Jul 22, 2022 - Economy

Ford's answer to EV supply chain hell: Cheaper batteries

Three batteries as the bars of a bar chart, each one increasing in height.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Automotive giant Ford is shoring up its battery supply chain — partly by importing lower-cost, iron-based batteries popular in China — as it sprints to increase electric vehicle production.

Why it matters: Employing cheaper, safer and more durable iron batteries could accelerate demand for mass-market electric vehicles (EVs), and help automakers sidestep nickel and cobalt supply problems that have been driving up EV prices.

The big picture: Carmakers' plans to shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles won't succeed unless they can secure reliable battery supplies. But with raw materials in short supply — and sourced primarily in Asia — the battery race is turning into a fierce geopolitical competition.

Driving the news: Ford said Thursday it had lined up enough batteries to meet its short-term goal of producing 600,000 EVs annually by 2023, up dramatically from the 27,140 battery-powered cars it sold in the U.S. last year.

  • The company, which is spending $50 billion to expand its EV lineup, also said it was 70% to its goal of securing enough batteries to produce 2 million EVs annually by 2026.
  • Ford announced a slew of supplier deals and partnerships — including contracts to buy raw materials directly from mining companies, as other automakers have done.

Details: One way Ford intends to meet its EV targets: adding a second type of battery chemistry to its lineup called lithium iron phosphate (LFP), alongside its existing nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) chemistry.

  • It will initially import LFP battery packs from China's Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Ltd. (CATL) for its Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning pickup, starting next year.
  • But Ford also wants to produce LFP batteries in North America, and plans to open a 40-GWh LFP cell factory by 2026. (That's in addition to three previously announced battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky.)

Between the lines: Iron and phosphorous are abundant, which is why LFP cells cost at least 30% less than today's nickel- and cobalt-based batteries, Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, explains in Forbes.

  • LFP batteries are also more durable, lasting up to 1 million miles, per CATL.
  • And they're less likely to catch fire because the chemistry is more stable.

Yes, but: LFP batteries pack 30% less energy than similarly-sized nickel-rich batteries, which translates into shorter driving range.

  • This isn't a huge issue in China because buyers there care more about price and durability than driving range.
  • But Americans, who aspire to take long road trips, want longer-range EVs capable of going 300 miles or more between charges.
  • Instead of installing a larger battery to meet their range expectations, carmakers can squeeze more LFP cells into battery packs by redesigning their module structure, per Abuelsamid.

What to watch: Tesla increasingly uses cobalt-free LFP batteries in its entry-level vehicles, and it's expected Ford and others will too.

  • Meanwhile, nickel-based batteries will be used for pricier performance cars.

What they're saying: "We know that the battery material cost is where the war will be won in the short term," said Lisa Drake, vice president of EV industrialization for Ford's Model e division.

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