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Is this the next breakthrough in electric vehicle battery technology?

December 15th 2020

We could be about to see the next breakthrough moment in battery technology, leading to another leap forwards in the development of electric vehicles [1]. A new type of battery, known as ‘solid-state’ lithium-ion, could be on the verge of commercial viability, leading to lighter vehicles with better range.

Traditional liquid lithium-ion technology

Most electric vehicles, including electric cars, e-bikes and e-scooters use lithium-ion batteries. This technology is still relatively new, having been developed in the early 1990s [2].

These batteries use a liquid electrolyte which serves well in meeting the performance requirements of an electric vehicle. Lithium-ion batteries have achieved a level of energy density, reliable recharging performance and temperature tolerance which has made possible the mass production of electric cars, bicycles and e-scooters.

They still have shortcomings though. Over time and given enough recharging cycles, the battery performance can degrade to the point where in the end it can’t do its job properly.

You may be familiar with the experience of a mobile phone battery losing its power capacity over time. In very rare cases (estimated at one in 10 million [3]), lithium-ion battery cells can also overheat and ignite – there have been various cases of manufacturers having to recall products as diverse as laptops and cars due to concerns about overheating [4,5].

NEW solid-state lithium-ion technology

Now a company called QuantumScape is reported to have produced a viable solid-state battery that can reach 80% charge capacity in just 15 minutes, retain its power over multiple recharge cycles and, perhaps most importantly, achieve energy density of nearly double the best current liquid lithium-ion batteries [1].

This is fantastic news, and could very well herald more powerful, more efficient and lighter electric vehicles. In time, it seems likely that the cost of producing them will fall to at least equivalent levels currently seen in traditional liquid lithium-ion batteries.

[6]

However, we’re not likely to see these solid-state batteries appearing in our consumer goods and vehicles for a little while yet – QuantumScape has only produced single battery cell so far, not a full-scale operating battery.

Building a full-scale battery presents new engineering challenges, while scaling manufacture up to mass production levels will be another hurdle to overcome. But with big motor vehicle brands like VW and Toyota all partnering with solid-state technology developers like QuantumScape, or developing their own versions of the technology, it seems that we won’t have to rely upon a (well-funded) start-up company to do all the heavy lifting.

Nevertheless, with a growing recognition of the public health and environmental need to clean up our transport ecosystem, it’s good to know that the next break-through in product performance could be on its way.

Sources

[1] https://www.wired.com/story/quantumscape-solid-state-battery/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium-ion_battery#History

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923611/domestic-battery-energy-storage-systems.pdf (p7)

[4] https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/10/bmw-issues-recall-for-all-its-plug-in-hybrid-cars/

[5] https://www.uk-afi.org/product-recall/2014-04-01/lenovo-thinkpad

[6] https://www.quantumscape.com/ 

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