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GM aims to make its electric vehicles go farther and cost less with new battery partnership

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SolidEnergy Systems is an MIT spinoff focused on improving energy density in batteries

Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors

General Motors announced a new joint venture with SolidEnergy Systems, a spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is focused on improving the energy density in lithium-ion batteries. The two companies plan on building a test facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, for a high-capacity preproduction battery by 2023.

The partnership was announced Thursday by GM president Mark Reuss at a Washington Post Live virtual conference. Prior to the announcement, The Verge spoke with Kent Helfrich, executive director of GM’s global electrification and battery systems, about what the joint venture will mean for the automaker’s plans to electrify its entire fleet of vehicles by 2035.

“In the long run, what this is going to mean is more range and lower cost,” Helfrich said. “And it’ll also mean most likely smaller batteries, so a lighter weight vehicle.”

When GM first unveiled its modular Ultium battery platform last year, it said the new energy system would enable electric vehicles that could travel “400 miles or more” on a single charge. Last November, the automaker increased the estimated maximum range to 450 miles. The first vehicle to be built with an Ultium battery will be the forthcoming GMC Hummer EV, which the company says will have an estimated 350 miles of range. The Hummer is expected to go into production at the end of 2021.

The company is sticking with its estimate of 450 miles of range for now, declining to speculate as to how many more miles it anticipates adding through its battery venture with SolidEnergy Systems. That company has been focused on improving the energy density in li-ion batteries for nearly a decade. According to MIT:

Founded in 2012 by MIT alumnus and former postdoc Qichao Hu ’07, SolidEnergy Systems has developed an “anode-free” lithium metal battery with several material advances that make it twice as energy-dense, yet just as safe and long-lasting as the lithium ion batteries used in smartphones, electric cars, wearables, drones, and other devices.

GM is interested in the company’s intellectual property, which includes the manufacturing process for lithium metal anodes and electrolytes to improve the battery’s overall life cycle.

Despite its name, SolidEnergy still works with liquid electrolytes and does not consider itself a “solid-state” battery company. Solid-state systems have been the subject of intense focus from the auto industry in recent years, as companies seek to develop EV batteries that will charge faster, hold more power, and last longer than traditional EV batteries.

While the focus of this joint venture with SolidEnergy is the production of “wet” li-ion batteries with liquid electrolytes, GM is looking closely at solid-state technology for the future. “Is our advanced team also looking at solid state type technology? Absolutely,” Mike Lelli, senior manager of advanced battery cell technology, said. “We wouldn’t leave anything off the table at this point.”

Last year, a top GM official said the company was “almost there” on developing an electric vehicle battery that will last 1 million miles. Speaking to a group of investors, GM executive VP Doug Parks wouldn’t specify a timeline, but said “multiple teams” at the automaker are working on such advances as zero-cobalt electrodes, solid-state batteries, and ultra-fast charging. Typical EV batteries today last up to 100,000 to 200,000 miles.

GM has been an investor in SolidEnergy Systems since 2015 through its venture capital arm, but it isn’t the only battery startup to attract the automaker’s interest. In 2010, GM invested $3.2 million in a Michigan-based company called Sakti3 that was working on solid-state batteries. The automaker is also in talks to construct a second massive battery factory in the US.

But GM isn’t the only company to view advances in EV batteries as a way to accelerate the future in which zero-emission vehicles replace all of the gas-guzzling cars on the road today. Last year, Tesla announced its own plan to take more control over its battery-making process. And next week, Volkswagen will unveil its own vision for EV batteries during its virtual “Power Day” event.