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Shift to solid-state batteries could be 'seamless,' experts say

Recent gains in solid-state battery technology have led certain major electric vehicle manufacturers to boost funding in the research and development of the new type of lithium-ion battery. Although cost and design challenges have prevented the commercial application of the battery in electric vehicles to date, some automakers have set mid-decade goals for deployment.

Solid-state batteries have captured manufacturers' attention with the promise of improving the safety, energy density and range of electric vehicles. Instead of the flammable, liquid electrolytes used in conventional lithium-ion batteries, battery cell manufacturers install solid-state batteries with electrolytes in a solid form.

Alongside potential for faster charge times without the risk of fire, the switch to solid-state batteries would likely do little to disrupt existing lithium-ion battery supply chains, infrastructure or battery metal prices, analysts said.

Solid Power Inc. produces solid-state batteries for electric vehicles and has advanced a silicon, all-solid-state battery to production lines in Colorado as part of a wider effort to supply new lines of electric vehicles, the company announced May 24.

Ford Motor Co. initially invested in the Colorado-based startup in 2019. In early May, Solid Power secured a $130 million, series B investment by both Ford and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG to advance next-generation battery technology.

Rather than overhaul infrastructure already in place, Solid Power proposes to adapt conventional lithium-ion battery manufacturing lines and equipment to produce solid-state batteries.

"The value proposition here is that we can step right into existing lithium-ion production facilities and utilize the exact same equipment [and] exact same processes [to] switch those lines over from yesterday's lithium-ion to tomorrow's solid-state," Solid Power CEO and co-founder Doug Campbell said during a June 1 conference hosted by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Ford expects to shift a majority of its capital investment in lithium-ion battery manufacturing lines to the production of solid-state batteries.

"We look forward to delivering these improvements and working with Solid Power to seamlessly and quickly integrate their sulfide-based all-solid-state battery cells into existing lithium-ion cell production processes more efficiently than oxide-based solid-state battery cell makers can," Ted Miller, Ford's manager of electrification subsystems and power supply research, said in a May 3 statement.

Solid Power has set a target of early 2022 to start pilot production of its high-content silicon anode with 100 ampere hours, aiming to commercialize it in 2026, according to Campbell.

"We're not that far away from having functioning solid-state batteries that work and are reliable," Caspar Rawles, an analyst with Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "Feasibly, those batteries will come around mid-decade, maybe slightly after."

Research into solid-state batteries is not new. However, cost remains one of the main inhibitors to large-scale commercialization of the battery for electric vehicles, Rawles noted.

"As with all new technology, I would anticipate they are going to be more expensive initially," Rawles said. The analyst called the frenzy to commercialize the battery a "race to the bottom in terms of cost or price."

That means the solid-state batteries will likely be used in military drones or high-end sports cars before large-scale EVs, Rawles said.

Solid-state batteries could be integrated into existing lithium-ion battery supply chains and would have a minimal effect on demand for battery metals if scaled up, according to analysts. For one, replacing a liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte involves a limited amount of material, though solid-state batteries have the potential to require less raw material than other electric vehicle batteries.

"That's a very small proportion of the materials anyway, so I don't think that's too much of a major concern for the industry," Rawles said. "And we're still going to be using lithium-ion, as it is today."

Automaker Volkswagen AG has made similar moves and started working with technology company QuantumScape Corp. in 2012 to lock down solid-state battery technology, going on to launch a joint venture in 2018.

The companies entered into an agreement in mid-May to select a location in Germany for a production plant devoted to piloting solid-state batteries. Volkswagen invested $100 million in QuantumScape in 2018 and another $200 million in 2020.

QuantumScape CEO and co-founder Jagdeep Singh said in a May 14 statement that the company hoped to bring its solid-state battery to the market "as soon as possible." The company outlined plans in September 2020 to go public through a $3.3 billion merger.

Still, several hurdles remain before solid-state batteries become mass-produced, said Rebecca Ciez, assistant professor of mechanical and environmental engineering at Purdue University. "We're sort of in this gray zone between fully transitioning," Ciez said.

Some solid-state electrolyte formulations under testing would require additional materials such as lanthanum, a rare earth element, or germanium, niobium, tantalum or zirconium, Ciez explained. That could trigger the need for additional processing capabilities if the battery was scaled for use in electric vehicles. But overall, the materials in solid-state batteries would largely mirror those used in conventional lithium-ion battery cathodes, such as nickel, cobalt, manganese, iron and aluminum.

"There have been aggressive goals," Ciez added. "Some people have said by 2025 that these things are going to be commercialized. But that's coming up quick."