed for batteries to battery assembly and vehicle production. The federal government’s 2021 budget, for instance, includes billions of dollars geared toward accelerating clean-tech projects and a pledge for companies to receive tax breaks if they make green vehicles or parts.
WILL IT WORK?
For there to be a business case for Martinrea and NanoXplore to build Canada’s first battery factory, they first need to prove that the technology works. That will be the tricky part, said Conrad Layson, an alternative-propulsion analyst at AutoForecast Solutions LLC.
“Graphene is a wonderful substance — if it can be made at scale profitably,” he said.
Despite being just one atom thick, it’s far stronger than steel and more conductive than copper. It also won’t break down at high temperatures and is non-toxic to handle, unlike many other materials used in EV batteries, Layson said.
Because of its properties, graphene-enhanced batteries could reduce charging times for EVs to 10 minutes from 30 minutes, Layson said. And batteries could last longer on a single charge, while also improving performance.
“It’s a win-win-win all the way around — if you can get out of the laboratory,” Layson said.
Martinrea and NanoXplore, which have provided $4 million each in startup capital to the JV, hope they can prove the technology out over the next year or so.
The venture has the potential to succeed because it marries Martinrea’s manufacturing capabilities with NanoXplore’s technology and graphene expertise, Wildeboer said.
NanoXplore, in which Martinrea is a major shareholder, bills itself as the world’s largest graphene producer, with about 40 per cent of the globe’s capacity.
“It has to be at a competitive cost” to succeed and build a business case, Wildeboer said. “A lot of people can produce a little graphene at a high cost. NanoXplore can provide a lot of graphene at a very reasonable cost.”
VENTURE A ‘NATURAL EXTENSION’
Martinrea’s foray into battery technology represents a new strategy for the supplier, the third-largest Canada-based auto parts maker. Over its history, the company has specialized in making structures and propulsion systems lighter. Nazarpour said Martinrea has been a natural partner for NanoXplore.
“Our product enables lightweighting, so there’s a marriage right there,” he said.
VoltaXplore is a “natural extension” for Martinrea as the industry continues its march toward electrification, Wildeboer said. The company already produces battery trays and systems for thermal management for batteries, he said.
Martinrea is not the only company interested in graphene’s potential use in EV batteries. In January, Chinese automaker GAC Group announced a breakthrough in its battery technology, saying a “graphenebased, super-fast-charging” battery had entered “the phase of actual vehicle testing” in the company’s Aion V crossover.
Mass production of the Aion V is slated to start in September. While that could be a “game changer” for the auto industry, Layson said, skepticism exists that GAC truly will roll out a graphene battery.
It could be years before graphene-enhanced batteries are used in production vehicles, if they ever are, Layson said. While they hold tremendous potential, he said, they remain “in the experimental stage,” and no one knows when they will exit that phase.
“I don’t see graphene coming online” in the next two to five years, Layson said, “with the caveat being if GAC has actually made the breakthrough they claim, then all bets are off.”