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Tesla's battery technology may not be helpful in boosting China’s EV transition: experts
Tesla's mega-battery factory  Photo:
Chinese engineering specialists told a state-run media that China doesn't need to rely on “mega battery”, a leading-edge product of Tesla Inc, a US electric carmaker to develop new energy vehicle (NEV) industry, considering there remains alternative solutions and Tesla's high-performing battery may not be a perfect choice for the country's consumers because of its high cost.

Tesla Inc, arguably the technological leader of the global NEV arena, is known to have recently opened a new Shanghai company in China, presumably to be on a faster track to push local manufacturing after being assured by China's central government that foreign electric carmakers would be allowed to build wholly owned factories later this year.

The Palo Alto, California-based multinational was previously reported to have engaged in talks with the Shanghai government to explore the possibility of a local manufacturing plant since last June. The talks failed to reach any fruition because Tesla insisted on completely owning its factory in China.

It's reported by foreign media that China had long been complained about allegedly forced technology transfer in joint ventures, which is also known to be a factor contributing to Trump administration's 301 investigation and the current trade frictions between China and the US.

China's central government is determined to promote more widespread use of green cars, in a bid to fight severe air pollution and reduce the country's dependence on imported oil. Following Chinese President Xi's pledge to further open the auto sector at the Boao Forum, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's state planner, announced in mid-April it would scrap limits on foreign ownership for manufacturers of fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles this year.

In a bid to develop environment friendly cars, the country had also handed out billions of dollars in subsidies or other initiatives to persuade consumers to choose new energy cars. According to data collected by US-based media companies, in the Q1 of 2018, China market occupied about a half of global sales of new energy vehicles.

The Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the country's Ministry of Science and Technology, recently talked with several specialists in relevant sectors, who suggested China doesn't need to depend on Tesla technologies in order to have more people opt for green cars in the country.

For electric cars, the importance of power battery could not be overstated. Many industry insiders agree that being the “heart” of green cars, the battery technology development, both literally and metaphorically, will determine how far the green car industry will reach.

Tesla Inc. provided technical specifications of battery packs used in Model 3, its newest car. Earlier, Elon Musk, the CEO of the company, proclaimed the ternary lithium battery for Model 3 was with 300 Wh/kg, among the best-performing batteries that that could be mass manufactured.

The Model 3, according to Tesla Inc., could run 350 kilo meters per single charge and needs merely 20 minutes to be fully charged. Zhang Yu, the secretary general of the power battery branch of China Industrial Association of Power Sources (CIAPS), a guild organization, noted that Tesla has adopted battery system management to solve the problem of thermal runaway, which may cause explosion, and has improved the life cycle of ternary lithium-ion battery through automotive design.

Zhang also warned with higher energy density, there is increasing incidence of combustion and explosion. Yang Yusheng, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, made it clear on several occasions that it is risky to keep raising battery's energy density.

Wan Gang, chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology, was quoted as saying that the distance per charge is a definite indicator of the technological progress in the electric automotive sector. “The energy density and loading capacity of battery packs decide the distance the car could cover per charge.

Over the past nearly two decades, the improved performance was mainly brought by technological development in battery materials,” Yang Xulai, vice head of the Academy of Engineering at Hefei Guoxuan High-Tech Power Energy Co, said.

The Made in China 2025 initiative has set a target to raise the energy density of domestic batteries to 300 Wh/kg by 2020. Experts suggest that in proactively developing high-performing power battery, the connection between safety and performance should also be taken into account.

Currently, it's known that there are three types of power batteries—ferrous phosphate, ternary and lithium manganate, among which, ternary lithium-ion battery constitutes NCA and NCM. NCA is actually what powers Tesla's Model 3.

According to Zhou Bo, the research director of CIAPS's power battery branch, the production process and conditions of NCA is demanding. More importantly, the technological barriers for its materials also exist in China, with its current production confined to mainly Japanese and South Korean factories.

According to research conducted by Science and Technology Daily reporters, China started working on NCA materials and the battery's industrialization late compared with other competing countries. Multiple enterprises in the country have tried small or medium-scale production, but some technical problems remain unsolved, and mass production is yet to be achieved.

Zhang Yu said another problem that hinders the NCA battery from gaining popularity in the country is its poor thermal stability which usually leads to safety issues. A lot of battery manufacturers and consumers are worried about its volatility, unless there are reliable and systematic designs to make sure all necessary links like battery cells, power system and supply could work well together.

Moreover, ternary lithium-ion battery is not definitely the focal point in the development of power battery in China. Based on CIAPS data, the installed capacity of ternary lithium-ion was 16.04 GWh in 2017, accounting for 44.01 percent of the total, while ferrous phosphate's installed capacity was 17.97 GWh, with a bigger share of 49.29 percent.

Industry insiders told Science and Technology Daily that bolstered by favorable policies and market environment, ferrous phosphate and ternary had gained balanced opportunities. Even for the category of ternary, Chinese factories tend to prefer NCM, instead of NCA, which Tesla chooses.

Different from the NCA battery which has gained mass production and proved to be a commercial success, the equally high-performing NCM is not in large-scale production at present. With a lower cost and similar performance, NCM is believed to be more likely to be a success in the Chinese market.

“The truth is the ferrous lithium-ion battery has propped up China's new energy vehicle sector. Considering cost issues, the battery is more competitive, so we predict it would gain bigger share than ternary,” Yang Xulai said, indicating the development of ternary in the country is benefiting from government's support policies but it may fail to dominate the market.


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