The race is on solid-state batteries, the holy grail of the electric car

los Electric cars They are the future of the automotive industry, but the technology needed to manufacture them still has a long way to go: users demand more autonomy, better recharge times and, above all, affordable prices. In the race to realize these benefits, a particular competition is accelerating: being able to manufacture the holy grail of the electric vehicle at scale: solid-state batteries, safer and more powerful than liquid-ion batteries. Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, hit the table last month, announcing that it had achieved a breakthrough: in 2027 it could manufacture the technology on a large scale, which would allow a range of up to 1,200 km with a recharge time of 10 minutes.

The main difference between these batteries and those mostly used in current electric cars is the nature of the electrolyte, says Alexandre Bonroch, a researcher at the Institute of Materials Sciences in Barcelona, ​​who is leading a European project to develop safer and more resistant batteries. In the most common lithium-ion batteries, the electrodes — the anode and the cathode — are immersed in a conductive liquid. In the solid state, as its name indicates, it is bonded to solids that can be of a different nature.

A priori, the leap that this technology allows is a safety leap: when it gets too hot, the liquid can ignite. In addition, Bonroch says, the solid state allows for higher energy densities. Its potential can be easily ascertained by testing cheap cotton: the major car companies – Toyota, Volkswagen, Stellantis, Nissan or BMW – are investing in its development, either directly or through cooperation. According to a report by consulting firm Fact MR compiled by Bloomberg, the current value of the solid state battery market is only $121 million (about €108.7 million). However, in 10 years, it will be worth more than 1.3 billion euros.

“Technology offers developments that allow to overcome barriers,” they note from the Spanish employers’ association of car manufacturers, Anfac. A solid-state battery has a greater energy density with the same cells as current lithium-ion batteries, which is what manufacturers are defending. “So in the same space as the battery, you can increase autonomy with a single charge.” This also allows, if the number of cells is reduced, to provide more space for passengers and cargo. The fewer cells, the less the vehicle weighs, and therefore the higher the efficiency.

Toyota is in the lead

After its announcement, Toyota appears to be leading the pack, and is struggling With the payment of Chinese brands. They defend from the company that they have made pioneering progress in solving durability problems and that they have found a solution to the issue of materials that would allow an electric vehicle propelled by a solid-state battery with a range of 1,200 km and a recharge time of 10 minutes.

Deployment of the Japanese company’s electric vehicle has been slower than that of its competitors. Sales of all-electric vehicles accounted for 1.8% of sales of Tesla and its flagship vehicle, the Corolla, less than that of the Model Y from the company founded by Elon Musk. They have been resisting the trend of electric cars: partly because they have invested a large part of their resources in hybrids with very positive results, from the point of view of sales and emissions, says Juan Felipe Muñoz, an analyst at the automotive consultancy Jato Dynamics. What you do is wait for others to wear out. Take advantage of the sizes they handle, they are the largest in the world to get there with an advantage.”

From the company, they defend EL PAÍS that they are not lagging behind, but that they are working on a “multi-tech” approach: by 2030 they hope to launch up to 30 battery electric models. Although its first all-electric model, the bZ4X, had a hard landing—they had a manufacturing defect in the wheels—the Japanese manufacturer has asserted that this first model is nothing more than “a jump start for the company’s electric car offensive in recent years.”

physical problem

The Japanese company claims to have reduced the number of processes required to make battery materials, and the cost of these can be brought down to the point of accommodating liquid lithium. And Johnrosh points out that these products are produced very cheaply and quickly, which makes them more economically competitive. For the researcher, solid-state batteries are nothing more than a “new trend,” as lithium-air batteries already were, and he points out that there are still many challenges to developing this technology commercially. He says that the efforts of experts in this field are now focused on finding new materials.

The main hurdle in producing batteries is the materials: Those that are produced on a large scale almost exclusively use materials classified as “critical,” such as graphite, lithium, copper, cobalt, or nickel. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Demand for lithium batteries grew by 65% ​​in 20202, largely due to the growth of the electric vehicle, which accounts for 60% of the total demand for lithium, 30% for cobalt, and 10% for nickel. Five years ago, these numbers were much lower: 15%, 10% and 2%, respectively. However, alternatives to lithium are growing at full speed, especially in China, which has concentrated much of the supply chain for sodium-ion batteries.

Indeed, the European Union Court of Auditors He warned last month that a shortage of raw materials – and competition from the US – threatened battery production in Europe. By 2035, all cars sold in the union will be fully electric, and Spain, the second European producer and sixth in the world, is in the tail of electrification, denounced by Anfac. So far in 2023, the market share for new electric vehicles (pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids) is 10.4% in Spain, while the European average is around 20%.

Solid-state batteries could provide the boost the industry needs for the inevitable transformation of the automotive fleet. If Toyota can produce it in the conditions in which it has advanced – and thus surpassed the powerful Chinese companies – “it will be a revolution, because it is something that the industry has waited for a long time,” defends Muñoz, who believes in the ability of the Japanese giant to reach this milestone. For now, investors trust them: since the announcement, shares of the Japanese company have risen on the stock market by more than 10%. So far this year, it’s up more than 25% and is close to a record price.

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