Brussels wants that in 2035 not a single combustion car leaves the dealerships of the EU, which implies that the future of the automotive industry will pass – at least to a large extent and at the expense of how other formulas evolve – by electricity. The question is: What will be the future of electric vehicles (EV)? The question is not minor. A little more than a decade after the turn proposed by the EU, EVs still carry important weaknesses such as their autonomy, which deters part of the market, charging time or even costs.
For part of the industry, the answer to these weak points and how the future of EVs should be combined lies in solid-state batteries. The latest example has just been left by Nissan, which has decided to ally with NASA and promote a pilot plant in 2024 to manufacture them as early as 2028.
What are solid state batteries? Basically —and as detailed in Motor Pasion— solid-state batteries are an evolution of the lithium-ion batteries that we can find today in VEs like those of Tesla, although, yes, with important improvements. The key lies in the electroliter they use. In the lithium-ion batteries it is a liquid and in the new ones that brands like Nissan are trying to move forward, it is a solid material. For example, gold nanowires wrapped in manganese and immersed in gel or glass electroliter. It may seem like a minor change, but it’s key for cars.
Over time and as they are charged and discharged, the liquid lithium in conventional batteries ends up solidifying and this deteriorates the separation between the electrodes. Outcome? A loss of performance, overheating and even short circuits or, in the worst case, an explosion. Solid-state devices prevent this deterioration, which lengthens their useful life and offers greater security; and they also achieve relevant improvements in some of the weak points that electric cars now present, such as autonomy or charging time.
Who talked about autonomy anxiety? Although we are increasingly willing to switch to electric mobility, car manufacturers continue to find themselves with two great workhorses. And none seem related to prices. Buyers are concerned about the scarcity of charging points and the limited range of EVs. To resolve the first issue, the EU or the US have begun to get their act together. For the second, known as “autonomy anxiety”, steps have also been taken. And solid batteries could prove key.
Solid glass electrolyte tests conducted by John B. Goodenough’s team show that the batteries show significant improvements over lithium-ion batteries of the same size: they increase their charge density, store more energy, and operate even at higher temperatures. -20ºC environment. Thanks to their advantages, the new devices provide greater autonomy and safety with a reduced recharging time. Goodenough concludes that solid-state batteries store three times as much energy and can fill up relatively quickly.
Plus security… and costs. Greater autonomy and shorter recharging time are not the only advantages that solid-state batteries promise. There would be others that explain the interest that the industry has shown in its development over the last few years: safety and cost. Its electroliter is non-flammable and prevents the growth of dendrites, a problem that lithium-ion batteries do face and can lead to short circuits or even fires. Its temperature is also more easily controlled and allows for simpler cooling systems.
Greater security… And lower costs. Some estimates put it that, once we manage to manufacture the new cells on a large scale, they will cost less than half the cost of lithium-ion batteries to produce. Specifically, they will represent 40% of the current bill. Nissan, one of the latest companies to make a strong commitment to technology and wants to have a pilot production line as early as 2024, estimates that it will be able to reduce the cost of batteries from $75 to $65 per kilowatt-hour, which , he reasons, “would put the EV on the same cost level as a gasoline vehicle.”
In short: the promise to iron out the weak spots. The long list of promises of solid-state batteries does not stop there. Their higher energy density—some estimates put up to 70% more energy per unit volume—makes it possible to make smaller and lighter batteries, which would solve EV weight problems. From there, the companies’ calculations vary, but they always draw a much more comfortable scenario than the one currently offered by lithium-ion batteries. Mercedes-Benz believes that they will double the current energy capacity with greater useful life and Volkswagen estimates that the autonomy will increase by 30%.
The manufacturer’s bet. With these promises on the table, it is not difficult to understand that over the last few years some of the main manufacturers have embarked on the development of new technology. One of the last to bet heavily has been Nissan, which aspires, he says, to “change the rules of the game”; but the Japanese brand is far from alone in the race for solid-state batteries. Toyota, Volkswagen, Stellantis, BMW, Renault or Daimler, Hyundai-Kia have also decided to explore its advantages. Nio even announced that he would offer them this year.
In general, manufacturers are confident that they will be able to equip their EVs with solid-state batteries before the end of the decade. In January, for example, Gill Pratt, director of the Toyota Research Institute, pointed out that the Japanese multinational will have equipped cars before 2025. Nissan speaks of 2028 and Stellantis points to 2026. Others, such as Hyndai, are more conservative and prefer not to set current dates. Its advantages, higher level of security and efficiency, have also caught the attention of smartphone manufacturers, such as Samsung.
Juicy promises… complex challenges. The promises of solid-state batteries are attractive, to be sure; but no one said the path was easy. To achieve their objectives, manufacturers have a fundamental challenge: to find an appropriate material for the solid electrolyte, with adequate conductivity and that also allows its large-scale production. Efforts are now focused on solid inorganic, organic or polymeric electrolytes and, perhaps the most promising line of work, hybrids. The challenge is to find a solution that offers a balance between stability, security, performance and, above all, ease of manufacture.
Proof that the challenge is anything but simple is the confession made last month by Henrik Fisker, an expert in electric cars, to Business Insider: “90% can be achieved, but the last 10 has to be invented and nobody knows if it can work and if it could be scaled.” In his opinion, it will be very difficult to see any new technology at a significant production level before 2030.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism