Just yesterday CleanTechnica outlined a revolution in auto manufacturing, with electric vehicle technology poised to challenge — and overrun — the internal combustion industry. The makings of an internal revolution within the EV field are also boiling to the surface as new EV battery technology emerges to challenge conventional lithium-ion systems. As the saying goes, may you live in interesting times…
The Lithium-Sulfur EV Battery
One significant challenge to lithium-ion EV battery technology is coming from the lithium-sulfur field. CleanTechnica has been following this new energy storage battery technology for the past couple of years, and in 2013 our sister site Gas2.org predicted that lithium-sulfur EV batteries would quickly surpass lithium-ion in terms of low cost and high energy density.
In particular, we’ve been following lithium-sulfur battery research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 2013 the lab announced that it had solved an important “catch-22” that had been holding things up, and it has been very busy since then.
Last week, Oak Ridge announced that it has signed an exclusive lithium-sulfur battery agreement with a startup called Solid Power, a name that riffs on a fundamental difference between lithium-sulfur and lithium-ion energy storage technology. Here’s Oak Ridge with a rundown:
“The ORNL technology will aid Solid Power in the development of solid-state rechargeable batteries that can provide two to three times the energy of conventional lithium ion technologies. Because all-solid batteries lack any volatile or flammable liquid components, they hold potential to save costs by eliminating many of the expensive safety features typically associated with lithium-ion systems.”
Aside from leveraging the low cost of sulfur to produce low cost batteries, Solid Power has also focused on reducing costs at the manufacturing end through a “simple battery cell architecture that leverages industry standard manufacturing processes.
If the plans all work out, Solid Power will begin rolling out its first large-scale prototypes in December.
Right Back At You, Tesla
Solid Power isn’t shy about throwing down the energy storage gauntlet, partly thanks to its solid cred even before the Oak Ridge agreement. The company spun out of the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2012, leveraging research at that institution, with this result:
Our technology is based on combining an exceptionally high capacity cathode with a high capacity lithium metal anode and in combination with a high ionic conductivity solid separator. Our battery materials are 100-pecent inorganic and possess no flammable or volatile components. Our batteries provide substantially higher energy than conventional lithium ion (2-3X greater) while also enabling lower cost systems due to the potential for eliminating many of the costly safety features typically associated with lithium-ion systems.
Oh, snap! No worries for Tesla, though — that giant lithium-ion “gigafactory” could easily be retooled for lithium sulfur EV batteries, right?
Why Oak Ridge Is Bullish On Lithium-Sulfur
As for lithium-sulfur batteries, the aforementioned “catch-22” involved the use of liquid electrolytes, just as with any other conventional battery formula. That’s all well and good for lithium-ion, but adding sulfur to the mix results in an extremely short lifespan.
The breakthrough development by Oak Ridge involved developing a new class of synthetic sulfur-rich materials to stand in for the liquid electrolyte. Here’s Oak Ridge chief researcher Chengu Liang with the lowdown back in 2013:
“This game-changing shift from liquid to solid electrolytes eliminates the problem of sulfur dissolution and enables us to deliver on the promise of lithium-sulfur batteries. Our battery design has real potential to reduce cost, increase energy density and improve safety compared with existing lithium-ion technologies.”
Autowende, Here We Come
Liang’s optimism is certainly bearing out. An October 2015 article in the journal Nature outlines how the advent of a solid state lithium-sulfur EV battery can break the EV market wide open:
…They deliver more power because solid electrolytes mean that the carbon-based anodes can be replaced with lithium metal, which has a higher energy density and cycle life, with less weight and cost. And without the need to package the liquid electrolyte safely, solid-state batteries can be made in more versatile shapes (even thin films), reducing manufacturing costs. This could make electric cars a more enticing proposition, with longer ranges and a lower purchase price.
Nature makes it clear that we’re a few years away from mass production of a solid state EV battery, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye on Solid Power for updates.
Meanwhile, speaking of a revolution from within, the emergence of a solid state EV battery will put more pressure on the nascent fuel cell sector of the EV market (fuel cell vehicles produce electricity on the go rather than storing it in a battery).
Earlier this morning CleanTechnica took note of the rather slow pace of development in the fuel cell EV sector, though the advent of sustainably sourced hydrogen fuel may provide some support for the fuel cell EV market while auto manufacturers work on their R&D.
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Photo credit (cropped): Lithium-sulfur battery via Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
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