The competition comes at a crucial time. Gasoline prices have skyrocketed and climate change has accelerated efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increasing demand for electric vehicles. This has led to shortages of many minerals used in current electric vehicle batteries, amid ethical concerns as they are often mined by adults and children under grueling conditions with little protection.
But experts and automakers say bringing new batteries to market is an extremely difficult task.
“It’s the technology of the future,” said Eric D. Wachsman, director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute. “The question is, how soon will that future be here?”
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For the past three decades, lithium-ion batteries have been king. They can recharge quickly and pack large amounts of power into a small package. Their benefits have made them ubiquitous, powering not only cell phones and tablet computers, but also pacemakers, operating room equipment, and many other essential products.
But experts say their use in electric vehicles have drawbacks. Lithium-ion batteries cannot be charged too often, forcing drivers to drive on a single charge. They could also hit a cap on how much energy they can store, the scientists noted. Because they’re filled with flammable liquid electrolytes, they can also pose a fire hazard, leading General Motors to recall its Chevy Bolt electric vehicle last summer.
These batteries also rely heavily on nickel and cobalt, which are facing supply shortages and rising prices. Cobalt, which is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo by adults and children who often inhale toxic chemicals and contract fatal lung diseases, has sparked a human rights crisis in the country.
Lei Cheng, a chemist and materials science expert at Argonne National Laboratory, said there was “no doubt” solid-state batteries will replace lithium-ion batteries in the future. The new batteries, which would replace flammable liquid electrolytes with a solid layer of graphite, could be safer, reduce reliance on nickel and cobalt and hold more energy more cheaply, she said, which makes them attractive to car manufacturers.
“If you buy a nice Tesla car,” she said, “the price is pretty much determined by what kind of battery you put in.”
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Major automakers, knowing the drawbacks and costs inherent in current battery technology, either partner with solid-state battery companies or conduct in-house research and development on the technology.
Volkswagen has invested $300 million in QuantumScape, a solid-state battery company also backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. aiming to put the batteries into production by the middle of this decade. Ford and BMW led a $130 million investment round in a Colorado-based solid-state battery startup called Solid Power, hoping to launch the technology around 2027. In January, Toyota announced that would put solid-state batteries in hybrid cars on dealer lots by 2025.
For Doug Campbell, general manager of Solid Power, the focus on solid-state technology has been a boon. In December, Solid Power went public and raised over $540 million. Now it’s “hiring like crazy” as it tries to meet its goal of integrating commercially viable solid-state batteries into cars by 2027, Campbell said.
Campbell added that he’s not surprised automakers are flocking to the technology. With batteries accounting for 40% of the cost of an electric vehicle and representing a key element of safety, finding cheaper, longer lasting and less flammable batteries is one of the most crucial innovations for automakers in the future.
“The solid state is sort of that holy grail,” he said.
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Despite this, there are some concerns about the technology. When announcing plans to introduce solid-state batteries in hybrid cars by 2025, Toyota noted that they are not yet ready for use in fully electric cars. Gill Pratt, the company’s chief scientist, said in January that batteries were currently too expensive to power a fully battery-powered car. He also noted that the charging of solid-state batteries repeatedly affects their overall lifespan.
“We want to start by putting them in [hybrid] vehicles where we believe they are both best suited in terms of lifespan, but also which will exert them enough that, as costs continue to come down, we can deploy them in the future” in fully electric vehicles, he told the Autoline Network.
Wachsman, of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute, noted that manufacturing these batteries will prove difficult. He said it’s likely solid-state batteries will appear first in other sectors where smaller amounts of the product are needed, pointing to the US defense and aerospace sectors.
The challenge, Wachsman said, is that most lithium-ion batteries are made in China, which has perfected the manufacturing process, reducing costs.
But the shift in global production to solid-state batteries requires a different manufacturing process that would be harder to replicate at the same scale as that of lithium-ion batteries, which is likely to drive up costs in the near term.
“[Battery makers] are on track to have commercial products within the next two years,” he said. “The question will be whether they can evolve or not.”