Colorado startup is committed to perfecting its solid-state batteries, improving the price, safety and range now offered by lithium-ion batteries

Casey Crownhart

Even though they are becoming more and more popular, electric vehicles still have a limited range: a Tesla Model 3 can travel around 560km before needing to be recharged. At the same time, safety concerns are plaguing the lithium-ion batteries that currently dominate the market. In an effort to build reliable electric vehicle batteries, startup Solid Power is working on solid-state batteries that can store more energy in a smaller space.

The company has taken a step towards experimenting with the technology in vehicles by starting a large-scale pilot production line to make battery cells that replace the liquid used as an electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries with ceramic layers. The full-size cells that the pilot line will produce are about the size of a small laptopthe same size as what will eventually be put together to power electric vehicles.

This solid-state battery technology is still years away from being commercialized – Solid Power plans to increase production of sufficient material for 800,000 cars per year by 2028 – but if proven viable, batteries could significantly increase the performance of electric vehicles. However, Solid Power will not manufacture and sell batteries, but will supply the solid electrolyte material to other battery manufacturers, says CEO Doug Campbell.

Electrolytic shuttles charge inside a battery while it is absorbing or releasing energy. In lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles today, the electrolyte is liquid, while solid-state batteries use a solid layer of electrolyte that is squeezed between the other layers of the battery to carry the charge.

The new technique unlocks some options for battery chemistry. In particular, lithium metal and silicon chemicals are unstable or unsafe when combined with the liquid electrolyte in the cell, but could theoretically be used if the electrolyte were solid. The result would be a battery that could store more energy in a smaller space, meaning cars could go farther before needing to be recharged.

Solid Power’s batteries could improve the energy density of lithium-ion batteries by about half, Campbell says, so a vehicle that has a range of 560km could go beyond 800..

Ditching the liquid would also make it easier to build safer cells, Campbell adds. Although lithium-ion batteries have been designed with guards to make sure they don’t catch fire or explode, removing the liquid would in turn eliminate the need for these expensive additions. Battery packs, which are made up of many cells together, could be denser because their internal temperature control and safety systems would require less space.

The idea of ​​drawing liquid electrolytes from battery cells is not newsays Lei Cheng, a battery chemist with the materials division of Argonne National Laboratory. For years, however, much of the research on solid batteries has focused on using organic polymers, such as polyethylene oxide.

These materials are cheap and easy to manufacture, but their performance has so far been inferior. That’s why various research groups and startups, such as QuantumScape, are taking steps to commercialize solid batteries that use materials like sulfides and oxides, which have higher conductivities.

But one wonders if companies that produce solid electrolytes will be able to produce them on a large scale. Inorganic materials, such as the sulfides used by Solid Power, can be brittle and can be difficult to move during production when produced in thin layers on large production lines, says Cheng.

Another concern with solid batteries is how well they can withstand degradation over time, especially against dendrites, root-like structures that lithium often forms inside batteries, damaging them.

Jeff Chamberlain, CEO of Volta Energy Technologies, a major investor in the company, says Solid Power faces major scalability challenges, but remains grounded and remembers that the best technology is the one that can be built. The question is whether solid-state batteries fall into this category.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay


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