Solid-State Batteries Are Coming! Solid-State Batteries Are Coming!

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Solid-state — what does that even mean? For older people, it takes us back to the days when transistors replaced vacuum tubes, a development that led inexorably to the digital revolution. Today, it refers to the “stuff” that goes between the anode and the cathode of a battery cell. That “stuff” is where the electrical charge is stored and while various manufacturers have their own recipe for “stuff,” virtually all of it contains volatile solvents that make it into a semi-liquid paste similar in appearance and texture to fig jam.

That paste contains lithium, which under some circumstances can form sharp spikes of metal called dendrites. Those spikes can cause a short circuit inside a cell which then leads to overheating. If the cell gets hot enough, the paste ignites, which makes the nearby cells overheat and ignite and before you know it, you have a full scale “thermal runaway event,” which is a polite way of saying a really, really big fire.

Solid-state technology eliminates that semi-liquid paste and replaces it with a solid substance (there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas about what that substance should be), but the benefit is no dendrites and no fires. Improvements in energy density and battery life are also expected from solid-state technology.

Solid Power & SK Innovation Partnership

solid-state batteries
Image courtesy of Solid Power

This week, Solid Power and SK Innovation announced a new partnership to manufacture solid-state batteries for vehicles using Solid Power’s sulfide-based solid electrolyte, proprietary cell designs, and production processes.

“The partnership with SK Innovation is designed to validate that Solid Power’s all-solid-state production processes are scalable and compatible with existing lithium-ion production technology,” said Doug Campbell, CEO and co-founder of Solid Power. “The ability to collaborate with a global leader in lithium-ion cell production is key to our go-to-market strategy and meeting anticipated demand.”

Readers may recall that Ford and BMW have previously begun working with Solid Power. And isn’t it interesting that SK Innovation will be the battery supplier for Ford when it builds its new production facility for the second generation F-150 Lightning pickup truck near Memphis, Tennessee? Hmmm, could the Lightning be the first mass produced electric vehicle to use solid-state batteries in the US? Time will tell.

For now, the companies are talking about development, validation, and production qualification. Moving new technology out of the lab and into large-scale production is always a slow but necessary process. When all the testing and certification is done, Solid Power expects its batteries will be safer, provide longer range, and cost less than the traditional lithium-ion batteries in use today,

As part of the partnership, Solid Power intends to license its proprietary technology, manufacturing know-how, and practices to SK Innovation to enable full integration of the Company’s sulfide-based solid electrolyte material and the Company’s cell designs into SK Innovation’s existing cell production environment.

“The [partnership] provides the framework for us to jointly develop and industrialize our high-content silicon all-solid-state battery cells as part of Solid Power’s current technology development roadmap,” said Derek Johnson, Chief Operating Officer at Solid Power. “To successfully develop and launch our cell products, we follow the standard automotive APQP process, which will ensure our cell design meets automotive partner specifications, meets the highest quality standards and is manufacturable at high rates with high yields. The ability to quickly transfer production know-how and cell designs to a partner with lithium ion production at GWh scale saves on capital expenses, in line with Solid Power’s capital light business model.”

Solid Power expects to generate a small amount of revenue from both research and development and from the sale of electrolyte samples beginning in 2022.

Hyundai Partners With Factorial Energy

In another development on the solid-state battery front this week, Hyundai announced a joint development agreement with Factorial Energy of Woburn, Massachusetts to test Factorial’s novel solid-state battery technology and integrate into Hyundai electric vehicles. The companies will integrate Factorial technology at the cell, module, and system levels, perform vehicle level integration, and co-develop specifications for manufacturing Factorial’s batteries.

In a press release, Factorial says it has developed breakthrough solid-state technology that addresses key issues holding back wide-scale consumer adoption of electric vehicles, namely driving range and safety. Those advances are based on Factorial Electrolyte System Technology that is safer than conventional lithium-ion technology, extends driving range by 20 to 50%, and is drop-in compatible for easy integration into existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing infrastructure.

That “drop-in” part is critical. Reconfiguring production lines to accept new technology can cost many millions of dollars. If the new stuff is basically the same as the old stuff, no big production changes need to be made.

“Our partnership with Hyundai is yet another validation of our solid-state battery technology, and we look forward to demonstrating its market readiness in Hyundai vehicles,” says Factorial Energy CEO Siyu Huang, “We can help unlock mass adoption of electric vehicles — and the resulting environmental benefits — through our safe and long-range batteries.”

Never heard of Factorial? You’re not alone, but it has attracted a star-studded cast of characters. Joe Taylor, CEO of Panasonic North America, is executive chairman of its advisory board, which also includes such luminaries as Dieter Zetsche, former CEO of Mercedes Benz, and Mark Fields, former CEO of Ford.

Factorial claims its FEST technology is not only safer and offers longer range than conventional lithium-ion batteries, it is also cost-competitive with the batteries used in today’s electric vehicles. FEST enables safe and reliable cell performance with high voltage and high capacity electrodes. Its solid electrolyte has been successfully scaled in 40 Ah cells, works at room temperature, and can utilize the majority of existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing equipment.

The Takeaway

Solid-state batteries are the Holy Grail of battery technology. Thousands of researchers at hundreds of laboratories around the world have been working on perfecting them. Some, like John Goodenough, have dedicated their lives to unlocking the secrets to solid-state battery technology. It is interesting that Goodenough himself has agreed to work with SK Innovation, which has now agreed to work with Solid Power. Perhaps the circle is closing.

There are a lot of trade secrets involved and lots of money on the table for the winners of the solid-state sweepstakes. The buzz about solid-state batteries is always that they will be here soon, but how soon is soon? Over and over, the year 2025 is mentioned. That’s no guarantee that you will be able to buy a car with solid-state batteries by then, but it seems to be the expectation in the industry that they will be available by then.

2025 is not that far away. No matter how you look at it, the EV revolution is about to accelerate. That’s good news for us and good news for the planet.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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