Comment: How innovations in materials are changing the EV landscape

Engineers across the automotive sector are responding to one of the biggest challenges of our time: the need for sustainability, says Kevin Porter, managing director at Tecman Advanced Material Engineers.


Improvements in charging infrastructure, legislation phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles and increased product choice have driven a significant increase in electric vehicle (EV) adoption. While year on year sales have fluctuated, the long-term trend is consistent – more people are buying EVs[1]

As EVs become more popular, the economics have changed, and profitability is now enabling OEMs to produce vehicles that are more reliable and have improved range. The desire for vehicles to work more like an ICE type and travel even further in-between charges is becoming more important as the 2035 deadline[2] approaches, particularly for those in rural locations and currently using hybrid vehicles.

Behind the scenes, these improvements have been enabled by the development of new materials and the use of existing materials in new ways by hundreds of manufacturers and material converters. Innovation in materials has enabled the production of safer, better performing EV batteries that provide OEMs with improved energy density and competitive cost by kWh outputs.

The innovations that often capture the spotlight are the novel ones – for example nanoenhanced fluids[3], which have good thermal conductivity and help to cool EV components. These have promise, but in practice it is often the application of existing materials in new and innovative ways that offer OEMs scalable solutions within lean cost parameters.

I find inspiration for this comes from other industries where a methodology or material is already being used successfully; a multi-industry approach supports the cross pollination of innovation and has helped us to apply lessons in thermal management from electronics to EVs, for example.

A material needs to be more than innovative; it needs to be suitable for high volume manufacturing and be cost competitive. This is because, as McKinsey point out, the majority of parts in vehicles will remain the same as they were in internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles[4] – so the question is likely to be framed by OEMs as ‘how can we repurpose or adapt materials we have already specified?’.

As in many sectors, industry challenges drive some of the most forward-thinking approaches and this is particularly true within the automotive sector. A key challenge for many OEMs I speak to is thermal management.

Effective thermal management is important for battery safety, efficient energy usage and component longevity. If managed correctly, cell life can be enhanced and performance optimised. Insulating batteries, enabling thermal transfer away from a cell and supporting cells to perform when rapidly heated and cooled, requires a rethink in how different materials are used in the production process.

The most appropriate solution will depend on an OEM’s precise specification and the intended end use. Is the primary concern to reduce thermal runaway? Extend range? Improve performance for a high-end vehicle?

Experienced partners can draw on a library of materials with different properties, testing their suitability given the end use conditions. This involves factoring in considerations like temperature, erosion, lifespan and so-on. Close collaboration between OEM and supplier is essential, but especially so when a material must work in multiple settings, for example with both prismatic and pouch cell solutions.

From ceramic fibres, aerogels, conductive foils to thermal interface materials and graphite films, individual materials have unique properties that make them suitable for specific applications. This is the case even where specifications vary. Suppliers are finding innovative ways of reengineering and combining materials to facilitate their use across multiple applications in lithium-ion battery systems.

Material innovation isn’t just about thermal management though; adhesives can be used to bond aluminium, carbon fibre composites and steel to reduce vehicle weight and enable batteries to perform more effectively.

Innovation is often about how existing materials can be used differently. This is especially the case when it comes to using process innovation to manufacture at scale. These include all-in-one processes, continuous production techniques and multiple sizing configurations that enable machines to switch sizes without stopping.

Taking a contrarian approach to design and manufacture, thinking outside the box and applying existing materials in new ways are helping engineers and material converters to support OEMs to improve the safety, reliability and performance of battery cells. This is good for the industry and good for the consumer.

I’m proud of the role Tecman plays in the industry and the way that engineers across the sector are responding to one of the biggest challenges of our time: the need for automotive sustainability.   

Kevin Porter, managing director at Tecman Advanced Material Engineers