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Korean EV makers eye next generation

Battery manufacturers look abroad to expand their growth potential
Feb 03,2020
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On Jan. 6, Hyundai Motor released its electric compact SUV, the Kona. The compact SUV is the latest model of the car, which was first introduced in 2018 and sold 47,000 units last year alone.

The maximum distance that the electric vehicle (EV) compact SUV travels on a single charge according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is 406 kilometers (252 miles).

Rival GM Korea plans to release its own EV passenger car, the Volt, whose maximum travel distance is 414 kilometers, soon.

Although the distance that these EVs can travel has increased over the years, it still falls short of consumer expectations.

Even an EV that could cover 400 kilometers on a single charge would require the driver to recharge the vehicle once when traveling from Seoul to Busan, because while the distance between the two cities is 325 kilometers in a straight line, the actual distance one needs to drive on the road is 456 kilometers.

Automotive companies and battery developers are currently working on developing a third-generation EV that can travel more than 500 kilometers on a single charge.

The first generation of EVs covered 160 kilometers on a single charge while the second has evolved to cover between 320 to 500 kilometers.

On Jan. 14, Kia Motors announced its plan to develop a third-generation EV at the Conrad Hotel in Yeouido, western Seoul.

“We will increase the ratio of EV vehicles to 12.3 percent of all of our models, from two [EV] models last year to four by 2022 and 11 models by 2025,” said Park Han-woo, Kia Motors’ CEO.

“Additionally, in the near future, we will have the technology that will cover more than 500 kilometers in a single charge and a high-speed charge to within 20 minutes.”

According to IHS Markit and Posco Research Institute, the global EV market will expand from roughly 1.2 million in 2018 to 5 million this year.

This is a significant increase considering the global EV market was only 450,000 units in 2016.

In order to grab the lead of the rapidly growing EV market, increasing the traveling distance of EVs is no longer a choice for carmakers, but a necessity.

This year, Tesla will begin production on the Model Y. The traveling distance of the four-wheel drive car approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 315 miles, or roughly 506 kilometers.

Germany’s Volkswagen and Japan’s Toyota, which until recently received batteries from suppliers, has jumped into developing batteries of their own.

Volkswagen has decided to invest $1 billion into EV batteries, while Toyota made an agreement with Panasonic to develop EV batteries.

Korean battery companies are putting everything into securing related technologies and productions.

LG Chem in December made an agreement with GM to form a joint company.

Recently, the company purchased 639,000 square meters (6,878,138 square feet) of land in Ohio and plans to break ground in the first half of this year.

The new Ohio plant will be manufacturing 30-gigawatt-hour batteries for GM. The batteries will be installed in 400,000 EV cars.

Once the new plant is built, the annual supply of LG Chem’s EV batteries will increase from a total of 70 to 100 gigawatt hours.

“The [Ohio plant] will not only secure a supply of LG Chem batteries to GM’s third-generation EVs but also creates an advantageous position in North America’s EV market,” said Lee Dong-wook, a Kiwoom Securities analyst.

Samsung SDI is currently developing a battery that could cover more than 600 kilometers in a single charge. The target is a mass production of such batteries in 2021.

In its latest earning reports on Jan. 30, Samsung SDI laid out its fifth-generation battery plans.

The company said under the “Gen 5” project, which will adopt a new production system, it will increase the energy density by more than 20 percent, which will lower production.

The company will be supplying the battery to BMW.

Under the contract signed between Samsung SDI and BMW in September, starting this year, the EV battery cell and module will be supplied to German battery system manufacturer Akasol for the next seven years.

SK Innovation is also planning to mass-produce a third-generation EV battery starting in 2022.

The company is currently constructing a plant in Georgia, the United States, that is scheduled to be completed in the second half of 2020.

The production plant in Georgia will have a capacity of producing 10 gigawatt hours of batteries.

SK Innovation is targeting to secure an annual production of over 100 gigawatt hours by 2025.

“Sometime next year we will be able to produce and test an EV battery that can cover a distance of more than 500 kilometers in a single charge,” said a SK Innovation official.

The company said it will be working with SK Technology on EV battery development.

Experts say one of the key points in developing batteries that could cover long distance is stability.

“The key point in increasing the battery capacity is stability,” said Kim Pil-soo, an automotive engineering professor at Daelim University. “The increase in voltage means higher temperatures. If the cooling system doesn’t work properly it could increase the risks of explosion or fire.”

The key component that determines the battery’s capacity and power is nickel.

The increase in nickel raises instability. The minimum nickel content in a third-generation battery is 80 percent, which is more than the first-generation battery of 33 percent.

BY LEE CHANG-GYUN [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]