by Rhodilee Jean Dolor
The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based affiliate of the Organisation for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD), has reported that despite the COVID pandemic that affected car sales, 3 million new electric vehicles (EVs) were registered last year. The figure marks an increase of 41% from the number recorded in 2019.
IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021, which was published in April, also predicted that the number of four-wheeled electric cars worldwide could breach 230 million by the end of the decade if governments set their eyes on meeting international energy and climate goals.
The projection appears on track. The number of electric cars sold in the first quarter of 2021 was nearly 2.5 times more than the sales made during the same period in 2020.
Lithium-Ion Battery and Solid-State Battery
As electric-powered vehicles become more mainstream, manufacturers are now looking at improving the efficiency and safety of their power sources by developing the next-generation battery for EVs.
Electric vehicles and most hybrid cars currently rely on large lithium-ion batteries that weigh as much as 1,400 pounds. These cells take more than an hour to recharge and lose nearly a third of their capacity within a decade. These batteries also limit the travel range of EVs and are made of flammable materials that pose safety risks.
Addressing these issues can spell massive adoption of electric vehicles. In addition, a breakthrough in EV batteries can transform the industry because it will make electric cars faster, more efficient and even cheaper.
A potential solution is the so-called solid-state battery. Instead of using liquid electrolytes to transport lithium ions between electrodes, solid-state batteries use solid electrolytes. They allow ultrafast charging, reduce risks of battery fires, and improve cycle life.
Solid-state batteries also hold promise in multiplying energy density, a measure of the energy that a battery can deliver relative to its weight.
Solid-state batteries thus make a better alternative than the conventional power source currently used in electric vehicles. Unfortunately, one that delivers the promised solutions to lithium-ion battery woes has been elusive.
Startups Developing Solid-State Batteries
A startup backed by Bill Gates and German carmaker Volkswagen claims to have developed a solid-state battery that addresses the shortcomings of lithium-ion batteries.
According to California-based QuantumScape, its battery can increase the range of electric vehicles by as much as 50% and requires less than 15 minutes to recharge. The firm also says its battery is non-combustible, so it is safer than conventional batteries. The cell is also just about the size and thickness of a playing card.
“There were five key problems we wanted to solve. We wanted to double the energy density, so increase the range of a car on a single charge. Faster charging to be comparable to refilling a gasoline-powered car. Safer, longer life and ideally lower cost,” QuantumScape Chief Executive Officer Jagdeep Sing said in an interview at the Bloomberg Green Summit.
Optimism over the company’s technology helped fuel a stock price rally in December, but to date, QuantumScape has not yet released a working product commercially. It also remains secretive about the details of its battery, prompting speculations that it is a pump and dump scheme. After hitting an all-time high in December, the startup’s stock now hovers at just $30, a massive drop from its record high of over $130.
Another startup is also making waves in solid-state battery development. Solid Power uses sulfide-based battery cells designed to lower costs, increase the range and boost the safety of electric vehicles. The firm has already started producing prototype batteries and partnered with notable carmakers, including Ford, BMW and Hyundai.
Last month, Ford announced that by 2022, it will receive batteries from Solid Power for testing and integration into its future cars.
“By simplifying the design of solid-state versus lithium-ion batteries, we’ll be able to increase vehicle range, improve interior space and cargo volume and ultimately deliver lower costs and better value for customers,” said Ted Miller, Ford’s manager of electrification subsystems and power supply research.
Japan Supports Development Of Solid-State Batteries
Japan is also pushing for the development of the technology. The government has allocated a budget of around $19 billion as a decarbonization fund and a significant part of this budget supports the development of solid-state batteries.
Japanese firms benefit from the initiative. Toyota is now developing a solid-state battery and aims to sell the world’s first electric vehicle that runs on the technology. The world’s largest carmaker, in partnership with Panasonic, now has thousands of patents on solid-state battery.
Another Japanese car company, Nissan, is also working on a similar project, and industrial firms Mitsui Kinzoku and Idemitsu Kosan are now building the infrastructure for producing solid electrolytes.
Battery of Future EVs
Despite progress in the development of solid-state batteries, experts point out the hurdles in producing these power sources for electric vehicles.
According to Jeff Sakamoto, a mechanical engineer from the University of Michigan who specializes in energy storage, a significant knowledge gap on the fundamental mechanical properties of lithium-metal solid-state batteries still exists.
“I am astonished at how little is known about the mechanical behavior of lithium metal and how the physics of lithium affects the feasibility of solid-state batteries,” Sakamoto said in an interview with Wired. “I don’t know to what extent these knowledge gaps will affect the widespread adoption of lithium-metal solid-state batteries. But the more we know about the fundamental behavior, the better the transition to wide-scale adoption.”
It may still be a long way to go before solid-state battery-powered vehicles ply the roads. Still, when the time comes, it can validate the efforts being done to develop the next generation of power supply that can make the EVs of the future more efficient, safer and more cost-effective.