Exclusive: Behind the scenes of a battery manufacturing breakthrough at Novonix
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Sep 12, 2023
Emma Jarratt

In part two of the Behind the Battery series, Electric Autonomy visits Novonix in Bedford, N.S., to see how this Canadian company is lowering the cost of batteries through a manufacturing revolution

Mark McArthur, through his work at Novonix, has just discovered that the company has halved the cost of making a battery component by developing a new manufacturing process. Photo: Novonix

In the second Behind the Battery series instalment, an exclusive look at Novonix and the story of its new, made-in-Canada, industry-changing breakthrough to drive down battery manufacturing costs

Driving down a quiet industrial road in a suburb of Halifax there is no indication that this area is a mecca for battery technology around the world.

Yet it’s here where Novonix, a 10-year-old battery materials and technology company, is changing the way batteries used in electric vehicles and energy storage are built, tested and manufactured.

Not many companies can say they’ve had a hand in building most lithium-ion vehicle batteries available on the global market today. Even fewer can say they’ve just developed a new manufacturing process that halves the cost of making cathodes, a key battery component.

Novonix Battery Technology Solutions (BTS), based in Halifax, N.S., is one of those select few.

“There’s a lot of companies — from the upstream suppliers, miners, all the way through to end users and people developing EVs or energy storage systems. It’s really unique how we work across across the entire ecosystem,” says Chris Burns, the founder of Novonix, in an interview with Electric Autonomy at Novonix’s flagship Bedford offices.

Pick the name of any company in the North American EV battery supply chain.

Volkswagen, Umicore, Panasonic, LG Chem, Posco, Samsung, Tesla, Ford, GM, Stellantis.

You can keep going if you like. But odds are overwhelmingly in favour that, if they are making batteries, they’ve knocked on Novonix’s door and their technology has come through the Novonix lab.

Novonix provides assistance in manufacturing pilot-scale cells for R&D purposes, conducts tests and runs material evaluations for its customers. It also does materials research for internal use because the company is now also a direct supplier to battery makers.

“Battery cells are getting commoditized in a general form, but there’s still a huge range of performance,” say Burns.

“At the end of the day, what’s going to be the differentiator between a General Motors vehicle and an equivalent Ford vehicle or Tesla vehicle? Once one of them has a better battery chemistry others will strive to be there.”

A good foundation

Today Novonix has nearly 200 employees in four office locations spread across Canada and the U.S.

But its held onto (and added onto) its 2017 starter lab here, where it all began, on Bluewater Rd.

Once you maneuver into a parking spot and find yourself inside the bright foyer, Novonix’s understatedness continues. There are no flashy company signs or chic lounge areas seen in so many other “sustainable tech” offices.

The building’s aesthetic mirrors the company’s approach: neat, tidy and simple. It gets the job done.

Perhaps that was a philosophy picked up by Burns during his time at the Jeff Dahn Research Group labs at Dalhousie University.

The Dahn labs are where Burns first planted the seeds for Novonix.

Burns was researching battery cell performance with Dahn as a graduate student in 2009. He saw an opportunity to create a new tool that would conduct battery diagnostics measure battery performance.

Burns built a room-sized computer and called it Ultra-High Precision Coulometry (UHPC) equipment.

Ultra-High Precision Coulometry (UHPC) equipment.
A Novonix employee using Ultra-High Precision Coulometry (UHPC) equipment. Photo: Novonix

It isn’t a name that rolls of the tongue, but it’s a machine that works. And, so the industry says, works well.

The original Burns invention, the UHPC 1.0, still lives at Dalhousie. However, Burns founded Novonix in 2013 (while also juggling a senior researcher role at Tesla as its first technical hire in Canada) and started producing next generation UHPCs on a more compact scale to sell around the world.

Over the years Burns recruited Dahn as chief scientific advisor to Novonix and Mark Obrovac, a professor at Dalhousie and the NSERC/Novonix Industrial Research Chair, as a sponsored researcher.

The team worked to get Novonix to this point: a coveted industry position (with a decade of coveted data to boot) to trigger a manufacturing revolution in batteries.

Novonix refining battery manufacturing

Mark McArthur is Novonix’s director of R&D.

He has spent most of the interview with Burns sitting across the boardroom table in gracious silence.

McArthur nods in agreement at points with Burns, but the distinct impression he gives is that in a room of talkers he is a sponge listener.

That all changes when cathodes come up.

Many people would not feel the nondescript black film in a battery cell that acts as a counterpoint to an anode is an electrifying (pun intended) subject.

But McArthur is not many people.

For years, McArthur has been developing a new way of producing cathodes in Novonix’s Dartmouth lab. And this isn’t on a small scale, like using a bigger pipette or a different press roller in the manufacturing process.

This is on the scale of taking a process that, traditionally, takes six labour-intensive, costly and high-waste steps and shrinking it down to three clean-and-simple steps for a fraction of the cost.

“Typically the cathode that you’re starting with — the powder — is made through a wet synthesis process called co-precipitation,” explains McArthur gesturing at a slide deck. “That’s all the stuff on the left-hand side — a bunch of boxes going everywhere. It’s just madness.”

“The Novonix all-dry, zero-waste cathode process essentially sidesteps how you’re making the precursor that makes the cathode powder,” says McArthur.

“Our secret sauce, if you will, is how we combine those materials still all in a dry state to make a finished cathode powder.”

Industry implications

This week Novonix released the findings of a third-party study on its dry cathode process.

It says the processing cost reduction is estimated to be 50 per cent (excluding material feedstock). The capital expenditure intensity is estimated to be 30 per cent lower. And the power consumption improvements have the potential to be approximately 25 per cent better.

These are significant reductions in battery-making costs.

Novonix's dry cathode process
Novonix has developed a dry cathode manufacturing process that could reduce costs by up to 50 per cent. Photo: Novonix

And, in addition to economizing, speeding up and improving cathodes manufacturing, the dry process is far more environmentally friendly than the wet process, says McArthur.

“For the cathode side there’s lots of effluent water that needs to be treated. The big one is sodium sulfate,” explains Burns.

Those wet process water treatment systems — plus the management of the solid waste — can be some of the most costly infrastructure a factory installs.

But where environmental standards are lax or non-existent, there can be no treatment system at all and “typically, [sodium sulfate] is discharged into an ocean because it’s pretty benign,” says McArthur.

At the full battery-making capacity Canada wants to achieve, dumping sodium sulfate waste into the ocean approach could have devastating environmental impacts.

“When you’re making 100 gigawatt hours of battery production you need a lot of cathode to support that, which means you’re going to be generating a lot of sodium sulfate,” says McArthur.

“Clearly it cannot be discharged in North America into oceans. At that scale it’s going to change the molality [the amount of substance in a solute]of aquaculture.”

The battery world to come

Acting as a mixologist and tester for nearly every battery-interested company in the global ecosystem is a high-pressure role and places Novonix in the centre of the ohms race.

Novonix's lab in Bedford, Nova Scotia
Inside the Novonix lab in Bedford, N.S. Photo: Novonix

But it stands to reason, at a certain point, battery chemistries are not going to be that different from one another.

What then becomes the role for companies like Novonix?

An illustration of the limits of exponential invention played out in a New York court room earlier this year.

In May 2023, British pop star Ed Sheeran won a copyright infringement lawsuit. Sheeran was accused of ripping off Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” in his song “Thinking Out Loud.”

In a statement after the verdict, Sheeran pointed out there are only 12 notes in music, four chords in pop songs and something close to 60,000 songs released every day.

The result is everything kind of sounds like everything else.

So, sure, Sheeran sounds like Gaye, but Gaye sounded like Al Green. And so on.

In the battery world it’s similar. There are 118 periodic elements, though not all of them are viable in battery-making.

What then will become the differentiator in the race to electrification?

Burns listens to this parallel and smiles. He has thoughts on this.

“It’s a really interesting question. We are reaching asymptotes with today’s chemistry in terms of how good [batteries] potentially can be, but, more practically, how good they need to be,” says Burns.

“The things that we need to do are focus on how we can get scale and then driving costs down.”

That is the big win of Novonix’s dry cathode breakthrough and a clear signal of the company’s path forward — perhaps for the next 10 years.

Staying ahead of the curve

As for Canada’s role in electrification, Novonix is contributing to positioning the country as the global battery supplier of choice.

Canada has the battery minerals coveted today by the auto industry. But is behind in the refining and manufacturing side.

So, Novonix knows that future development of Canada’s EV battery supply chain depends heavily on how forward-looking it can be. Novonix needs to be expert in the knowledge of tomorrow, today.

“Something that you always have to be so careful about in this industry is it moves fast. The benchmark is moving and if you don’t keep up, you’re behind,” says Burns.

“The example I like to give is the manganese and the lithium-iron-phosphate materials. We started working on programs with those materials two or three years ago. All of a sudden, [that chemistry] started getting more understood or known about here in North America. If you looked around and said, ‘Who knows how to deal with these materials?’ It’s a short list and we’re near the top.”

But in a few years that could all be flipped on its head as new chemistries, modes of transportation and methods of manufacturing (some of them developed by Novonix) come into vogue.

“There’s not some silver-bullet technology. The right batteries for passenger vehicles are different than semi trucks and are different than mopeds and e-bikes,” says Burns.

“Seeing where each of those technologies land in terms of optimization, I think, it’s going to be really interesting to watch play out over the coming years.”

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