Solid-state battery technology should be the knight in shining armor for the electric car revolution, as it steps in to slash the cost of batteries and make living with a plug-in car just like an internal combustion engine (ICE) only better.
The trouble is, the timetable for adoption keeps slipping and a mass market-ready product isn’t likely this decade, allowing time for other solutions like fuel cells to make up lost ground.
Solid-state batteries promise fast, ubiquitous charging, and enough power to outrun ICE cars not just in the city, but on the fast lane of highways too on the long-distance race to the summer sun.
Solid-state batteries are a work in progress at the moment and the date for a possible triumphant debut recedes as one problem is solved only to unearth another in a kind of high-tech whack-a-mole game. From an expected imminent debut, the introduction date for mass markets has receded well past 2030 for many analysts, and this spells trouble for electric cars because they must be truly affordable by then for average wage earners. After all, by 2030 countries like Britain will have banned the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars, and big manufacturing countries like Germany, France and Italy may well join them, although Germany’s new coalition has held off for now. If there are no new electric cars costing as much as the cheapest ICE ones – say €10,000 ($11,200) – by 2030, a huge number of people will be excluded from the market causing them much angst as they wait for the bus. Manufacturers won’t be happy either as their sales are decimated.
Meanwhile, IHS Markit
Anyone banking on solid-state technology providing the magic bullet path to electric success by then is going to be disappointed.
“This is not likely to be solved by 2030 because the (solid-state) technology must be scalable as well as competent. As current technology stands, no way by 2030 will there be electric cars affordable enough to create the mass market absolutely necessary for net zero (CO2),” said Donald Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in an interview.
Sadoway says solid-state might be by-passed by better technology.
Current lithium-ion battery technology is moving on from nickel-based chemistry to lithium-iron phosphate (LFP), led by Tesla
This still falls short of the cost, range and convenience of ICE cars.
Better batteries are required with higher energy density, safer, and lower costs, and solid-state batteries should in theory be the key. These lithium-metal batteries use solid electrodes and a solid electrolyte and promise to push the boundaries. The problem is that this technology is still experimental. Solid-state batteries have an inherent chemical flaw. They degrade fast after a number of charge-discharge cycles due to the accumulation of lithium dendrites — thin, twig-like pieces of lithium that multiply and can pierce the battery, causing short circuits and other problems. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, solid-state batteries do not contain heavy liquid electrolytes. Instead, a solid electrolyte is used that can be glass, ceramics, or other solid material. Without the need for a liquid, solid-state batteries in theory can be much denser and compact, translating in more range, and are less prone to fire risk.
News reports have suggested Chinese electric car maker NIO will offer the technology next year, Toyota and Volkswagen in 2025, while BMW, Stellantis, Mercedes, Renault-Nissan offer various dates before 2030.
Fitch Solutions doesn’t expect solid state batteries before 2030, which it said will boost energy density, fast-charging and better thermal regulation than liquid-electrolyte rivals.
LMC Automotive agrees the inability to mass manufacture is a key problem.
“Only Toyota appears to be preparing to scale up to mass production relatively soon, but as the implementation date has been postponed numerous times, we remain sceptical of a near- or even medium-term application,” LMC said in a recent report.
Investment bank UBS said solid state doesn’t show meaningful industrialization potential until the next decade.
Britain’s Faraday Institution reckons solid-state batteries will make up less than 5% of global transportation batteries by 2030, reaching 30% by 2040, according to Automotive News Europe.
Solid-state before 2030? Dream on, says MIT’s Sadoway, because the technology is still work in progress.
“I don’t see any development that could make production by 2030. It’s one thing to solve the problem, and another to solve it at a massive scale and have a product at a price no higher than today,” he said.
Sadoway is working on an aluminum-sulfur battery which he says would be cheaper at scale and safer then lithium-ion because it is incapable of burning. He is seeking funds to finance a venture to develop the technology.
Sadoway said the problem holding back electric cars is they are too expensive.
“The capital cost of electric cars is much higher than for a conventional car. Why am I going to pay more for inferior performance; pay more for less? Current technology won’t be able to make the progress required for an affordable electric car. They are attractive, but far more costly because of the price of the battery, the price differential is too steep, and only really attractive to high-net worth early adopters. We will not see widespread adoption under these circumstances.”
“I think this is going to stall unless there is major disruption in battery chemistry for a step-wide drop in the price that will make the electric vehicle affordable,” Sadoway said.
Proponents of solid-state batteries say another advantage would be only 12 minutes to recharge, although that would still be about 3 times longer than an ICE car would take to refill.
“12 minutes? In their dreams,” Sadoway said.
If solid state batteries will take up to 10 more years to be readied for mass production and the market place, is it possible that a rival technology like hydrogen fuel cells, currently perceived as an also-ran for powering cars and SUVs, might jump ahead and emerge as a potent rival?
“Certainly, hydrogen is touted as a possible alternative, but it comes down to the cost of the fuel cell and whole infrastructure for hydrogen refuelling. It could be that a plurality of solutions could emerge for net zero. In some locations hydrogen makes sense. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The whole business of hydrogen is difficult – capital cost, durability, much complexity – and you have to be able to make clean hydrogen and no one has that under control, solutions are not simple,” Sadoway said.
There’s no doubting the electric car revolution is up and running, thanks mainly to well-heeled early adopters, dollops of tax-payer handouts, and in Europe, a regulatory regime designed to make the sale of ICE impossible sooner rather than later.
Electric car sales forecasts now always seem to include the word exponential, but if battery technology fails to make the assumed improvements, many courageous assumptions about the scale of its victory by 2030 will fall short. That is unthinkable for many mass carmakers led by Volkswagen that have bet the ranch on the electric car.