The Eternal Promise of Solid-State Batteries

The solid-state battery company QuantumScape debuted its stock last November 27, and it promptly soared into the stratosphere—up 256 percent in less than a month. Media reports gushed that the startup was rivaling Tesla and had launched one of the most valuable stocks in the auto industry. Bill Gates became an investor. But then shares plunged 60 percent from the high, “with the trajectory resembling a freefall,” said An investor group filed a class-action suit against the company.

What happened? First, let’s define our terms. Solid-state batteries show enormous promise. They do away with the liquid electrolyte that makes conventional lithium-ion batteries heavy, as well as dangerous at high temperatures. These batteries can be lighter, with greater energy density, more range, lower cost, and faster recharge times. But the stock exuberance hides the fact that getting solid-state batteries to the market is difficult and will take some time. Companies are mostly working on them at the cell level—the battery packs for cars are far from ready.

QuantumScape, a California-based 2010 spinoff from Stanford University that has a joint venture with Volkswagen Group (which invested more than $300 million), said in January that it is indeed making great strides to commercializing the cells. The company said it had created fire-resistant test batteries that continue to function after 1,100 cycles, retaining at least 80 percent of its capacity. “This corresponds to over 300,000 miles for a 300-mile battery pack and over 500,000 miles for a 500-mile battery pack,” the company said in a tweet. It hopes to commercialize its cells by 2024.

Two things sent the company stock in a downward trajectory. One was a January 4 report published on Seeking Alpha, a crowd-sourced content service for financial markets, saying that QuantumScape’s batteries “are small and unproven” (smaller than an iWatch battery) “and never tested outside a lab.” Said the report, “They will likely never achieve the performance they claim.”

According to Seeking Alpha, “Building a solid-state battery that will function at the rates and temperatures needed for real-world applications is hard—very, very hard. So hard, in fact, that nobody has done it.”

Only a few days later, the New York law firm Gainey McKenna and Egleston announced a class-action lawsuit against QuantumScape on behalf of investors, noting a 40 percent drop in the stock price after the Seeking Alpha story ran. Investors have until March 8 to apply to become part of the class action. Calls to the listed attorneys, Thomas McKenna and Gregory Egleston, were not returned.

QuantumScape has made clear the batteries are still in the development stage, with results from testing small prototypes, not full packs. “There is much work ahead of us,” Chief Technology Officer Tim Holme said January 15.

In an interview, QuantumScape founder and CEO Jagdeep Singh said the company did not misrepresent its technology. “The Seeking Alpha story had no merit,” he said. “It read like it was written by someone who didn’t know anything about batteries.” Singh is passionate that his approach, using a ceramic solid-state separator, will succeed where others have failed.

Clearly, auto companies would love to have viable solid-state batteries, and some are reportedly further along than others. reported in December, “Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an electric vehicle equipped with a solid-state battery in the early 2020s. The world’s largest automaker will unveil a prototype next year.”

Toyota confirmed its solid-state plans, but was a little more cautious about the timetable. “Next-generation batteries, such as solid state and metal-air batteries, are safer and demonstrate higher performance than lithium-ion batteries,” said Ed Hellwig, Toyota Motor North America safety and quality communications manager. “We are currently working on the research and development, including the production technology of solid-state batteries, and we have achieved ultra-small battery electric vehicle driving. We are accelerating development aiming for commercialization by the first half of the 2020s.”

Building a solid-state battery for real-world applications is hard. So hard that nobody has done it.

General Motors has also worked on solid-state batteries, but isn’t being specific about its research, instead pointing to advances with its conventional Ultium batteries. By mid-decade, GM expects to have cells that will cost 60 percent less than today’s batteries, with twice the energy density. “We haven’t said much about future battery technology,” said spokesman Phil Lienert.

Ford and Hyundai have investments in Solid Power, a Colorado-based solid-state company. Solid Power CEO Doug Campbell told Autoweek that his company is seeing very good results from liquid-free 22-layer sulfide-based cells. “We hope to see commercially viable production, meaning batteries in cars that won’t cost an arm and a leg, around 2026,” he said, adding that major developments from Solid Power will come soon, perhaps at the end of the first quarter. “Stay tuned,” he said.

Solid Power said its cells have higher energy density than any currently available lithium-ion battery, and can surpass 400 watt-hours per kilogram by 2022. The company said its “secret sauce” is the sulfide electrolyte powder it produces at its Louisville, Colorado, facility. Spokesman Will McKenna said, “Solid Power will transfer cell production to an external entity while producing solid electrolyte at scale.”

Campbell says that hype based on early solid-state results has been a problem. “The battery community has developed a bad reputation for over-promising and under-delivering,” he said. Absorbing this lesson might reduce the expectation among stock speculators for overnight miracles from battery companies. Thomas Edison nailed the issue in 1883, when he said, “The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies.”

Analysts agree on the likely benefits—and the hurdles to overcome. “Solid-state cells have tremendous promise and the potential to solve a number of challenges such as stability when fast charging,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for E-Mobility at Guidehouse Insights. “However, no one as yet has managed to transition from hand-made samples to scaling up both cell-size and production volume to the point where it would actually be practical to power a vehicle. Most people I’ve spoken with who actually know about batteries don’t expect to see solid-state cells in any volume until late in the decade.”

Abuelsamid said that Toyota isn’t expected to actually launch its solid-state batteries before 2025, and GM and its LG partner “are also going down this path, but don’t expect solid-state to be useful until late in the 2020s at the earliest.” About QuantumScape, he said that its design “looks interesting, but I’m not sure it’s actually that viable with the idea of building up the anode while charging.”

One hang-up for workable solid-state batteries is that when they use lithium metal anodes, small crystal branch-like spikes called dendrites develop, leading to shorter cell life and safety issues. Samsung claims to have solved this problem with silver-carbon composite layer anodes. It said last year that its cells could be used for downsized batteries with 500-mile range and 1,000 cycles—with 500,000 miles of potential life. Samsung doesn’t have a timetable for commercialization, though. “The product of this study could be a seed technology for safer, high-performance batteries of the future,” the company said.

“The battery community has developed a bad reputation for over-promising and under-delivering.”

Singh is dismissive of Samsung’s approach, and says QuantumScape is the only company to have actually solved the dendrite problem. Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, its chief battery expert for many years, is on QuantumScape’s board, and said during a Zoom call last December, “It’s incredibly exciting to see these results and what the team has achieved.” Also encouraging on the same call was Nobel Prize winner Stanley Whittingham, a lithium-ion battery pioneer. “It looks like real progress at QuantumScape,” he said.

Despite automaker plans and supplier breakthroughs, there have also been setbacks and ambiguities. In 2015, the British vacuum cleaner giant Dyson paid $90 million for the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Sakti3, a solid-state battery company headed by former University of Michigan engineering professor Ann Marie Sastry.

Dyson was going to spend billions and build his own electric cars. But in 2017, Dyson abandoned at least some of its expensive Sakti3 patents. And in a statement to employees last year, founder and chief engineer James Dyson said, “Though we have tried very hard throughout the development process we simply can no longer see a way to make [the battery car project] commercially viable…. There’s huge sadness and disappointment. Ours is a life of risk and of failure. We try things and they fail.”

Sastry, who declined to speak on the record, left Dyson (also in 2017) and then announced Amesite, “an artificial intelligence-powered software company that delivers engaging and cost-effective online courses and programs for K-12 schools, universities and businesses on its cloud-based platform.”

In a statement to Autoweek, Dyson said its solid-state battery work is ongoing. “We are absolutely still investing in solid-state and continue to work on this technology in Ann Arbor,” the company said. “Dyson engineers are working on cells, materials, and electrodes, which enable higher energy densities, and are safer and more environmentally friendly. Dyson’s research spans the U.S., Japan, Singapore, and the UK. A key focus is the commercialization of Dyson’s proprietary solid-state battery technology. It promises safer, cleaner, longer-lasting, and more-efficient energy storage than today’s existing batteries.”

French billionaire Vincent Bolloré was the driving force behind Autolib’, an electric car rental business, in 2011, using approximately 2,500 small vehicles with his company’s own solid-state Lithium-Metal-Polymer (LMP) batteries. It started in Paris and spread to other French cities, and eventually opened a branch in Indianapolis, BlueIndy, with the same cars. But the French service closed down in 2018, and BlueIndy in 2019.

The company says its batteries, as seen in the articulated Daimler eCitaro G Bluebus coaches and Autolib’ cars, have covered more than 186 million miles. The Bolloré Group remains committed to its technology, and through its Blue Solutions subsidiary has constructed factories in France and Canada to build LMP batteries. Adrian Tylim, head of business development in North America for Blue Solutions, said the car rental businesses served their purpose and proved the efficacy of LMP batteries.

Tylim pointed out that Bolloré has the world’s only commercially viable solid-state battery packs, and that gives it a lead in developing the next generation of cells, which should be able to function at ambient temperatures. “We’re not there yet, but it’s incremental progress that we need,” he said.

Ram Chandrasekaran, principal analyst for transportation and mobility at Wood Mackenzie, makes a crucial point. Automakers might be able to put solid-state batteries into cars by the latter part of the 2020s, but it may initially be as a showcase for the technology—not quite yet a viable market proposition. “They will still be much more expensive than conventional lithium-ion batteries,” he said. “It will take a bit more time for them to become affordable and trickle down to installation in mass-market cars.”

The solid-state space, dormant for many years is now heating up. Other players include Ionic Materials and Sion Power. Will one of these companies produce the battery of the future? It seems likely.

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