Right around this time last year everybody was suddenly talking up solid state battery technology as if it was the key to ushering in whole a new generation of electric vehicles with longer range, faster charging times, and a lower sticker price, all of which would send gasmobiles spinning into the junkyard of automotive history. Well, talk is cheap. Then again, money talks, and right now, both Ford and BMW have something to say with a new $130 million Series B investment round in the solid-state battery firm Solid Power.
What’s All The Fuss About Solid-State Electric Vehicle Batteries
Regular old lithium-ion batteries have done a fine job of introducing millions of drivers all over the world to the joys of zero emission mobility. However, without digging too deeply into the weeds, let’s just say that the technology is a bit more complex than it could be. A more streamlined architecture could trim down weight and size, improve performance, and reduce costs all in one blow.
The cost factor is especially important. Despite significant improvements in recent years, the battery is by far the most expensive part of an electric vehicle.
Battery researchers have been eyeballing solid-state technology for just that reason. The devil is in the details, but by 2017, the US Department of Energy was calculating that solid-state battery technology had a better chance of winning the affordability race, compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries. (Editor’s note: Various industry players disagree with this. The response from them has long been: “Okay, you think you’ve got something better? Show us.” It appears we’re still at least years away from a commercially competitive solid-state battery product. In the meantime, lithium-ion batteries are expected to keep getting better, cheaper, and harder to compete with.)
The Race Is On For Solid-State EV Battery Dominance
Last year, CleanTechnica took note of some interesting new solid-state battery research in support of the Energy Department’s optimistic outlook for the technology. That included a new research deal inked between the University of Texas and the startup EnergyX, which is interesting because who knew that Texas was a hotspot for next-generation EV battery research.
It looks like the auto industry is not waiting around for the labwork to finish cooking. Volkswagen Group and Toyota have already announced plans to invest in solid-state technology, and last month BMW let world slip that solid-state batteries would be front and center in its new Neue Klasse lineup, to be rolled out by mid-decade.
Apparently, that was not just a tease. The new $130 million EV battery investment with Ford gives BMW a slice of the US solid-state battery firm Solid Power. The new round of funding also loops in the investment group Volta Energy Technologies, which has a research agreement with the Energy Department’s Argonne Laboratory, which has been digging deeply into the inner workings of solid-state technology.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers, And The Circular Economy, Too
Interesting! The Argonne research agreement provides for taxpayer-owned resources to help crack the solid-state code and propel the technology into the mass market sooner rather than later. Argonne cited one such example earlier this year:
“Using the ultrabright X-rays of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility at the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, a research team recently observed the internal evolution of the materials inside solid-state lithium batteries as they were charged and discharged. This detailed 3D information may help improve the reliability and performance of the batteries, which use solid materials to replace the flammable liquid electrolytes in existing lithium-ion batteries.”
Oops — did they just drop the f-word? Yes, they did. To be clear, they don’t mean that a liquid electrolyte will spontaneously catch fire. The flammability problem has been successfully engineered out of conventional lithium-ion batteries for the most part. The problem is that engineering for safety involves additional cost and complexity, which could be eliminated by using a solid material instead of a liquid.
BMW has a close eye on the circular economy angle, too. Solid-state technology complements the auto maker’s renewed emphasis on whole-of-car lifecycle sustainability.
“We have a clear roadmap for making the transformation of our industry a real competitive advantage for BMW in the coming years: uncompromisingly electric, digital and circular,” said Oliver Zipse, Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG, in a press release earlier this year.
“The battery cell of the future will be powerful, safe, cost-effective, and recyclable — from material selection to recyclability after the use in the vehicle,” BMW emphasized in a press release announcing its share of the Solid Power investment.
More Solid-State Electric Vehicle Batteries For BMW & Ford
Ford first put money down on Solid Power back in 2019, and the new $130 investment round cements its faith in Solid Power to deliver the goods.
“Solid-state batteries are showing great promise. They don’t use the liquid electrolyte found in conventional lithium-ion batteries, can be lighter, with greater energy density and provide more range and lower cost,” Ford explains. “Solid Power, which uses sulfide-based solid-state battery cells, has demonstrated its ability to produce and scale next-generation all solid-state batteries that are designed to power longer range, lower cost and safer electric vehicles using existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing infrastructure.”
“Solid-state battery technology is important to the future of electric vehicles, and that’s why we’re investing in it directly as well as accelerating Ford’s in-house R&D on next-generation battery technology,” adds Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer, Hau Thai-Tang.
That could happen sooner rather than later. Leveraging previous work between Ford, BMW, and Solid Power last year, the new agreement calls for the delivery of full-scale Solid Power cells to Ford beginning in 2022. BMW is planning on a demonstrator vehicle “well before” 2025, toward full series production by 2030.
Perfect Timing For The Electric Vehicle Of The Future
The BMW–Ford announcement of new EV battery technology is a ringing endorsement for the transition from gasmobiles to electric vehicles. It comes at a good time because the Intertubes have been buzzing with a new survey about people who enter the EV market and then leave it.
The study, by researchers from the University of California–Davis, took a look at the problem of electric vehicle discontinuence, meaning people who buy a plug-in EV but then go back to gas when they buy another car.
“For the market share of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) to continue to grow and reach 100% of new vehicle sales, adopters of the technology, who initially buy PEVs, will need to continue choosing them in subsequent purchases,” the researchers explain.
According to the survey, 18% of all-electric vehicle owners and 20% of plug-in hybrid owners went back to gas, citing: “dissatisfaction with the convenience of charging, having other vehicles in the household that are less efficient, not having level 2 (240-volt) charging at home, having fewer household vehicles and not being male.”
That was just one survey, and it only covered EV drivers in California. However, a JD Power report earlier this year came to similar findings. The report noted that “among the early adopters who own an electric vehicle, 82% say they ‘definitely will’ consider purchasing another EV in the future,” which means 18% of current EV owners are at least considering going back to gas the next time they’re in the market for another car.
On the plus side, the JD Power report found a strong correlation between EV satisfaction, battery range, and the availability of public charging stations.
Solid-state battery technology can’t do much about that not-being-male thing, but the promise of a longer-range, faster-charging EV battery would go a long way toward resolving some of those other issues, and President Biden’s plans for pumping up the national EV charging network would seal the deal.
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Image: Solid-state EV batteries courtesy of BMW Group.