Nikola Motor’s Bombshell Battery Claim Irks Experts, Who Think Its Secret May Lie In Sulfur

Nikola Motor CEO Trevor Milton seems dead set on challenging Elon Musk’s dominance for audacious transportation ideas, upstaging the Tesla chief’s “Cybertruck” debut with a claim that his own hydrogen and electric vehicle company has a breakthrough battery. Experts suspect Nikola’s secret tech derives from a cell chemistry scores of researchers are also digging into.

Milton, whose Phoenix-based startup intends to start delivering zero-emission semi-trucks in 2021, said last week that Nikola’s battery cell has double the energy density, only 40% of the weight and half the cost of 2170 lithium-ion cells used in Teslas and other consumer-market electric vehicles. He tells Forbes those gains come from eliminating costly metals such as nickel, cobalt and magnesium, use of a “free-standing electrode” and a “whole different type of chemical, with a lithium component.”

Known mainly for promoting fuel cells, Nikola’s trucks also use a battery pack to complement the hydrogen powertrain and it plans to offer battery-only variants.

The new cell was developed by a specific university lab Nikola was involved with from an early stage and “locked up all the IP,” Milton says. That’s all the company is saying for now and public demonstrations won’t happen until the second half of 2020.

“I have a strong conviction that it’s safe to dismiss this out of hand–their claims are ridiculous,” said Sam Jaffe, managing director of Boulder, Colorado-based consulting firm Cairn Energy Research Advisors, which specializes in energy storage technology. “Why would they claim this without waiting until they could publicly reveal what the chemistry is and the university laboratory they are working with? It’s very fishy.”

Sulfur is one possible alternative to current lithium-ion cells, Jaffe said. “I would assume they’re looking at sulfur in the cathode and lithium metal in the anode. Untold hundreds of university and industry labs are working on that. If you get to those, if you can make it work, it would have a significant improvement on current lithium-ion, but nowhere near what they are claiming.”

The pressure to cut carbon emissions from autos has resulted in steady growth in electric vehicle sales, led by Tesla, notably in China, California and Europe, with more hitting the road over the next decade. Battery costs and durability have improved as lithium-ion cell technology matures, but the on-board energy available to propel a vehicle remains far less than for gasoline, on a weight basis. That’s why the longest-range Tesla Model 3 sedan, at 4,072 pounds, only goes 310 miles per charge, while a 3,764-pound BMW 3 sedan cruises 530 miles per fueling, according to Car and Driver. A cell like the one Nikola claims to have would erase that gap–if it exists and can be produced.