Often described as the next evolutionary leap in battery systems, solid state batteries substitute solid electrolyte films for liquid electrolytes, thus eliminating the need for cooling devices and supporting materials and making the battery more stable and efficient. Theoretically, they have the potential to cut both the size and the price of batteries in half.
In pursuit of this technological achievement a host of start-ups have emerged, some backed by big names. However, in the last three months, major tech and manufacturing juggernauts (GM, IBM, BASF) have announced big investments and/or breakthroughs in technologies utilizing liquid electrolytes that promise to achieve competitive results with solid state technologies. Listed below are the companies working on the cutting edge of battery chemistries and materials development, their backers, and announced time to commercialization.
The GM backed start-up announced in late February that it has produced a Li-Ion battery with 400 watt-hour per kilogram (Wh/Kg) energy density and with a mass-produced cost of around $125 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Most lithium cells currently in production offer 100-150 Wh/Kg and are significantly more expensive than Envia’s estimates. Envia expects commercialization could come as soon as 2015. The company’s major innovation is the utilization of manganese within the battery cathode.
One of the biggest single investments in a battery developer to date was BASF’s $50 million stake in Sion Power. Based in Tucson, Sion Power is developing a lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery that could theoretically achieve energy densities of 2600 Wh/Kg. The company says it has created a battery cell with a density of 350 Wh/Kg, and that 600 Wh/Kg is achievable in the near future.
The latest announcement may also be the biggest. In April IBM demonstrated the lithium-air battery, which “breathes” as it derives power from taking in and expelling oxygen from the ambient environment. IBM estimates the battery is capable of powering a vehicle over 500 miles, but the technology won’t be available for at least 10 years.
A spin-off from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Planar Energy has developed solid-state electrolytes that can be deposited as film directly on to battery substrates through the company’s SPEED process. The SPEED process can be applied to a diverse body of compound materials and can theoretically cut battery costs in half while tripling current energy densities. Planar says it hopes to be producing batteries for plug in vehicles in about six years.
Michigan-based, GM-backed Sakti3 is has developed software capable of identifying material combinations conducive to solid state electrolyte structures and is also working to develop mass production manufacturing techniques. Sakti3 is primarily working with Li-Ion chemistries but has been mum on specifics and a timeline to commercialization.
Born from Colorado State University’s Synergy program, Prieto battery is a high tech start up looking to utilize copper nanowires for battery cathodes, anodes, and separator materials. If successful, the battery can achieve energy densities of 650 Wh/Kg and drastically decrease recharge time while increasing battery life.
Advanced battery development will never rival the extraordinary performance leaps and bounds microchips exhibited for the last 50-plus years, commonly described as Moore’s Law. However, the race for the next advanced battery stands to profit its victor so enormously (see chart below), that the race is sure to remain heated.
Portable Power Revenue by Geography (Consumer), World Markets: 2010-2015
(Source: Pike Research)