Why Is Everybody Talking About Solid State Lithium-Metal Electric Vehicle Batteries All Of A Sudden?

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Good question! For many years now, lithium-ion batteries have been the go-to energy storage solution for electric vehicles. And, for just as many years, researchers have been trying to come up with something better, lighter, cheaper, and more efficient — and it looks like solid state lithium metal EV batteries are in the running.

electric vehicle batteries energy storage
“A thin film solid-state electrolyte with a three-dimensionally interconnected structure was fabricated by ORNL researchers. The structure increased conductivity through the ceramic base,” by Xi Chen/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

The Electric Vehicle Battery Bottleneck

Lithium-ion batteries can do some amazing things nowadays, but they don’t come cheap. Electric vehicle batteries are the main reason why electric cars are more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts.

When you factor in ownership costs over several years, EVs can actually come up equal or ahead, because a car with electric drive is cheaper and easier to maintain than a conventional automobile.

Nevertheless, that up-front sticker shock is a major obstacle to EV sales. Any automaker that comes up with a less expensive alternative to lithium-ion technology has a good chance of winning the hearts and minds of the driving public.

The Solid State Lithium-Metal Solution

A dramatic improvement in energy density combined with a drop in costs is the energy storage unicorn sought by researchers in the solid state lithium-metal field.

Back in 2017 the US Department of Energy took a look at the state of the EV energy storage field, and lithium-metal had a long way to go in terms of R&D. The cost was estimated at approximately $320 per kilowatt hour.

However, the Energy Department projected that the technology could win the cost-cutting race, with the potential to get down into range of $70-$120 per kilowatt hour.

At the time, conventional lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries weighed in at $235, with a potential to drop down to $100-$160 (for the record, next-generation Li-ion was projected to fall down to the $90-125 range, from a 2017 level of $256).

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a newly released energy storage study from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The research team took a look at the energy density angle and determined (as have others) that the solution is to create a very powerful, and very thin, electrolyte. Their version consists of a polymer (aka plastic) and a ceramic-based composite, the idea being to get the best of both worlds — low cost and high conductivity — without sacrificing mechanical strength.

“Solid polymer electrolytes are flexible and low cost but have low conductivity while ceramic-based electrolytes offer better conductivity but are too brittle to process,” the lab explains.

That’s not quite as simple as it sounds. The two materials are not mixed, mashed, or pulverized together. Instead, the lab created a three-dimensional ceramic infrastructure and somehow managed to fill all the little gaps with plastic.

If you want to know how, check out the study, “A three-dimensional interconnected polymer/ceramic composite as a thin film solid electrolyte,” published by the Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information.

The Electric Vehicle Battery Of The Future Is Now

Speaking of the Energy Department, back in 2014 the agency’s ARPA-E cutting edge research funding office dedicated $4.7 million in funding for scientists at the University of Maryland’s Energy Research Institute to figure out how to remedy some issues with garnet-ceramic-based solid-state batteries.

Evidently the research program made some solid progress, so to speak. Along the way it received additional funding from the Energy Department as well as NASA and Lockheed Martin.

ARPA-E summarized the state of affairs in 2018 and noted that the research had spun off to a company called Ion Storage Systems, working with the ceramics manufacturer TransTech and a coating specialist called PneumatiCoat.

“Such a design could be used in large format battery manufacturing plants for EVs. Inexpensive and safe batteries using this technology could also be used for grid energy storage, consumer electronics, and UAVs. In the long term, the success of this technology will provide U.S. manufacturing a new battery platform with higher capacity, lower cost, and greater safety,” ARPA-E enthused.

Do tell! When last heard from — on January 16 of 2020, to be exact — Ion Storage Systems announced that it brought former Executive Director of Battery Operations for Apple, Ricky Hanna, on board to shepherd the UMD research into the market.

ISS also dropped a reminder that it recently nailed $8 million in seed money, through an investment round led by San Francisco-based venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners, which lives on the motto, “great companies contribute something to the world.”

Well, that’s not their only motto but it’s the most relevant one to the topic of the electric vehicle battery of the future.

Onward & Upward For Energy Storage

None of this is good news for petroleum stakeholders. Despite the constant cheerleading of the experimental drug Taker-in-Chief* for all things fossil, the Energy Department has been avidly pursuing new energy storage technology that will knock petroleum out of the mobility market.

In fact, earlier this year the agency launched a major new energy storage initiative. The aim is to speed the way for fossil gas to exit the electricity market and put the final nail in the coal coffin, in addition to ushering in the next generation of electric vehicle batteries.

Go figure.

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*Developing story.

Image: “A thin film solid-state electrolyte with a three-dimensionally interconnected structure was fabricated by ORNL researchers. The structure increased conductivity through the ceramic base, by Xi Chen/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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