Despite the solid-state battery hype, the lithium-ion batteries powering today’s EVs are pretty good. And they could get even better.+ READ ARTICLE
Many industry observers say we’re going to need better battery technology to fully phase out gasoline-powered cars, with EVs that juice up faster and drive farther on every charge finally convincing the last battery skeptics to go electric. Recently, much of the hype over what that next generation EV power source technology will be has coalesced around solid-state batteries—the assumption is that the EVs we will be driving in 10 years will be powered by this new technology.
Making them in large quantities, and cheaply, however, has proved difficult for years. But news that some companies, including Chinese battery manufacturer CATL and Toyota are nearing production of solid-state batteries has given experts some hope. Still, some influential members of the EV industry are betting that the new technology is never going to take off in a big way.
The lithium-ion batteries powering today’s EVs are pretty good. They’re cheap, and getting cheaper. They can deliver on the order of 300-400 miles of range, and can be charged up in a matter of 20 minutes. There’s already huge global manufacturing capacity to produce them, with annual output expected to more than quadruple from 2022 levels by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
Gene Berdichevsky, the co-founder and CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies and an early employee at Tesla, is among those who are skeptical that solid-state batteries are going to upset that paradigm. “Solid-state technology is like fuel-cell cars,” Berdichevsky says. “We’ll put some on the road. And it’ll be meaningless from a global production capacity [standpoint].”
Solid-state batteries work along many of the same principles as lithium-ion batteries, except instead of using a liquid solution as an electrolyte (the component that transfers ions between the battery’s positive and negative electrodes, creating the battery’s charge), they use a solid. That increases the battery energy density, meaning that batteries can be smaller and lighter, allowing manufacturers to make EVs with longer range. Those batteries can also handle higher voltages to charge faster, and have a reduced risk of catching fire.
Berdichevsky has a horse in this race. Sila Nanotechnologies is marketing a technology that replaces conventional graphite battery anodes with a nanoengineered silicon material. Making this switch, the company says, can improve battery performance by 20%, with potential for the chemistry—which can store more lithium ions than graphite and move them across the battery’s membrane faster—to double those improvements in future years. He makes a compelling case that his technology, or technologies like his, could steal solid-state’s thunder.
That’s because solid-state batteries will require a completely different production system than conventional lithium-ion batteries. Manufacturers are already making huge investments in factories to produce more of these legacy batteries as EV adoption rapidly scales up around the world. So, technologies like Sila’s—which can be slotted into existing facilities to improve battery performance, rather than requiring manufacturers to build whole new facilities—could have a big advantage, even if they don’t immediately deliver on all of solid-state’s theoretical improvements.
On Dec. 11, Sila signed a commercial agreement with Panasonic, one of the world’s largest EV battery-makers, to supply the giant with silicon anode materials. (Sila declined to say how much battery material they are delivering, or at what price. They say they’ll start production of the anode material in 2025.) Berdichevsky takes that deal, along with a supply deal his company signed with Mercedes last year, as some confirmation of his perspective: that incremental developments with lower upfront costs are going to win out over a wholesale technological shift. Other carmakers are also looking for improvements with silicon, with both GM and Porsche looking to roll out vehicles with silicon batteries in the near future.
Berdichevsky cites the case of Solyndra, which promised to deliver next generation thin-film solar panels in the late 2000s. Theoretically, the company’s technology had a lot to offer over the established solar technology. But in practice, Solyndra struggled to outcompete the ever-growing economies of scale of an already huge conventional manufacturing base, and it filed for bankruptcy in 2011. A similar dynamic, Berdichevsky says, could play out in solid-state.
“History doesn’t always repeat itself,” he says. “But it sure as hell rhymes when it comes to technology development.”