As Tesla’s profits and prices grabbed headlines last week, a potentially pivotal development for the global car industry flew largely under the radar.
The U.S. electric pioneer disclosed that nearly half of the vehicles it produced in the first quarter were equipped with lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries - a cheaper rival to the nickel-and-cobalt based cells that dominate in the West.
LFP advocates cited the relative abundance and cheaper prices of iron as a key factor beginning to outweigh the drawbacks that have held back the adoption of LFP cells globally - they are bigger and heavier, and generally hold less energy than NCM cells, giving them a shorter range.
Former battery technology company A123 pioneered commercialization of their “Nano-phosphate” lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries back about 10 years ago (?). They burst on the scene with a contract with Dewalt power tools to provide high-power battery power tools, and expanded into a deal to provide batteries for the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sports sedan. A manufacturing flaw led to a recall of all those automotive batteries and the bankruptcy of A123, and a Chinese company bought the remaining assets, a disappointing end to a promising US battery company.
Now CATL, another Chinese company, is supplying Tesla with LFP batteries for low end Tesla’s. LFP batteries are cheaper, less prone to catch fire, and are more robust under repeated heavy power draw and recharging, but they are significantly less energy dense than leading nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) batteries, so they are suitable for cars with up to ~200-250 miles range at this time, but not 300+ mile range.