Pick any electric vehicle on the street. From the battery to the dashboard display, 3M products are everywhere, even if you can’t see the company logo anywhere.
The company is leveraging its history in the auto industry to capture a share of the fast-growing electrification market. Automakers look to the experienced Maplewood-based conglomerate for materials and technology to improve battery-powered travel range, among other challenges. Without improved efficiency and lower prices, the transformative promise of EVs is likely to fail.
Car electrification is now a $500 million business for 3M after sales increased 30% last year. CEO Mike Roman has repeatedly touted the segment as a high-growth area to focus on innovation.
It’s a bright spot for a company facing challenges on multiple fronts — from costly litigation to job cuts and environmental regulatory actions — as 3M’s stock value and overall sales slump.
“The electrification of transport is a disruptive trend. And there are a lot of projections about how that will play out,” Roman said at an investor conference in February. “A lot of innovation will come from this. So we see opportunities. We see this as an opportunity for growth.”
And as 3M spins off its healthcare business — which accounts for a quarter of annual sales — car electrification could become a bigger and growing part of the company’s remaining revenue.
3M has been in the automotive business for more than a century and provides numerous parts for gas-powered vehicles and their manufacturing lines. As more electric vehicles are sold, fewer combustion models will be manufactured, making 3M’s pivot toward the EV market even more important.
Demand for electric vehicles in Europe and China is driving growth, according to the International Energy Agency, which forecasts 200 million electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade. There were over 16 million in use globally in 2021.
“In the near future, delays in delivering electric vehicles to customers could hamper sales growth in some markets,” the group wrote in a report last year. “But in the longer term, government and business efforts to electrify transport are providing a solid foundation for further growth.”
In the US, some electric vehicles are now eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. Cox Automotive predicts the US will see a record 1 million electric vehicles sold this year as more automakers introduce electric models.
3M is working with all of them. The end result of 3M’s EV offerings is increased efficiency in both the battery range and manufacturing processes, which can help reduce costs and increase adoption.
“We’re integrated,” said David Arney, global director of 3M’s Automotive Electrification Lab. “It’s all about efficiency – increasing the efficiency of the vehicle’s use of electrons.”
In 2021, 3M released a new thermal barrier material for battery cells, a small solution to mitigating the big problem of “thermal acceleration events” – which is industry jargon for battery fires.
Although relatively rare, battery fires have become a defining risk for the industry. Ford halted production of its F-150 Lightning and recalled some models earlier this year after a battery caught fire. Tesla has seen several of its vehicles catch fire due to thermal runaway.
“There is no magic material that can solve all problems, but 3M works to understand all the ways that batteries can fail, and that gives rise to different solutions,” said Brandon Bartling, battery systems architect at 3M.
3M does not manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, but sells a variety of battery materials that serve a variety of functions, such as helping to prevent unwanted heat build-up, which results in wasted energy.
Crucially, increasing battery efficiency can also reduce the need for cobalt, an expensive and rare mineral. Batteries that use iron instead of cobalt have historically had shorter ranges but higher efficiency are trending towards the gold standard 300 mile mark.
“Iron-based chemicals are lower cost, more plentiful, and less prone to runaway thermal events,” Arney said.
3M also opened a new test lab in the Twin Cities last year that automakers are using to put their batteries through extreme conditions.
It’s effectively a torture chamber to find out what the batteries are capable of withstanding – and what they can’t.
With its first generation of electric vehicles, Tesla set the standard for huge touchscreens that replaced the traditional knobs and buttons that control music, temperature and maps.
Cars like the Cadillac Lyriq and Mercedes EQS now have large display panels extended across the dashboard.
Within these screens, 3M technology prevents windshield glare and driver distraction.
“We’re involved pretty much anywhere a human is looking at light in a vehicle or anywhere there’s a sensor,” said Dave Lamb, senior application development specialist.
3M Optical Films are used in a variety of consumer electronics products, including major brands of cell phones and TVs. The trick to turning them into electric vehicles is to use as little battery power as possible.
“Screens are getting big enough that they’re starting to impact things like reach,” Lamb said, and the company promotes efficiency improvements of up to 50% with its display materials.
Despite emitting zero tailpipe emissions, there are environmental costs to EV production. To reduce the total carbon footprint of their offerings, EV manufacturers need to make their components easier to recycle.
“Not many electric vehicles are at the end of their useful life, but by 2030 you will have millions,” Arney said. “Therefore, we are making an effort to develop products that will enable cost-effective and energy-efficient disassembly of automobiles.”
To keep rare materials like lithium in continuous use, batteries must be easily disassembled. 3M has recently developed a new type of adhesive, a hybrid of tape and glue, which creates a powerful, quick-setting bond but can be removed by hand, much like 3M wall stickers.
“This is essentially a ribbon that you can print like a liquid,” said Joey Benson, an application development specialist. “This is a new technology for the world.”
Arney said assembly and disassembly solutions like this make him excited about the future of the industry.
“It’s the biggest transformation in mobility in 100 years.”