Leading global automakers are suddenly going coo-coo for solid-state batteries, and for good reason. New solid-state technology promises longer range in a lighter, slimmer package than the current crop of EV batteries. To some skeptics, that’s a lot of hot air, but a new round of $200 million in funding for the US energy storage innovator Factorial Energy indicates that cool, calm room temperature is the real story.
Solid-State Batteries & The Temperature Question
Lithium-ion batteries have been the go-to platform for vehicle electrification, and according to widespread consensus the prospects are good for additional performance enhancements. However, another widespread consensus says that a totally new architecture would be more simple, and more better.
That would be solid-state technology, in which the liquid electrolyte used in Li-ion batteries is replaced with something solid, like a high tech ceramic or a ploymer.
You can almost smell the difficulties arising. Compare and contrast the difference between swimming through water and swimming through a block of concrete, and you get the idea. High temperature can enhance performance, but that’s not much help if the idea is to get solid-state batteries out of the lab and into the market.
Solid-state technology has been spinning its wheels since first identified in the early 19th century. Now, with the advent of modern materials science and high tech analytical tools, it finally has a chance to break free.
Researchers around the world have been hammering away at solid-state energy storage technology over the past few years, with one main area of focus being the search for formulas that achieve the desired level of conductivity at room temperature.
Factorial Energy Enters The Fray
That brings us to Factorial Energy, one of several solid-state startups to have crossed the CleanTechnica radar in recent years. Just last month the company popped up when its proprietary energy storage platform FEST™ (Factorial Electrolyte System Technology) caught the eye of Daimler (think Mercedes-Benz among others) and Stellantis (Dodge, Fiat, Chrysler, etc.).
That’s on top of earlier interest expressed by Kia and Hyundai last spring, and FEST hasn’t even hit the shelves yet.
There must be something to it, considering that Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis N.V. led the new $200 million round of funding for Factorial.
“Funding will be used to accelerate commercial production and deployment of Factorial’s solid-state battery technology that is safer and offers up to 50 percent greater driving range than current lithium-ion technology,” Factorial explains adding that “Its drop-in compatibility with existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing infrastructure reduces costs and the complexity of changing to a different battery technology for auto manufacturers.”
It seems that drop-in compatibility is the magic word, along with the all-important room temperature.
“FEST…leverages a proprietary solid electrolyte material that enables safe and reliable cell performance with high-voltage and high-capacity electrodes at room temperature,” Factorial emphasizes.
According to the announcement, Hyundai and Kia are also part of the Joint Development Agreement that committed Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis to the new round of funding.
What’s The Big Deal About Solid-State Batteries?
That’s a good question. Improved performance and lower costs are both big deals all on their own, as is the planet-saving factor of driving around without emitting greenhouse gases.
However, the driving around part is only the tail end of a vehicle manufacturing supply chain that includes a laundry list of environmental impacts.
Auto manufacturers are beginning to clean up their supply chains, partly by introducing more sustainable materials. Working with their suppliers to cut emissions from factories is another angle of attack.
Nobody is doing this from the good of their hearts. Any auto industry exec with a head on their shoulders knows that EV buyers are increasingly focused on overall sustainability beyond the nice feeling one gets from driving around in a zero emission personal mobility device. Automakers that seek to differentiate themselves are going to leverage every sustainability angle they can, and that includes EV batteries.
Solid-state batteries are going to need to face the recycling music at some point, and the global battery recycling infrastructure has a long way to go before it can handle millions of spent EV batteries of any sort. However, automakers are already beginning to tout the potential for environmental benefits.
BMW is among the other automakers banking on solid-state batteries to attract the EV driver of the future. In a press release last April, Frank Weber, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Development explained that his company aims to produce “the greenest electric car in the world,” with a strong focus on the battery.
“We are developing the battery cell of the future: it will be powerful, safe, cost-effective, and recyclable — from material selection to recyclability after the use in the vehicle,” Weber elaborated. BMW plans to have a solid-state battery for EVs in demonstration mode “well before” 2025, with series production anticipated before 2030.
Meanwhile, Back In The Lab…
While all this activity is going on in the private sector, the US Department of Energy has not exactly been asleep at the wheel.
Back in October of 2018, the agency’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory remarked that “the holy grail of next-generation battery technology, meeting the ever-increasing demand for energy storage that is affordable and safe, with high energy density and long cycle life.”
More recently, Oak Ridge National Laboratory chimed in last November with a breakthrough that involves a cost effective, scalable method for joining the various materials used in solid state batteries, which is considered “one of the big challenges” in the field.
“One of the challenges in manufacturing solid-state batteries is the difficulty of getting materials to properly join and remain stable during repeated cycles of charging and discharging,” ORNL explains, noting that previous attempts to work around the problem are not commercially viable.
ORNL tried something different. Instead of apply pressure and other similar approaches, they deployed an electrochemical pulse.
“The electrochemical pulse the ORNL researchers used eliminates the voids that form when joining layers of lithium metal anode material with a solid electrolyte material: in this case the ceramic garnet-type electrolyte LALZO,” they explain.
You can take their word for it in a press release dated November 10, 2021, or you can get all the juicy details from the ACS journal Energy Letters under the title, “Improving Contact Impedance via Electrochemical Pulses Applied to Lithium–Solid Electrolyte Interface in Solid-State Batteries.”
The electrochemical pulsing method could be used to refresh used batteries, which sheds a whole new light on the battery recycling angle.
Meanwhile, keep your eye on Brookhaven National Laboratory, where researchers have been working with a team from Brown University on the potential role of trees in formulating the sustainable solid-state battery of the future.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Solid-state technology for advanced EV batteries (photo courtesy of Factorial Energy via globalnewswire.com).
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