We have some questions about CATL’s powerful new battery technology

The Chinese battery giant CATL has unveiled a new battery, claiming that it can eventually power civilian electric airplanes. That could be a game changer. But for now, CATL has offered precious few technical details about the battery.

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Analysts are watching closely as they try to figure out what, exactly, CATL’s new technology has in store for industry—and whether it can propel the battery company to new heights, further entrenching China’s dominant position in the global battery supply chain.

What is CATL’s new battery made of?

“What do we not know yet is the cost of these cells, if any critical materials are used, how developed the supply chains for these components are, what the cycle life of the cells are,” notes James Frith, a lithium battery expert and a principal at the venture capital firm Volta Energy Technologies.

In its statement, CATL describes its cutting-edge product as a condensed battery. That means it’s a semi-solid state battery, an emerging technology with the potential to address issues including the stability of chemical interactions and the scale of manufacturing that have held back the mass commercialization of solid state batteries.

Semi-solid state batteries, on the other hand, combine both solid and liquid electrolyte components to improve the electrolyte’s contact area with electrodes and speed up production processes, according to the consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

According to CATL, its latest battery features new materials for:

  • the anode (the battery’s negative electrode)
  • an ultra-high energy density cathode (the positive electrode)
  • a condensed electrolyte (a conductive solution that move charge between the anode and cathode)—though it’s unclear what exactly “condensed” means in CATL’s context
  • new separators (which control the flow of electric charge to prevent shorting)

Left unanswered are a number of questions. What are all those new materials? What are the cathode and anode made of? Is the condensed electrolyte in liquefied gas form, similar to what California-based energy storage company South 8 Technologies has been developing? And will the battery require critical minerals that are in high demand, like lithium? These key details will determine the cost of the battery, what it will take to source input materials, and how quickly CATL can scale up production.

When will the new CATL battery hit the market?

CATL claims it can “achieve mass production of [the] condensed battery in a short period of time.” CATL’s chief scientist told reporters at the Shanghai Auto Show that large-scale manufacturing can start later this year.

Some of the lingering questions about the nuts and bolts of CATL’s battery technology will likely be answered when the new product is eventually becomes commercially available. For now, we can only wonder.

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