Solid-State Batteries: The Key to Electrifying the Transportation Sector

Written by Max Leshne

The single most important challenge facing humanity today is climate change. Life as we know it will forever change if the transition to renewable energy does not occur soon. This transformation from fossil fuels to renewables must take many different forms across different sectors of the economy. In the transportation sector, policymakers and activists have focused on electrifying vehicles. While much progress has been made, there are two fundamental issues impeding this transition. First, the cost of electric vehicles remains too high for mainstream  adoption. While governments have tried to incentivize consumers to purchase electric vehicles (EVs) through tax credits, switching from gas-powered cars to EVs continues to be a major financial challenge for many. Second, the performance capabilities of electric vehicles are still a significant challenge. While much innovation has occurred, safety, range, and charging time are concerns that many drivers have about switching to EVs. How will all of these challenges be overcome? Solid-state batteries could hold the answer. A breakthrough in solid-state batteries, which is close to occurring, would revolutionize the EV industry forever, allowing EVs to drive farther on a single charge, charge faster, and cost less. 

The heart of the electric vehicle is the battery. EVs use lithium-ion batteries and its main parts are the cathode, anode, separator, and electrolyte. Currently, lithium-ion batteries use liquid electrolyte. Solid-state batteries use solid electrolyte. This is the key difference between battery types, which allows for EV batteries to be more safe and efficient (Shaw). Lithium-ion batteries with liquid electrolyte are at risk of being damaged by temperature changes or by a leak, while solid-state batteries are mostly insulated from this risk. Solid-state batteries are more safe because solid electrolyte can withstand damage better than liquid electrolyte. Solid-state batteries are also more efficient than conventional batteries. A leading concern with EVs is their range capabilities. In order to increase the range of EVs, more batteries in each car are needed, but there is a capacity and cost constraint. Solid-state batteries have more energy density than conventional EV batteries, allowing them to travel farther on a single charge. Furthermore, solid-state batteries have the potential to charge much faster than conventional lithium-ion batteries. Currently, it takes around 25-30 minutes to charge an electric vehicle, but solid-state batteries may only take a few minutes to fully charge (Doll). 

If solid-state batteries are superior to traditional lithium-ion batteries in regards to range, charge time, and safety, why have they not been adopted? Actually, they have been. Solid-state batteries allow this very article to be read, as they are found within phones and computers. However, a few issues persist when trying to use solid-state batteries in electric vehicles. The most pressing issue is that solid-state batteries are difficult to produce on a larger scale. Another issue right now is cost: it will take time for solid-state batteries to be cost-competitive. Thus, research and development is focusing on technical challenges as well as driving down costs. There are also technical issues. One of the most concerning technical challenges is the surface resistance of solid-state batteries. The high surface resistance of solid-state batteries is caused by something called the electric double layer (Maia). This is an active area of research, and a breakthrough is needed in order to bring these batteries to market. Lastly, the competition to solid-state batteries could prove to be a tough challenge. There are other alternatives to traditional lithium-ion batteries (and solid-state batteries), such as sodium-ion batteries or lithium-sulfur batteries (Maia). If technological issues are worked out, these two alternatives could prove to be more cost-effective than solid-state batteries. 

What does the solid-state battery market look like? There are many solid-state battery startups, legacy automakers conducting their own research and development, and partnerships between legacy automakers and startups. Examples of startups pioneering solid-state batteries include QuantumScape and Solid Power. QuantumScape has plans to produce more than 200,000 solid-state batteries every year, expecting to bring them to market by 2024 or 2025 (Levy). The company is one of the leaders in the solid-state battery space. Another startup, Solid Power, has partnerships with Ford and BMW and expects to ramp up production considerably in the next few years, eventually building 800,000 batteries per year (Levy). 

In addition to startups, legacy automakers are entering the solid-state battery race. For example, Volkswagen has a partnership with QuantumScape in which it has invested $300 million (or a 20% stake) into the company. The goal of this partnership is to have solid-state batteries ready for use by 2024 (Ugorji). Another example is Toyota, which has partnered with the Japanese conglomerate, Panasonic, to develop solid-state batteries. Toyota has over 200 people on its R&D team and over 1,000 patents related to solid-state batteries. Finally, General Motors is also investing heavily in the technology, partnering with POSCO to help develop solid-state batteries (Ugorji). These companies are a few examples of entrants into this space––there are also many other automakers involved in the solid-state battery race. 

What does the future hold for solid-state batteries? With challenges still persisting, the future of solid-state batteries is hard to predict. However, considering the sheer volume of investments flowing into research and development, it is plausible that a breakthrough is near that will allow for safe, cost-competitive, and efficient solid-state batteries to be manufactured. A breakthrough in solid-state batteries will revolutionize the electric vehicle industry, bringing us closer to a fully sustainable future.

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