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How Solid State Batteries Work and How They Would Change Electric Cars

The electric car industry has grown dramatically in recent years and appears poised to continue this expansion. Sentiment is reflected in Tesla’s spectacular stock performance and the urgency with which CEOs have sought to capture value from the EV market, even plunging headlong into controversial deals with Nikola.

There’s also been a proliferation of ways that the average consumer can participate, such as buying “slices” of pricey EV-related stocks or using gamified apps like Robinhood to follow the herd and profit from momentum.

Motortrend reports that the global next-generation battery market will grow from nearly $40 million in 2021 to over $400 million in 2025. Meanwhile, 2019 saw about 7.2 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road globally. Over the next 10 years, experts estimate the number will approach 140 million.

This growing boom in the EV market has created a similarly burgeoning demand for batteries that are increasingly stronger, more durable, and longer-lasting. Lithium-ion batteries have been intrinsic to this rising success, offering unique benefits that include longer service lives and higher energy densities.

The emergence of “green” lithium mining rivals boasting an ability to produce battery-grade lithium without the byproduct of carbon dioxide is gaining attention. So is the declining price of lithium-ion batteries: prices have declined by almost 90% over the last decade.

However, these batteries also pose many challenges.

Lithium-ion batteries are inefficient. A big problem is that they offer only a limited driving range on a single charge. Further, the charging time is longer than most drivers find reasonable. The impact of this flaw only increases in magnitude as consumer demands from their vehicles and the needs of the EV industry to accommodate continue to evolve.

How Electric Batteries Work

What primarily distinguishes EVs from standard gasoline-powered vehicles is that EVs contain an electric-traction motor in place of the internal-combustion engine that runs gas-powered vehicles. Every EV contains a traction battery pack that it uses to store the energy it requires to operate.

This battery pack is what EV operators must plug into charging stations periodically in order to keep their vehicles powered. The efficiency of the battery used is a key determinant of the vehicle's range and performance and, therefore, of its viability with consumers.

There are four types of batteries most commonly used in EVs:

     Lithium-ion

     Nickel-metal hydride

     Lead-acid

     Ultracapacitors.

Nickel-metal hydride batteries and ultracapacitors are inexpensive but offer too short of a life cycle for practical use, while nickel-metal hydrides and lead-acid batteries offer too narrow of a temperature-range for optimum performance. By contrast, lithium-ion batteries excel in all of these areas, as well as offering a decent weight and energy-efficiency. For this reason, lithium-ion batteries have become, by far, the most commonly used batteries in EVs.

Unfortunately for the EV industry, however, one of the biggest concerns consumers have with adopting EVs over the standard internal-combustion-engine vehicles is the periodic reports of lithium-ion batteries exploding in EVs. What causes this potential flammability are the liquid organic electrolytes (LEs) used in most lithium-ion batteries.

There are other issues, however. Efforts to improve lithium-ion batteries to meet the growing needs of EVs to compete with the power and performance of internal-combustion engines have only increased the array of challenges they pose.

How Solid-state Batteries Work and What Makes Them Different Than Other Batteries

Solid-state batteries, also known as all-solid-state batteries (ASSBs,) substitute solid electrolytes (SEs) for LEs. This makes them nonflammable and, therefore, a promising substitute for lithium-ion batteries in EVs.

Solid-state batteries also have a wider operating temperature than lithium-ion batteries, making them perform more stably in different conditions. The solid-to-solid contact between the lithium metal and the electrolyte also reduces the risk of lithium dendrites, one of the major causes of safety concern with EVs.

By creating a solid physical barrier between cathodes and anodes, solid-state batteries allow for bipolar electrode configurations that can better optimize energy density. This allows them to make better use of limited space, facilitating smaller battery casings and, thereby, making EVs lighter, faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

Recent Advances in Electric Batteries

Recently, Toyota Motor Company announced a prototype of a solid-state battery that could revolutionize the EV industry. It is estimated to yield a range of 300 miles with a charging time of only about 10 minutes. With no hulking heating and cooling system to maintain, this upcoming Toyota solid-state battery prototype is promised to retain 80% of its capacity for about 240,000 miles, or 800 cycles. Additionally, it won’t be prone to spontaneous combustion. In its December 2020 announcement of the prototype, Toyota said it should be ready to unveil before the end of 2021.

As charging time and range are the two largest obstacles to the public at large, this new technology could be a game-changer. Motortrend likens this innovation to an electric starter for EVs and says it would finally subvert the remaining advantages of internal-combustion engines.

Toyota has also recently announced an electric SUV soon to be released in the European auto market. With over 1,000 patents already for solid-state battery technology alone, Toyota estimates it will start installing solid-state batteries in its new vehicles in production by 2025.

Nissan, meanwhile, is also developing a solid-state battery that, by 2028, the company estimates it will start installing in what it calls a “non-simulation vehicle.”

Another company, QuantumScape, in California, has partnered strategically with Volkswagen to create its own solid-state battery cell. As of the new year, this project, too, has yielded encouraging progress.

Samsung is working on a solid-state battery using carbon rather than lithium, promising a potential range of 500 miles per cycle while taking up half the space of a lithium-ion battery of today.

Other major car companies jumping into the electric battery game include BMW, Ford, and Mercedes.

Why Electric Batteries Matter

Nissan and Toyota are both Japanese companies clearly benefiting from that government’s fund of approximately $19 billion (2 trillion yuan) to aid in the development of decarbonization technology, including, in large part, solid-state battery technology.

This illustrates at least one country’s recognition of the relevance of the link between climate change and internal combustion engines, between reducing harmful carbon in the atmosphere and electric-battery technology. Meanwhile, two major Japanese oil and mining companies are now working to produce solid electrolyte.

Becoming More Mainstream

Broadly, consumers recognize the benefit of EVs over internal-combustion vehicles when it comes to the environment. But they're still not quite ready to adopt the technology en-masse due to remaining technological limitations. With the advent of solid-state batteries, however, that widespread perspective may be about to change.

In all, solid-state batteries will make EVs more accessible to the mainstream consumer auto marketplace by reducing the cost to build, and therefore the cost to sell, electric vehicles while vastly improving their efficiency through faster charging times and their safety by eliminating flammable liquids from the system.

Article By: Guest Author