Startups and Industry Leaders Alike Compete to Develop the Next Major Battery Technology

February 27, 2019

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Last year, ACT News published an overview of advanced battery technology, detailing many of the exciting developments that showed promise in accelerating the market penetration of electric vehicles. Over the course of the past year, we have seen unprecedented partnerships form, innovative startups launch, and bold claims from several companies as manufacturers race to bring a better and more cost-effective battery to the automotive market.

Battery Technology a Barrier to Wider Market Adoption of EVs

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) and Battery-powered Electric Vehicles (BEVs) accounted for over 1.1 million of all new light duty vehicles sold (114,463,000) in the US between January 2011 and January 2019. Although sales are increasing, EVs still make up less than 1% of the total vehicles sold in the US over these last 97 months. Clearly, EVs continue to face significant hurdles to broad market adoption, many of which are directly related to the limited capabilities of EV batteries.

Manufacturers of EVs continue to search for solutions to the conundrum of finding a battery that provides both range and power, does not lose significant capacity over time or across multiple charge/discharge cycles, does not add performance-sapping weight to the vehicle, and is also made from inexpensive, widely available, and easy to refine materials. Even after decades of research, development, testing and deployment, as well as billions of dollars in public and private investment searching for solutions to these problems, significant obstacles persist.

Over the course of the past year, we have seen exciting developments as manufacturers race to bring better and more cost-effective battery technology to the automotive market.

Emerging Battery Technologies on the Horizon

There are many emerging battery technologies that may be able to provide a much-needed breakthrough. Some of which I have discussed in earlier ACT News articles. The most prominent of these include solid-state, proton electric, and graphene-based batteries.

Key to the development of an advanced battery capable of leap frogging over the lithium-ion batteries, which dominate today’s market, is the ability to pack more energy per volume of battery than is currently available. Tesla is widely regarded as an innovator in this space. The batteries Tesla has installed in their new Model 3’s have an energy density of 272 watt hour per liter of battery (Wh/L). In order to make a better battery, competing manufactures have to not only pack in more energy per liter, but they must do so in less space, with lighter material, and cheaper than industry leader Tesla is doing.

A Promising Partnership

To overcome these barriers, auto and battery makers are developing new alliances as well as acquiring the innovative startups that may be on the verge of bringing competitive solutions to market. Perhaps the most impressive partnership was recently announced in Tokyo on January 22nd. Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Panasonic, one of the world’s biggest battery manufacturers, to announce they were forming a joint venture to produce prismatic lithium-ion batteries and develop the next generation of solid-state batteries (SSBs). These two companies will contribute a total of 3,500 employees to the new venture and set up manufacturing in both Japan and China.

This partnership is striking for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer size and market reach of the two mega-corporate participants. Toyota has been slow to embrace battery-powered vehicles, focusing more energy and resources on the development of their industry-leading hybrid electric and fuel cell technologies. Panasonic’s participation also raised eyebrows due to the company’s existing partnership with Tesla in the latter’s battery “Giga-Factory” outside of Reno, Nevada.

In January, Toyota and Panasonic announced they were forming a joint venture to produce prismatic lithium-ion batteries and develop the next generation of solid-state batteries.

Perhaps the most notable bit of information from the launch of the Toyota/Panasonic collaboration is the fact that both parties will be investing in the development of solid-state batteries. This is a somewhat ironic commitment given that, just a few months earlier, Panasonic North America’s CEO, Tom Gebhardt, declared that solid-state batteries for mass-market electric vehicles were still ten years away from commercialization. But what this renewed commitment to solid-state batteries indicates, along with several other major developments over the last year, is that SSBs may be emerging as the prohibitive favorite in the race to develop the next generation of dominant battery technology for EVs.

Advantages of Solid-State Batteries

Solid-state batteries are characterized by both solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, instead of the liquid or polymer electrolytes found in lithium-ion or lithium polymer batteries. This is critical for many reasons, not the least of which is safety. One of the biggest drawbacks of batteries made of liquid or gel lithium electrolytes is that they can become dangerously unstable if the battery is damaged or punctured. The volatility of lithium is the reason that airline passengers are told not to pack lithium batteries in their carry-on or checked baggage.

Aside from being safer, SSBs are expected to have a long list of advantages over the current state-of-the-art EV battery technology. Proponents believe that SSBs will be lighter, provide significantly greater driving range, will come in smaller packages, will be easier to cool, have faster charge times, and last much longer than the lithium-ion or lithium polymer batteries widely used today.

Industry Leaders Invest in Solid-State Batteries

The advantage of SSBs is not lost on the EV industry’s leaders. In early February, Tesla announced it was purchasing Maxwell Technologies, a major manufacturer of the ultracapacitors and dry electrodes used in SSBs. Maxwell has developed new ultracapacitors with solid, rather than liquid, electrodes, and claims that its technology can improve durability and offer double the life-span of existing batteries at 10-20% less cost.

Solid-state batteries are characterized by both solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, making them safer, with the potential to provide significantly greater driving range and faster charging times.

Similarly, Volkswagen has announced that it plans to become a major EV manufacturer. To achieve this radical ambition, VW is investing heavily in the development of SSB technology. In June 2018, Volkswagen Group invested $100 million in QuantumScape, a San Jose-based SSB developer, and is working with the battery maker to bring their new battery technology to full industrial production by 2025, about the same time that VW projects it will be selling 1 million EVs a year worldwide. VW estimates it will achieve SSBs with four times the energy density of Tesla’s industry leading battery, at about 1,000 Wh/L!

Meanwhile, EV manufacturer Fisker has been touting the advantages of SSB technology for several years. In January 2019, Fisker apparently convinced Caterpillar, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of heavy-duty equipment, to invest in the automaker’s solid-state battery technology. Fisker claims to have produced cells with energy densities of 500 Wh/kg (for comparison, Tesla’s Model 3 batteries have energy densities of about 165 Wh/kg). This technology should enable the Fisker EV to have a range of well over 500 miles. Fisker plans to test SSBs in vehicles in 2020 and will possibly have small volumes of SSBs in commercial production by 2021.

There are many other companies to watch in the SSB space. These include both well-known multinationals such as Samsung SDI, Hyundai Motor, BMW Group, Hitachi Ltd, and LG Chem, as well as many ambitious startups including Ilika plc, Ionic Materials, Seeo Inc, Solid Power, and Sakti3, to name a few.

The Holy Grail Battery Technology (or Not)

The real question is—with all of these companies racing to be the first to come to market with a reliable and cheap SSB, is this technology really the holy grail that many observers believe it to be? Whether or not SSBs are the breakthrough battery some of the companies mentioned above hope they are, and lead to a radical transformation of the world’s automotive market, only time will tell. A lot of big bets are being placed on solid-state batteries—and a breakthrough cannot happen soon enough.

Fleets and other stakeholders looking to learn more about the evolving battery technology landscape can attend ACT Expo 2019, taking place in Southern California on April 23-26. ACT Expo is hosting a workshop that will provide a deep dive into the world of battery technology for transportation, including a discussion on battery chemistries, recent technological breakthroughs, new trends, what future regulations may look like, and what challenges may be faced in the years ahead. Learn more and register here for ACT Expo.