In the 1970s, in the midst of the oil crisis, British company Whittingham demonstrated the advantage of lithium over the other metals used until then (copper, platinum, nickel, etc.) in order to store more energy with a smaller footprint and reduced weight, while offering a longer battery life. With funding from oil major Exxon, he created the first lithium battery. In 1980, the American Goodenough began to replace sulphide in the cathode with cobalt oxide, doubling the battery's performance by increasing its voltage. But the rapid release of electrons and the agglomeration of lithium ions at the end of the electrodes requires stabilization, due to the risk of short-circuit. This was achieved in 1985 by the Japanese Yoshino.
A sense of urgency
With globalization, where commercial exchanges are intensifying, the world needs more and more energy. Production is accelerating (nuclear, solar, wind...) but new storage technologies are absolutely essential. Currently, we do not know how to store electricity efficiently without losing it during transport (Joule effect). Moreover, with global warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. Carbon neutrality is becoming urgent and it is with this in mind that companies like Total Energy have announced that they will be carbon neutral by 2050. At the same time, sales of electric cars are multiplying, with a rapidly growing market where the number of vehicles in use is estimated to increase by 725% between 2016 and 2021.
Source: Statista – Estimated number of electric vehicles in use worldwide between 2016 and 2021
A major evolution in battery technology
A lithium-ion battery consists of one or more cells, each with a positive electrode (the cathode), a negative electrode (the anode), a separator and an electrolyte. Depending on the chemical components and materials used for these elements, the properties of the battery will be different and will have an impact on the amount of energy stored and power delivered, as well as on the number of charge and discharge cycles performed (called cyclability). Despite major technical advances in this sector, this technology is beginning to run out of steam and new challenges are emerging, such as the constant search for more economical, denser, lighter and more powerful electrochemical systems, with lower production costs.
Scientists are turning to different battery projects, but we will see the one that presents the best dispositions to revolutionize the electric world, namely the solid-state batteries. In a world where a transition in the production and storage of energy is going to revolutionize our daily lives, it is essential to study the progress and projects of these new batteries.
A solid-state state battery is composed of two electrodes in contact with a conductive element (electrolyte) and insulated by a separator. There is a negative electrode (anode) and a positive electrode (cathode). The materials used in the composition of the anode and cathode will change and be made with more efficient lithium and thus positively influence the energy potential of the battery. The liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid inorganic compound allowing the diffusion of lithium ions.
These new generation batteries have many major advantages, mainly in terms of safety, environment, performance and production cost. Solid electrolytes are non-flammable when heated, unlike their liquid counterparts. The battery has a higher energy density, up to twice that of lithium-ion batteries for the same volume, with greater tolerance to overcharge and deep charge. It also has a lower environmental impact thanks to the reduction of rare materials: lithium, cobalt, toxic materials, heavy materials, and hazardous chemicals.
Moreover, lithium extraction consumes massive amounts of water, both in the extraction process and in the evaporation ponds used to produce the lithium-rich crystals. These mining and processing activities are very dangerous and extremely devastating to the surrounding ecosystems. The same is true for cobalt, producing many air pollutants such as uranium, and releasing large amounts of sulfur into the water cycle. Solid-state batteries, on the other hand, tend to use more common and less toxic building blocks, such as sodium, which is abundant in salt water, and is much less environmentally damaging to extract.
In addition, these new batteries offer much better performance such as faster charging - almost six times faster -, much longer life - five times longer -, reduced leakage rates - self-discharge -, and simplified mechanics will allow for better energy management, offering better yields over a longer period of time with a higher power to weight ratio. Finally, the production cost will be lower than that of conventional lithium-ion batteries thanks to the use of cheaper materials, cost-effective processes and high energy density.
Source: Statista – Projection of worldwide lithium demand from 2019 to 2030
The most influential players are turning to this new generation technology
We might not see these batteries in use before 2025, but one can imagine that the first generation could be constituted of batteries comprising of graphite anodes thus offering better energy performance and an increased safety. Later on, lighter and more compact batteries with a lithium metal anode could be commercialized.
Many experts believe that we are on the verge of mass adoption of electric vehicles worldwide. That's why the giants of the automotive sector are working on the development of this battery, more compact, more performance, and with better storage. With this in mind, Toyota, one of the most active manufacturers in the field of solid-state batteries, is working with Panasonic - already a partner of the American Tesla in a battery factory for electric vehicles in the state of Nevada. Their goal is to jointly develop and produce batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) with the aim of reducing costs through mass production and the development of new technologies. A market launch is expected in 2025.
Volkswagen is also working with QuantumScape, considered the most advanced company in the development of this technology. Volkswagen's 50% partnership in financing a factory would give them a significant advantage over the competition in the race to electrify. Their goal is to reach established, mass production by 2024.
Meanwhile, Stellantis has entered into a partnership with Total. This partnership renewal for a period of five years on all brands of the PSA group allows the companies new fields of development on five different aspects: R&D, original equipment lubricants, exclusive recommendation of Quartz lubricants in the brands' after-sales and maintenance networks, motor racing, and mobility and electric charging.
Ford and BMW have invested heavily in the start-up Solid Power. A $1.2 billion agreement aims to generate $600 million in cash over the next few years. This partnership aims to give both manufacturers an advantage in the development and marketing of solid-state batteries over their competitors. At the same time, Hyundai is responding with joint research with SolidEnergy Systems.
Also in the race, Tesla and Samsung, which are working independently on the development of these new batteries.