Envia battery breakthrough gives General Motors lead for affordable electric cars

A California battery start-up says it's achieved a breakthrough that could make electric vehicles affordable alternatives to fossil-fueled cars, cutting the price of EV batteries in half. The firm's backers include the U.S. government and an arm of General Motors. Did GM just win the race for mass-produced electric vehicles?

The hubbub around electric vehicles over the past two decades has never translated into mass production for reasons of basic chemistry. While we're used to computers that grow outdated every 18 months, battery tech moves at a glacial pace; the lead-acid batteries in today's vehicles would be familiar to mechanics from the turn of the 20th century, and the lithium-ion batteries in modern electric vehicles date to the 1980s.

It's not for lack of trying. Corporations and governments around the world spend billions of dollars a year on battery research in hopes of finding a breakthrough that would wean cars off oil. None have succeeded to date, in part because nature set the bar high with gasoline, a gallon of which contains as much energy as 900 lbs. of the most advanced lithium-ion batteries in EVs today. As Tesla proved with its recent uproar over a $41,000 replacement cost, those batteries don't come cheap.

That's what makes the announcement from Envia Systems eye-catching. Envia says its verified with a U.S. Navy testing center that its cells hit the highest energy density ever recorded for a lithium-ion battery of about 400 Watt-hours per kilogram. That's nearly 10 times as much energy by weight as the batteries in a Toyota Prius, and double the energy by weight of the best lithium batteries for any device on sale today.

At those levels, Envia says the price for the batteries in an electric vehicle with a 300-mile range could fall by half. The company has previously said it wanted to hit a target of $125 per kilowatt-hour, which would push the sticker of a Chevrolet Volt closer to that of a midsize sedan, and a EV like the Nissan Leaf slightly more expensive than a traditional compact car.

Unlike other breakthroughs that have been announced from the lab, Envia says its science is ready for production, and could be on the road in as little as three years. GM invested $7 million in the firm last year, suggesting Envia tech could power new versions of the Volt or other electric models. There's a dozen hurdles to clear before an Envia-designed battery rolls off an assembly line, but this breakthrough puts GM in the lead for now.