On beyond buttons: Panasonic scales up solid-state batteries for drones and robots while US sets sights on electric vehicles.

Panasonic Eyes Solid-State Batteries, But Not For EVs (Yet)

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So close, and yet so far. Solid-state batteries offer the shiny prize of greater range, faster charging, and longer lifespan along with more sustainable supply chains and enhanced safety for electric vehicles. Panasonic is the latest manufacturer to tease the technology beyond the familiar button-sized format, but don’t hold your breath for that new EV battery. The company’s near-term target consists of drones and factory robots, not street vehicles.

Meanwhile, though, the US Department of Energy may be on to something…

Solid-State Batteries For Drones & Factory Robots

For that matter, Panasonic’s near term goal is not all that near. According to multiple news reports earlier this week, the company does not anticipate commercial availability until 2029.

Nikkei Asia is among those noting that some elements of Panasonic’s new solid-state battery could be applied to electric vehicles. However, for now the company has set its sights on a more modest goal.

“Panasonic’s solid-state battery has a much smaller energy capacity than the company’s most advanced lithium-ion ones, though it boasts a faster charging speed,” Nikkei Asia observed. “The company also said it has overcome one of the biggest weaknesses of solid-state batteries up to now: limited lifespan.”

Mass Producing Solid-State Batteries: What’s The Big Holdup?

So, if Panasonic can mass produce solid-state batteries for drones and robots, why can’t it level up to EV batteries? After all, according to Nikkei Asia and other sources, a Panasonic spokesperson did let word drop that the company’s new solid-state batteries share some technologies with conventional lithium-ion batteries.

If you caught that thing about mass production, that is one of the sticky wickets. Proving lifecycle duration and other capabilities on lab-built prototypes is one thing. Translating the technology into a mass-producible product with a rational price point is another, as demonstrated by the plethora of automotive stakeholders that have announced solid-state batteries on a seeing-is-believing basis.

As of this writing the list includes BMW, Vinfast, Ford, Nissan, GM, Stellantis, and Toyota among many others (see more coverage here).

Mass Producing Solid-State EV Batteries: Problem Solved (Eventually)

As indicated by their name, solid-state batteries deploy a solid electrolyte instead of the liquid one used in conventional EV batteries. That could be a blessing and a curse. A solid, inert material reduces the risk of flammability down to practically zero. However, it’s not easy to engineer a solid material that can withstand thousands of charging cycles without falling apart.

Solid-state batteries are also more energy dense, which is a good thing. However, increased energy density can contribute to higher costs.

In a blatant display of rampant socialism, private sector battery stakeholders have been relying on the US Department of Energy for help, making use of the agency’s deep pockets, labortatory resources, and technical expertise.

The Energy Department’s has pressed its sprawling network of national laboratories into service. That includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which has been deploying its next-generation analytical equipment to study solid-state technology. They have come up with a real-world solution, too.

“Following months of promising test results, battery researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are recommending that the solid-state battery industry focus on a technique known as isostatic pressing as it looks to commercialize next-generation batteries,” the lab reported last March.

You can get all the details on the new EV battery manufacturing method from the journal ACS Energy Letters under the title, “The Role of Isostatic Pressing in Large-Scale Production of Solid-State Batteries.

For those of you on the go, isostatic pressing is a sort of chemical bear hug, in which fluids and gasses are combined in a closed system to apply uniform pressure on a substance. Loosely speaking, it is similar to sintering, which involves compressing (and typically, heating) a powder into a fully integrated solid without having to liquefy it first.

The isostatic technique can be used on various battery formulas to produce a solid electrolyte in thin, uniform layers.

“With the help of an industry partner that produces this pressing equipment, ORNL researchers found that isostatic pressing could make battery production easier and faster while creating better conditions for energy flow,” the lab reported somewhat mysteriously.

What’s So Great About Isostatic Pressing?

Isostatic pressing is commonly used to join various materials including 3D-printed parts, but it has received minimal attention from EV battery researchers. That could change now that the Oak Ridge team has drawn attention to it. The method is source-agnostic and can be tweaked to accommodate a wide range of solid state battery materials.

“All these materials have their unique advantages that researchers would like to exploit,” explains Oak Ridge researcher Marm Dixit. “That’s why it’s important that you can do isostatic pressing at anywhere from room temperature to several thousand degrees Fahrenheit: It means you can use anything from polymers to oxides, the whole range of materials.”

Another feature of isostatic pressing is the potential to forge together all three components of an EV battery — anode, cathode, and electrolyte — in one process.

“Isostatic pressing would also be relatively easy to scale up commercially — a finding that has garnered significant attention as companies race to supply solid-state batteries to car manufacturers,” the lab noted.

Solid-State Batteries Are Coming, Eventually

Next steps for the Oak Ridge research involve further testing to demonstrate that isostatic pressing can proactively control the texture of a solid electrolyte, rather than simply altering it.

If you’re wondering who that mystery partner is, so are we. In the meantime, the Energy Department is not letting the grass grow under Oak Ridge’s feet. The agency announced a $16 million funding pot for advanced battery research just yesterday, with $16 million to be shared among five projects. That includes $4 million going to Oak Ridge for a project called, “Manufacturing of Large Format, High-Energy Density, and Long Durablity Solid-State Batteries With Oxide Electrolyte.”

“Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and industry partners (Intecells and High-T Tech) will develop a scalable process to manufacture solid-state batteries with LiNixMnyCo1-x-yO2 (x≥0.6, NMC) cathode and oxide-based electrolytes, which is intrinsically nonflammable,” the Energy Department reported.

If all goes according to plan, the result will be a continuous manufacturing process that integrates the anode, cathode, and electrolyte. As for scale, the Energy Department foresees moving way past the “button” format.

Not to raise expectations too high, the Energy Department is not asking for thousands of cycles — yet. The goal of this particular project is a more modest one of 500 cycles, at 350 watt-hours per kilogram or more.

3-D Printing To The Rescue

For the record, Intecells is a US startup that has developed an advanced battery manufacturing system that ditches the conventional slurry-based method in favor of 3-D printing, providing the ability to engineer batteries in different shapes.

“Currently, lithium-ion battery manufacturing entails a multistep slurry-casting process that requires high amounts of capital and energy but is only capable of producing flat electrodes with limited energy density,” the company notes.

The other partner in the Oak Ridge project, HighT-Tech, has developed an ultra-fast, high temperature sintering technology for producing solid-state batteries, with a focus on sodium-ion technology. As described by HighT, their UHS process addresses a laundry list of challenges facing solid-state manufacturing. That includes a savings on cost, materials, and time compared to conventional sintering systems.

“To meet global energy storage needs, billions of square meters of solid-state electrolytes are needed. Traditional sintering simply cannot meet the manufacturing need.” HighT explains. “Traditional furnace sintering takes more than 10 hours to achieve a sufficient density; as a result, a powder bed is needed to avoid Li [lithium] loss during the prolonged sintering process.”

Perhaps we won’t have to wait that much longer for the solid-state batteries of the future after all. In addition to the $4 million award, Oak Ridge is also partnering in another $4 million solid state project spearheaded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and a $3 million award under the umbrella of Argonne National Laboratory.

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Image: “In a solid-state battery, reactive lithium metal (blue) can coexist stably with a solid electrolyte called LiPON (yellow) when an interphase (green), about 70 atoms thick, forms” (Credit: Jill Hemman/ORNL, 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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