Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft companies seem to be on a dime. Many people have the perfect unusual design for the electric air taxi of the future – or so they say. While most of these startups will never make it out of the basement, there are some we’ve been following closely for years, one of which is Lilium. This is not to say that it will succeed. Achieving commercial production and profitability is as difficult as carrying mahogany on your back (not advisable for many reasons). But we still dream about potential flight on the Lilium jet.
Good design imo
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2019
Lilium × Zenlabs
The latest news from Lilium is that it has picked up a battery cell supplier that it invested in last year. (“Lilium, as an investor in Zenlabs, has exclusive rights to use the battery cell technology in commercial regional eVTOL programs from 2021,” the company notes.) On the one hand, it’s good to see that it still believes in batteries. On the other hand, the role of conflict of interest or overinvestment should also be considered can there are such cases. There is an opportunity to consider. Although Lilium hasn’t just announced that it will be using battery cells from Zenlabs, the aforementioned battery startup. The eVTOL aircraft visionaries also explained in decent length and detail why they are injected into Zenlabs cells.
Here are a few interesting lines that jumped out at me from Lilium’s news article:
“While we’ve seen huge advances in cell performance and industrialization in everything from electric cars to consumer electronics over the past 15 years, designing cells for the unique needs of the aviation industry has probably not been a priority.
“Lilium has worked hard to develop a high-performance aviation battery system for our jets while working towards the two key drivers necessary to achieve our mission: performance and scale, while working towards the pending certification requirements. Now that we have made progress in filing patents to protect the Lilium IP and independent 3rd party testing of the target cell technology has been completed, we can share more information about our plans in this domain.
That’s right – as great as batteries for electric cars and trucks are, who designs batteries for the aviation industry? Someone has to pay attention to it to meet the need.
As for Zenlabs, it wasn’t a shot in the dark either. “Our team discovered more than 100 companies across the entire battery value chain, from raw material suppliers to cell developers, manufacturers and recycling companies,” Lilium said. “Based on that research, we concluded that Zenlabs lithium-ion batteries using pouch cells, high silicon anode and high nickel cathode offered the best solution to meet our needs through performance, certification and scale production.”
In addition, the company reports that Lilium engineers have been working with Zenlabs engineers for two years. Taking the next step now means that these two years have been productive.
Let’s take a look at some of the charts that Lilium released with this news.
Lilium/Zenlabs Battery Cell Statistics
“Figure 1 compares a commercially available state-of-the-art high-power cell (black), a commercially available state-of-the-art high-power cell (red), and a Zenlabs cell (green).
“You can see that the advantage of the Zenlabs cell is its combination of both superior specific energy and specific power capabilities. By this comparison, the Zenlabs cell exceeds both the specific power capacity of a high-power cell and the specific energy capacity of a high-energy cell.”
In short, Zenlabs batteries can sustain high power output for a decent amount of time without quickly draining the energy stored inside. That’s what airplanes need.
While I’ve always thought the Lilium’s design looked pretty cool and attractive, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s its batteries that make an EV. Yes, the design is big and critical, but so are the batteries. What I never thought was that the aviation industry would have to develop their own batteries tailored to their specific needs.
The Lilium article has more on the specific needs that Lilium identified and how Zenlabs is meeting them, but let’s move on to another critical issue – battery manufacturing.
Lilium Battery Mineral Supplies and Manufacturing
Going back a little further, on May 27 Lilium announced a partnership with Livent to further develop the R&D of high-performance batteries suitable for electric aviation. Livent is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium products for batteries. This partnership alone is a big step towards production, even if it’s not specifically mentioned in the news.
“Partnering with Livent, a pioneer in lithium technology innovation for nearly eighty years and a global leader in lithium production, is an important step in securing Lilium’s future access to high-performance battery cell technology that will power Lilium’s jets.” Indeed. “Livent supplies lithium to many of the world’s leading electric vehicle brands and battery manufacturers. As a fully integrated lithium producer, Livent uses distinct technology processes to both source raw lithium and produce a range of specialty lithium products in an environmentally responsible, safe and sustainable manner.
Liveent wouldn’t mess with an eVTOL company that it didn’t think was eventually headed toward commercial viability, or at least had a solid shot at it.
Marina Yakovleva, Director of R&D and New Business Development for Livent, said: “The Livent R&D team is excited about the opportunity to work closely with Lilium’s leading scientists and engineers to develop the state-of-the-art in e-mobility and battery technology. technology. Innovation is in the DNA of both companies, as is a shared commitment to developing electric transportation and sustainability solutions. Together, we hope to achieve significant progress in realizing the potential of next-generation battery technologies and decarbonizing air transport.”
Part two of a slightly more recent Lilium press release on Zenlabs battery development focuses on manufacturing and new manufacturing partner CUSTOMCELLS. “CUSTOMCELLS is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of highly specialized lithium-ion battery cells for highly regulated industries,” writes Lilium. “They have already demonstrated their ability to create highly reliable batteries with all kinds of unique capability sets for several battery-powered applications, from sports cars to the marine industry and even medical devices.” That doesn’t mean they’ll break any low-cost lithium-ion battery production records. However, it highlights an important point and again shows the clear foresight of the Lilium executive team: the aircraft industry is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and you need manufacturing partners who are used to working in highly regulated environments.
Of course, cost is also a factor, and I’m sure the two partners will work together to keep costs as low as possible, as both will have greater success if Lilium can compete in a stripped-down and well-protected aviation space. industry. “Unless our batteries can be built in very large quantities, at aerospace quality levels, and at a sustainable cost, we will never be able to achieve our mission and effectively contribute to the decarbonization of air mobility,” Lilium soberly declares.
The production of the battery started in February 2022.
Lilium’s goal is to have an eVTOL aircraft that can fly ~250 km (155 mi). When will this Lilium Jet take off? We’ll see. The Munich-based company aims to do so in Germany, the US and Brazil by 2024. Currently, the company employs more than 750 people, including 400 aerospace engineers.
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