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Leading battery material executives, who are witnessing breakthroughs in the development of next-generation “solid-state” batteries, are bringing forward their forecasts for the take-up of the technology, previously dismissed as too expensive and difficult to produce.
So-called solid-state battery technology has been regarded as the most promising development to solve the problems of the lithium-ion batteries in use at present, such as the driving range they provide on a single charge and their risk of catching fire.
Although development timetables have been pushed back repeatedly, Mathias Miedreich, chief executive of Umicore, one of the world’s largest producers of battery materials, is now expecting solid-state batteries to take more than 10 per cent of the global market by 2030.
Commercial development at Japanese carmakers such as Toyota and Chinese battery maker CATL “has really accelerated in the last six to nine months”, Miedreich said. “The first phase of industrialisation will start somewhere in 2025-27 . . . we think that already by 2030 you’ll see a market share north of 10 per cent in the mix of battery chemistries being solid state.”
Glen Merfeld, chief technology officer at Albemarle, the leading lithium company, said he expected carmakers to launch vehicles with solid-state batteries in the next few years. “What we’re seeing is very strong movements for mid-decade launches of the early generation, fully integrated all solid-state batteries.
The conventional wisdom in the automotive and battery industries has been that solid-state battery technology was unlikely to make inroads until the 2030s. However, “by the time the latter part of the [current] decade comes around we’re going to see significant traction”, Merfeld predicted.
Electric vehicles at present use batteries that have liquid lithium-ion electrolytes. The electrolyte allows the current to pass through the battery between the two electrodes — the anode and the cathode — generating energy. Solid-state battery technology, which uses a solid electrolyte, has the potential to address an EV’s limited driving range relative to conventional cars, recharging times and concerns about safety caused by overheating.
The comments from the battery material producers, which have visibility on technological development at various companies, follow Toyota’s claim last month that it had made a breakthrough in solid-state battery technology, which would halve the size, cost and weight of the units that power electric cars. The Japanese carmaker plans to commercialise its solid-state technology for EVs by 2027.
Umicore produces materials for cathodes, the most expensive part of the battery, and is an important supplier and partner for European carmakers such as Volkswagen, Peugeot-owner Stellantis and Mercedes-Benz.
Since June last year, the Belgian group has been working with Japan’s Idemitsu Kosan to develop catholyte materials for solid-state batteries that combine cathode materials with solid electrolytes.
Sceptics of the technology argue that the huge investments made for present-generation batteries will make it more difficult to move on to newer technology, since it would mean abandoning tens of billions of dollars invested in factories, equipment and supply chains.
But Miedreich said solid-state batteries would be able to use the infrastructure being poured into lithium-ion battery factories and chemical plants, meaning there would be little risk of stranded assets.
More crucially, he said it “will make battery electric vehicles much simpler from an architecture point of view”, because they would not require the same level of battery and thermal management systems, helping to lower costs.
Other challenges around solid-state battery production include the batteries’ extreme sensitivity to moisture and oxygen, and the mechanical pressure needed to hold them together to prevent the formation of dendrites, metal filaments that can cause short circuits.
“It’s not in my road map for the next 10 years,” said Clare Grey, a professor specialising in batteries at the University of Cambridge and co-founder of Nyobolt, a UK battery technology start-up.
Nevertheless, Shirley Meng, chief scientist at Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, a US government laboratory, observed that after decades of openly discussing their technological progress, Japanese researchers have now become silent at conferences, suggesting significant developments they are unwilling to divulge.
“One of the reasons is they’re really trying to industrialise the product,” she said. “I believe later this decade, something like 1991 will happen again when Sony first launched lithium-ion cells.”