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Solid state, graphene still far from challenging Li-On batteries

With some fearing that Lithium-Ion batteries have neared their full potential, attention is turning to alternative approaches as an answer for electric vehicle (EV) range and price concerns. Solid State Batteries (SSBs) are one such approach, with Toyota and Dyson showing interest, and this week, Samsung has revealed a potential graphene-based answer.

Many think that to truly compete with Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, EVs will need better battery technologies. BNEF has forecast that it could take until 2026 for Lithium-Ion batteries to reach the critical $100 per kWh cost threshold, that would make them cheaper to buy and own than ICE-driven vehicles. If accurate, such a forecast could give automakers cause for pursuing an alternative battery technology for EVs, like those SSBs.

In 2017, Toyota announced that it aimed to be putting solid state batteries in EV by around 2020, while Dyson plans to launch an EV with an SSB for a similar date. SSBs replace the liquid or polymer electrolyte found in current Lithium-Ion batteries with a solid electrolyte. The biggest challenge for SSB developers is in finding a solid material that is conductive enough to be used in large batteries – the critical question that the likes of Toyota and Dyson must answer.

SSB supporters claim that they can be smaller, higher-capacity and cheaper than current liquid-based Lithium-Ion batteries. Sakti3, an SSB startup purchased by Dyson, announced in 2014 that it was approaching a point where it could produce a battery with twice the density of current Lithium-Ion batteries at a fifth of the cost. Sakti3 also claimed that they were also non-flammable and, in theory, could last longer and charge faster – important criteria for considering the total cost of ownership.

SSB energy capacity is also thought to degrade at a much slower rate than Lithium-Ion batteries. According to Ilika, a developer of SSBs for IoT devices, they could increase capacity to 10-years in comparison to the 2-years possible in an equivalent Lithium-Ion battery. This would also enable greater potential for the recycling the batteries after being used in the vehicle, for in home or commercial storage products – as they would have sufficient capacity left, and wouldn’t have to be scrapped because of this.

 

Dyson is aiming to use an SSB in its EV, which it expects to launch in 2020. The British company has laid out plans to invest $1.7bn to build the car, and the same sum to create SSBs for it cars – this level of investment would be more than that made by Tesla between 2012-2016.

But the SSB developers have drawn criticism. Former employee Steve Buckingham described the company’s early patents as useless, saying that Sakit3 uses an unscalable stacked cell configuration. Also notable was the departure of Sakit3’s COO Bob Kruse, who was formerly electric vehicle VP for GM. After only two years at Sakit3, it does look a bit like Kruse is jumping ship from a struggling technology.

 

Elsewhere, Chinese-backed Fisker has also announced that it filed SSB patents, which it claims will help it build an improved SSB design for its EVs. Fisker claims the patents will enable its SSB to work better in cold weather, with a faster overall recharge time.

Fisker also claimed that its SSB would be 2.5 times more energy dense, at one third of the price of today’s Lithium-Ion batteries. However, Fisker says that the tech will arrive in 2023, leaving it a lot of time for this to become vaporware – or abandon the project altogether. This is a long way out.

The proponents of SSBs like to position the technology as a near-term competitor for Lithium-Ion batteries. However, Lithium-Ion has been in commercial production for 26-years, and is ubiquitous in laptops and smartphones. It could take years to scale production volumes of SSBs to levels where they are cost competitive with Lithium-Ion batteries. This seems like a very difficult catch-22 to overcome.

 

Samsung develops Graphene based Lithium-Ion battery:

In other battery news, Samsung said that its research arm, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), had successfully synthesized “graphene balls” that can boost its battery capacity by 45% and increase charging speeds by five times the existing capabilities.

Graphene was discovered in 2004, and is a form of carbon that can be used to develop smaller, slimmer batteries, but with higher capacity. Samsung said its graphene battery could be fully recharged in 12 minutes, where an equivalent standard Lithium-Ion battery would take an hour.

Samsung also reported the new battery technology could also be used in electric vehicles, as it could remain stable at up to 60⁰C, some 10⁰C higher than standard Lithium–ion batteries. The company has stepped up its research into battery technology in the wake of last year’s Galaxy Note 7 debacle. The recall and subsequent withdrawal of the fire-prone phone cost the company more than $5bn, after some of the phones caught fire due to the faulty batteries.

SAIT has developed a way to use silica to synthesize graphene balls like three-dimensional popcorn. Samsung has applied for patents for the technology in South Korea and the US. The graphene allows room for more cathode materials in a battery, and as a result, a graphene-augmented battery can have increased energy density.

Samsung is not the first group to claim a graphene-augmented Lithium-Ion battery. In November 2016, Huawei unveiled a graphene enhanced Lithium-Ion battery, and said it would use the batteries in cellular base stations, which could now be deployed without air conditioning due to their higher operating temperature.

Lithium-Ion batteries were first commercialized in 1991 by Sony. The chemical format is now seen by many to be reaching its limitations in terms of developments and improvements. Although this new graphene technology is welcomed, experts caution that it will be years before graphene-based battery technology is ready for commercialization.

The news will disappoint automakers who are under regulatory pressure to deliver EVs. These new batteries could provide the step-change needed to make EVs fully competitive with ICE vehicles – in terms of both price, operational costs, and range. Such a shift is worlds away from the decades of iterative incremental upgrades to engines, and in comparison, a 45% improvement in energy density could enable an automakers’ EV to take the market by storm.

Most automakers are currently developing EVs, and looking for supply chain deals for the raw materials that will make up their EV batteries. They are also forming partnerships with the major battery manufacturers, to this end.

Notably Tesla has an agreement with Panasonic to develop the manufacturing equipment it will use in its Gigafactory. Given the expense of the factory and nature of the agreement, Tesla is now committed to the Lithium-Ion battery it currently produces at the factory for the foreseeable future. Graphene announcements of this nature could make other automakers nervous about similar commitments with suppliers. They will want to ensure that their EVs are not quickly left behind by a more advanced battery technology.

But we are still a long way away from such batteries being available in EVs. SAIT’s announcement has been met with a degree of skepticism Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, director at energy research company IDTechEx, who said that the world is a long from commercially developing such batteries, and that graphene is still yet to deliver many commercial success stories.

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