Concerns over range anxiety have been well documented among prospective electric vehicle owners. Cases of range excess? Those are more difficult to find.
On the way home from a road trip designed to test the range limits of a prototype battery, that’s exactly what an engineering team from Michigan startup Our Next Energy Inc. encountered.
After starting the day in the Detroit suburb of Novi, on the morning of Dec. 17, the team traveled north in a Tesla Model S retrofitted with their own battery. They drove north for hours, finally turning around at the Cut River Bridge in the state’s Upper Peninsula. Gradually on the return, they realized that depleting the battery would take longer than anticipated.
“On the way back, we realized we were going to need to burn more energy off, so we decided to go to Lansing, and then after Lansing, we knew we still needed to burn more energy off,” CEO Mujeeb Ijaz, along for the ride in a chase vehicle, tells Automotive News. “So we went to Ann Arbor, and then we went to Detroit, and finally, we were like, ‘Let’s just go back home.’ “
By the time they got home at 2 a.m., they had traveled 752 miles on their proof-of-concept battery without recharging. The real-world test occurred at an average speed of 55 mph, and in temperatures that reached a high of 41 degrees Fahrenheit in southeast Michigan and while enduring occasional windy conditions.
That mileage roughly doubles the range of electric vehicles on the market today. Depending on its configuration, the Tesla Model S achieves between 348 and 405 miles, per the latest stated figures from the EPA. The Chevrolet Bolt reaches 259 miles in range, per the EPA. The Lucid Air has surpassed all of them with a range as high as 520 miles, albeit at a sticker price that starts at $77,400 and reaches as high as $169,000.
Battling range anxiety
For Ijaz, the results of the sprawling road trip signaled that Our Next Energy had reached an important moment in developing a range-extending battery that may one day ease consumer anxiety about range in EVs.
“One of the early goals we set out to accomplish a forward agenda on is to get more range to electric vehicles, because we really believe that range and adoption are linked together,” Ijaz said. “The problem in electric vehicles today is that we’re promising people a certain amount of range, but then the vehicles are not living up to that in the real world. So what we decided to do is go after doubling the amount of energy we could put on board.”
A third-party company validated the results, according to Our Next Energy, placing the same vehicle on a dynamometer. It achieved a range of 882 miles at 55 mph.
Our Next Energy, which was founded in July 2020, has addressed that challenge with a hybrid battery approach. Engineers have created a workhorse battery intended to handle daily driving and withstand frequent charging. A second battery with a different chemistry will stretch the range for the occasional long trips.
The first battery, called Aries, is designed for durability and scheduled to enter production by the end of this year. The second, called Gemini, is the proof of concept that Our Next Energy tested in its ride around Michigan. The road trip test results will help evolve the battery toward production, though Ijaz says R&D efforts remain ongoing.
In particular, the prototype Gemini battery contained cobalt. Ijaz is adamant about avoiding cobalt in his finished product, because of supply, price and range considerations.
“First and foremost, we want a new material set,” he said. “Let’s focus on materials that are responsible, that are sustainable and able to be mined anywhere in the world, that are not geographically constrained.”
Our Next Energy closed a series A round in October, receiving $25 million from investors that included Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate-focused venture capital fund started by Bill Gates. Others participating in the round included BMW i Ventures, Flex Ltd., Volta Energy Technologies and Detroit-based VC fund Assembly Ventures.
Ijaz, a veteran of Ford Motor Co., Apple and A123 Systems, said the landmark road trip was a memorable moment. Not necessarily because of the final range achieved, but because of the view he got on the road.
At one point, the gasoline-powered chase vehicle from which he observed the test needed to exit the interstate and refuel. The electric car powered by his battery needed no such break.
“Watching that whole thing unfold was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “That vehicle just kind of kept on going, day and night. I think that’s a pretty remarkable thing.”