They're safer too, and the next generation will be better for the environment.
BMW and Ford took a big step in EV advancement a few weeks ago, investing in Solid Power, a solid-state battery company. The burgeoning technology is very close to being ready for prime time, and the advantages are many. In theory solid state batteries are lighter, more power dense, and can improve range at a lower cost. Solid Power has already delivered hundreds of production line-produced battery cells.
But we wanted to dig in further to find out what these things really are, and what are the long- and short-term advantages. We know about solid state hard drives. As opposed to traditional drives they're more stable, less susceptible to jarring, they hold more stuff, and they last longer. We're hoping solid state batteries do the same.
At a base level, solid-state batteries use solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, as opposed to the liquid or polymer gel electrolytes found in lithium-ion batteries. The basics were discovered by electrochemistry and electromagnetism whiz Michael Faraday in the early 1800s but were never adopted commercially.
Fast forward to the 1950s and some systems were employed using silver ions, but it wasn't until Oak Ridge National Laboratory created a new class of solid-state electrolytes in the 1990s that people and industry really started to take notice.
Ford and BMW aren't the only automakers looking into this technology. In 2012, Toyota began conducting research for automotive applications and now holds the most SSB-related patents through its long partnership with electronics maker Panasonic. Dyson took a shot at the tech but abandoned its plan to build a car using it. Spark plug maker NGK is also experimenting in the field.
But Solid Power, established in 2012 and based in Colorado, is the current leader in the clubhouse. We talked to the team about these new batteries to get a handle on this new and important tech and what this means for the industry.
Can you explain how solid-state batteries work? We know with lithium-ion batteries there are chemical reactions going on, do SS batteries work the same way?
"Solid-state batteries remove the flammable liquid electrolyte and the polymer separator layer in a traditional lithium-ion battery and replace it with a solid layer. It acts as both a barrier to keep the anode and cathode from touching one another, which shorts the battery, and as a conductive electrolyte (just like a liquid electrolyte is in a traditional Li-ion cell)," said Will McKenna, head of marketing for Solid Power.
"The main advantages of using a solid are higher specific energies (Wh/kg) and energy densities (Wh/L) with an anode that can store more ions, like lithium metal. In Solid Power's all-solid-state battery, the removal of all liquids enhances safety (no liquid to fuel a battery fire) and broadens temperature performance (liquids freeze at very cold temps, evaporate at very high temps). Then there's the cost. Simplified and lower cost pack designs due to higher safety; reduced warranty cost; vehicle design flexibility," said McKenna.
Are they better for the planet? Or cheaper to produce?
"Solid-state batteries typically replace the graphite anode (a non-metal) with lithium metal anode. This is due to the benefits in increasing energy. The cathode, which typically includes nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese (NMC), is typically used in both Li-ion batteries and solid-state batteries," said McKenna. "However, Solid Power's technology allows for the use of next generation conversion-type cathodes that could remove cobalt, nickel and manganese from the cathode entirely. Current NMC 811 cathode active materials cost about $35/kWh. Next generation conversion-type cathode active materials could cost about $3/kWh."
"Both this next generation cathode, and Solid Power's solid electrolyte, are sulfide based. Sulfur is a nonmetal and is the tenth most common element by mass in the universe, and the fifth most common on Earth," said McKenna.
Are solid-state batteries easier to recycle?
"Solid-state batteries are able to leverage the growing lithium-ion battery recycling infrastructure. Like those batteries, Solid Power's batteries typically contain nickel, manganese, lithium, and small amounts of cobalt," said McKenna. "The same methods for recycling lithium-ion batteries by extracting these metals will also work for solid-state batteries. As such, we don't anticipate additional processes of infrastructure investment required."
McKenna went on to explain more of the advantages, including that these optimized (but still lithium), solid-state batteries could increase vehicle range by a whopping 80%. The company also projects a sub-20-minute charging time going from 10% to 90%.
How many cells/batteries can you produce now, and how will BMW and Ford's investments change that?
"Solid Power produces less than 100 cells per week today in our maximum throughput. The BMW and Ford investment positions Solid Power to produce full-scale 100Ah automotive batteries (we produce up to 20Ah today), increase associated material output and expand in-house production capabilities for future vehicle integration," said McKenna.
The takeaway here is the Solid Power is producing solid-state batteries with, and for the technology that we have now. Those batteries can use existing production lines, allowing for quick upscaling with less expense than traditional batteries. McKenna says that its process eliminates approximately 35% of cost in typical big facility. But it's also ready for the future using safer solids and more abundant sulfur. If solid-state batteries advance as fast as solid-state drives, expect to see them inside the Ford Mustang Mach-E and BMW iX in the very near future.