Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory and the Illinois Institute of Technology have created a solid-state battery that could be used to vastly expand the range of EVs, and it could unlock the ability to use batteries on short-haul aircraft and heavy trucks.
But for now it’s a lab-scale battery cell, about the size of a dime.
I spoke with two of the leaders of the research this week.
“I was doubtful in the beginning,” said Larry Curtiss, a senior chemist at Argonne.
He has been at the lab for more than 40 years and knows from experience that initial results might not be repeatable. But he and his colleagues from the two Chicago-area institutions found that their work could be replicated, with the results published in February in the journal Science.
Before I go on, some battery basics:
Most EVs today run on lithium-ion batteries. When the batteries are charging, ions flow from one side (the cathode) to the other side (the anode), and then reverse when discharging. The ions make this trip by passing through an electrolyte, which is a liquid or gel.
In solid state batteries, the electrolyte is solid, often a ceramic material. The overall battery can hold more electricity per unit of mass than current lithium-ion batteries for a variety of design reasons.
Automakers and battery manufacturers are working to develop solid-state batteries. They see the potential for longer ranges due to higher energy density, and the batteries would be safer because they are less flammable than current lithium-ion systems.
The design at Argonne and Illinois Tech is a version of a lithium-air battery, a category that has been around for about a decade but hasn’t yet had a commercial breakthrough.
In this specific battery, the anode is made of a solid form of lithium. The “air” part comes from outside air that flows in through tiny holes in the cathode. Oxygen from the air reacts with lithium ions that have passed through the solid electrolyte. The electrolyte is made from a combination of ceramic and polymer materials—a solid that still allows for the passage of ions.
To understand what makes this battery different, it helps to know that in previous lithium-air batteries each oxygen molecule would react with one or two electrons.
In this new battery, each oxygen molecule reacts with up to four electrons.
Think of this like when you’re unloading a trunkful of grocery bags from the car. It’s a lot more efficient if you can carry four bags on each trip as opposed to one or two.
So why are the oxygen molecules in this battery reacting with more electrons? It’s complicated, and the researchers are still in the process of answering that question. But the most likely answer is that the combination of materials results in an environment that cajoles the oxygen to have the four-electron reaction.
The real world implications of the technology are substantial, with the potential for batteries that could power an EV for 1,000 miles on a single charge. That’s a lot, even when compared to other designs for solid state batteries, and it’s three to four times more than most current EVs.
Mohammad Asadi, a chemical engineer at Illinois Tech, was another leader of the team that developed the battery and a co-author of the paper.
“It’s all about the chemistry and energy density,” he said about what makes this battery special.
For him, one of the most exciting aspects of this research is the potential to develop batteries for use in maritime transport and aviation. Those modes of transportation need so much energy that battery packs have been impractical because of the substantial size and weight that would be needed.
When looking at the potential for cars, the battery could be used for EVs with super long ranges, but I don’t see that as the most practical use. A better use would be in helping to make EVs that have much smaller battery packs than today but can still have substantial ranges. This would reduce a car’s weight and its cost.
But this is early stage research that’s probably a decade or so away from hitting the market, if it ever hits the market. One of the initial challenges would be turning the lab-scale cell into a prototype, which would be about 100 times larger.
In the meantime, automakers and battery manufacturers are just a few years from releasing the first cars with solid state batteries.
Toyota said last year that it would have a solid-state battery by 2025, but it would be in a gas-electric hybrid as opposed to an all-electric vehicle. The decision not to build an EV is a head-scratcher, but it is in line with Toyota’s continuing fondness for hybrids.
Every major automaker is working on solid-state batteries, either in-house or through partnerships with battery manufacturers like QuantumScape and Solid Power. The plans vary, but they point toward having a few EVs with the batteries on the market within about five years, and having a lot more on the market in the early 2030s.
Nissan set a goal two years ago to ramp up solid state battery production at a pace to begin selling an EV with the technology by 2028, and a company executive said last month that the company is on track to hit that goal.
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But there also is some skepticism about the prospects and timetables. The chairman of CATL, the global leader in EV battery market share, said last month that his company was having a difficult time developing a solid-state battery. China-based CATL is a supplier for Tesla, among others, and it has been able to expand its battery ranges and reduce costs while still using liquid electrolytes.
The rush of development activity by the auto industry, and the continuing research at places like Argonne and Illinois Tech, shows the promise of solid-state batteries to help make EVs much more attractive to consumers.
In the near future, EVs are likely to be less expensive than equivalent gasoline vehicles, and EVs should be able to travel for longer on a single charge than gasoline models can go on a single tank.
Or, as Curtiss puts it, solid-state batteries “can make the cars cheaper as well as go farther.”
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
EV Tax Credit Rules Are About to Get a Lot More Complicated: The Treasury Department last week released proposed new rules for determining which EVs are eligible for tax credits under requirements in the Inflation Reduction Act, as John Resevear reports for CNBC. Though the department hasn’t yet said which vehicles are eligible—that’ll happen April 18—the agency has disclosed its criteria for determining which EVs make the cut. Vehicles can get the full $7,500 credit if they meet requirements for where their critical minerals and battery components came from, and if the models undergo final assembly in North America. Sen. Joe Manchin was displeased with the rules and is threatening to sue the Treasury Department because he says the rules are too lenient in allowing a large share of battery components to come from other countries, as David Shepardson reports for Reuters. It was probably inevitable that Manchin wasn’t going to like the rules, which reflect the Biden administration’s attempt to balance the intent of the law with not excluding too many vehicles.
Tesla’s Dominance Fades as EV Adoption Grows: Tesla remains the leader in EV market share based on new registrations in the United States, but the company’s lead is shrinking, as Joann Muller reports for Axios. This was inevitable as other automakers ramp up their EV offerings, but it’s interesting to see which non-Tesla models are doing the best in this increasingly competitive space. The Chevrolet Bolt and Volkswagen ID.4 had some of the largest percentage growth in January, compared to a year earlier. The Bolt’s growth in the first quarter was enough to help General Motors pass Ford to become No. 2 in EV sales in the United States, as the Associated Press reports.
Why Kentucky Is Dead Last for Wind and Solar Production: Kentucky experienced what could be described as a lost decade of renewable energy investment, while wind and solar power have soared in other states, including some other coal states, as James Bruggers and I report for ICN. We looked at how Kentucky’s devotion to preserving its coal industry has led to a resistance to other energy sources that has harmed the state economically by discouraging investment, and environmentally by extending the lives of coal-fired power plants.
Solar Energy Has Outperformed Wind Energy in Terms of Credit Ratings, Hinting at Higher Risk for Wind Projects: Credit ratings for solar project financing have outperformed wind projects across the globe due to more predictable power production and cash flows, according to Fitch Ratings, as Allison Good reports for S&P Global Market Intelligence. Fitch said that solar projects have met or exceeded initial estimates for electricity production, while wind projects were more likely to underperform. This is a bad sign for wind energy developers who are facing higher costs to obtain financing or projects.
Biden Administration to Devote $450 Million to Develop Carbon-Free Electricity on Mine Sites: Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said this week that the Biden administration will use $450 million to put new energy projects on current and former mine sites, as Zack Budryk reports for The Hill. The money comes from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and it could lead to projects that include nuclear power, renewables and carbon capture, among others. This is part of a larger picture in which the Biden administration is directing investment toward communities that have been hurt by the transition to clean energy.