SOLiTHOR’s CTO, Dr Fanny Bardé, was Technical Manager for R&D–Advanced Technology at Toyota Motor Europe and worked on battery technology for xEVs (PHEV, HEV, BEV) for 15 years. She also managed the solid-state battery program at imec, the international research and development organization. imec has been one of the leaders in semiconductor research since 1984. imec has been researching solid-state battery technology since around 2010.
In 2021, Dr Bardé teamed up with Huw Hampson-Jones to set up SOLiTHOR. In January 2022, they raised €10 million in seed funding to kickstart operations, including funding from the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Belgium, as well as imec’s venture capital arm.
As imec is purely a research company, it felt that there was a need to spin off its solid-state battery research for a separate company to follow up and spearhead the commercialization of this work and technology. SOLiTHOR took advantage of this opportunity and took over the IP of imec’s research into solid-state batteries that had been developed from 2010 to 2022. SOLiTHOR also secured the exclusive rights to develop lithium-sulfur and lithium-metal battery technology for its targeted market applications from imec. The company’s current focus is on developing solid-state lithium technology with a nano-Solid Composite Electrolyte (nano-SCE).
In terms of its work on solid-state battery development, SOLiTHOR is now at Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 3/4 and is moving to focus more on using lithium metal on the anode side of the solid-state battery development, although in terms of lithium metal work, it is still at the earlier TRL 1.
SOLiTHOR says the patented nano-anode will improve energy density, charging speeds, and crucially, increase safety, and will be far easier to manufacture than other solid-state batteries. The nano-anode features will also avoid dendrite formation. SOLiTHOR’ s solid-state electrolyte is not based on sulphides, oxide, or polymers, and does not require high operating temperatures.
SOLiTHOR say its work is no longer purely research, but is now more inclined to applied research on the pathway to full commercialization that will eventually build up to mass production. SOLiTHOR has now scaled up its applied research and cell testing work to a level where it is now producing thousands of cells per run as part of its testing program.
Due to the envisioned advantages of solid-state lithium batteries, which include the ability to perform well in a broad temperature range and its high energy density, SOLiTHOR is focusing specifically on the aviation sector as the key entry segment. This move gives it room to be more competitive in this space from a pricing point of view rather than starting with the automotive sector where the current battery technology has already seen some dramatic cost reduction, scale, and intense competition as the production of electric cars ramps up globally.
SOLiTHOR has recently announced a collaboration with Sonaca, a Belgian aircraft manufacturer that was established in 1947. SOLiTHOR is targeting the regional aircraft sector as the first segment for its solid-state batteries. SOLiTHOR projects that there will be a large addressable market for electrification of the regional aircraft industry. This is for the smaller 12-seater aircraft that do routes of about 2 to 3 hours, opening up more efficient utilization of regional airports that have noise and pollution restrictions as they are close to urban centers. SOLiTHOR’s CEO, Huw Hampson-Jones, believes that regional airports are underutilized. Electrification of aircraft will unlock more opportunities around the smaller airports, including increasing the utilization of late night and early morning time slots.
In the partnership, SOLiTHOR will produce the cells and Sonaca will integrate them into the airframe of the regional aircraft. Sonaca already has relationships with most Tier 1 regional aircraft manufacturers worldwide, therefore will bring a large addressable market.
Their approach ties into the current dilemma faced by the regional aircraft industry. Most regional aircraft designs were made in the 1950s, and with the global push for cleaner transportation, it may not be in the best interest of these firms to invest hundreds of millions developing a new generation of fossil fuel powered regional aircraft — hence there is now a great opportunity to work with such firms to co-develop electric regional aircraft.
SOLiTHOR has started construction of a larger test production facility where it will be expanding production of its solid-state cells. It will be ramping up production from the envisioned tens of thousands over the next two years to hundreds of thousands towards the end of this decade. Thereafter, it plans to cross-license its technology to other mainstream battery manufacturers to scale production. Therefore, its work is centered on ensuring that its solid-state cells will fit into the current battery cell manufacturing processes.
The new facility is being built at a former car manufacturing site that already had a 9-room battery test facility, and this move will speed up production and cell testing cycles. As the company moves from its current facility in Genk to St-Truiden, the cells will be produced and tested in the same location. SOLiTHOR had already increased its test channel capacity 10-fold over the past year, and is looking to increase this even further at the new facility as it ramps up production. It will also incorporate ground aircraft testing facilities. It hopes to have the first commercial test flights towards the end of this decade. It is also looking into the large drone industry, other urban air mobility options, and the defense and maritime sector.
As the world moves to decarbonize the transport sector, it is important to try as best as we can to electrify most strategic sectors as soon as practically possible. There has been a lot of progress in the electric car, bus, and truck sectors, and many exciting developments are underway. The aviation sector is also a critical sector in today’s transport landscape and therefore, it is essential to start electrifying this sector as well, starting with the segments that are most feasible in the immediate and near future such as the smaller regional aircraft market.
Just like technological advancements over the past decade have resulted in more longer-range electric cars now being more available commercially for consumers to buy, I hope the next decade will also see similar advancements in battery technology for the aviation sector, including this much anticipated area of solid-state batteries that companies such as SOLiTHOR are working on.
Images courtesy of SOLiTHOR
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