The Holy Grail of battery technology is finding a way to make solid-state batteries. What does that mean? Virtually all lithium-based batteries in use today are manufactured in the same “jelly roll” configuration that has been used to make batteries for decades. The components are rolled into a spiral with a semi-liquid paste in between. That paste keeps the anode and cathode separated and promotes the flow of electrons between them.
Battery manufacturers have enormous amounts of money tied up in production equipment that supports the jelly roll method of making batteries. That means no matter how swell some new technology might be, it will usually get a cold shoulder from battery makers if it doesn’t make use of the production equipment they already use.
The Allure Of Solid-State Batteries
Conventional batteries have one significant drawback, however. That semi-liquid paste is often flammable. If a short circuit occurs within the cell, it can overheat and burst into flames, often in rather spectacular fashion.
Solid-state batteries avoid that risk. They may also have somewhat longer life and higher energy densities than conventional cells. Lastly, because the risk of fire is so low, they can be charged more quickly using higher power charging equipment. Whether or not all this goodness will come with a higher price tag than conventional batteries is unknown at this time.
Solid Power Ships First Solid-State Batteries
Solid Power has been chasing the solid-state battery dream for more than 5 years. It has forged relationships with BMW and Ford and said earlier this year it would begin supplying prototypes to manufacturers soon. Automakers use those prototypes to measure their performance in real world situations — freezing cold, blazing heat, long distance driving, fast charging, and so forth. They test them for durability, longevity, and degradation.
Solid Power announced on December 21 that it has deepened its partnership with the BMW Group by granting it a research and development license to Solid Power’s all solid-state cell design and manufacturing know-how.
The broadened relationship provides significant benefits to both companies, including conducting complementary cell development and manufacturing activities at both Solid Power and BMW to further advance the capability of Solid Power’s technology. BMW intends to duplicate Solid Power’s pilot production lines at its own facility in Germany and produce prototype cells based on Solid Power’s proprietary technology. Prior to the installation of the prototype line, BMW personnel will work hand in hand at Solid Power’s facilities to optimize cell manufacturing processes.
“We could not be more excited about growing our relationship with BMW, a company that has demonstrated a strong commitment to Solid Power’s technology for the past seven years,” said Dr. Derek Johnson, CEO of Solid Power. “We believe this expanded partnership and increased collaboration is an added vote of confidence in Solid Power’s technology development.”
“BMW remains committed to the pursuit of all-solid-state batteries, a technology which we believe has significant potential for the future,” said Frank Weber, BMW board member responsible for research and development. “We look forward to working even more closely with Solid Power and adding the capability to produce solid state cells based on its designs at our own pilot facility. We expect this agreement to accelerate the installation of our solid-state prototype line and our companies’ mutual goal of commercializing this promising cell technology.”
BMW has agreed to pay Solid Power $20 million through June 2024, subject to achieving certain milestones. The new agreement includes sharing of proprietary solid-state electrode and cell manufacturing know-how, but does not include a license to intellectual property related to Solid Power’s electrolyte material, which remains its core business. Once BMW installs its prototype production line, Solid Power expects to supply its electrolyte material to BMW for prototype cell production.
“Expanding our relationship with BMW is further evidence that both companies believe Solid Power is on the right track with its technology development,” said David Jansen, Interim CEO, President and Chair of Solid Power. “I am encouraged by the progress our team continues to make toward achieving our company’s goals. Over the past several months, we began delivering 20 Ah cells to our partners, including BMW, for initial testing and commenced production of our initial EV cells. We look forward to bringing our electrolyte manufacturing facility online and commencing the formal automotive qualification process.”
Solar Power says it replaces the flammable liquid electrolyte in a conventional lithium-ion battery with a proprietary sulfide-based solid electrolyte. As a result, its solid-state cells are expected to be safer and more stable across a broad temperature range, provide an increase in energy density compared to the best available rechargeable battery cells, enable less expensive, more energy-dense battery pack designs, and be compatible with traditional lithium-ion manufacturing processes.
Et Tu, QuantumScape?
In a happy coincidence, on December 20, QuantumScape, the solid-state battery startup supported by Volkswagen, issued its own press release that said it has shipped its first 24-layer prototype lithium metal battery cells to automotive OEMs for testing. Delivery of these cells, referred to as A0 samples, was the company’s key public milestone for the year, and achieving this goal represents an important step toward the commercialization of this technology.
With 24 layers, each comprising a solid-state separator, a cathode, and an in situ formed lithium metal anode, these prototype cells have capacities in the multi amp-hour range, a range the company believes is relevant for a variety of applications including automotive and consumer electronics.
With these cells, the OEMs can start the testing process at their facilities and provide feedback on the performance of the cells. The company still has substantial work ahead to bring this technology to market, including improvements to the quality, consistency, and throughput of its production processes, and additional enhancements on the product side, such as increased cathode capacity loading and improved packaging efficiency. The company expects to deliver improvements on these fronts in subsequent generations of A, B, and C samples over the coming years.
“I’m proud of our team for all the effort and determination that went into achieving this milestone, especially in light of the challenges we encountered this year,” said Jagdeep Singh, CEO of QuantumScape. “While this milestone brings us closer to our ultimate goal, there’s still a lot to do before this technology becomes a commercial product, and we now turn our attention to this important work.”
The A0 cells were built in QuantumScape’s new cell format, which was another important goal for the year. This new architecture is a hybrid between prismatic and pouch cells designed to support the uniaxial expansion and contraction of the lithium metal during charge and discharge. The company plans to host a virtual event in the new year to share more about this innovative new cell format.
The purpose of testing the prototype batteries is to find out if any of those expectations are valid. It will be years before solid-state batteries make their appearance in any production cars.
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