Legacy automakers are transitioning rapidly into the electric vehicle (EV) market, and they may have a secret weapon up their sleeve: sustainability. The next generation of high-efficiency, low-cost, long-range EV technology is on the horizon, in the form of new solid-state batteries. These new batteries are more compatible with the circular economy, providing fleet managers with new opportunities to lower their carbon footprints while appealing to the rising generation of climate-aware consumers and clients.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are by far the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, typically accounting for 30 percent of overall costs. Cutting that cost while improving performance has been the main challenge for automakers, and they have been rising to meet it.
Costs have come down and performance has come up significantly over the past 10 years. However, this is the result of incremental improvements on the same basic technology, which is based on a liquid electrolyte.
Solid-state batteries replace the liquid with a high-tech ceramic material or other solid substance. In contrast to liquid electrolytes, solid electrolytes use more materials that are non-toxic, abundant, inexpensive, and recyclable, That creates radical new opportunities for engineering sustainability into the technology, while reducing costs and improving performance.
Though solid-state technology is generally regarded as superior to liquid electrolytes, as recently as 2017 it was still significantly more expensive.
However, the costs of solid-state batteries have come down since then. High-end auto makers can pitch performance to car buyers who are willing to spend more on brand names. They can also pitch sustainability, too.
BMW, for example, is keenly aware of the importance of overall sustainability in EV marketing. The company anticipates that savvy car buyers will not be satisfied with the zero-emission status of electric drive. They will also be looking at lifecycle and supply chain impacts.
Last week, BMW announced that it will use solid-state energy storage technology for its “Neue Klasse” lineup of electric vehicles. The primary aim is to deliver vehicles that can go toe-to-toe with conventional internal combustion engines on cost and performance. BMW also zeroed in on overall sustainability as an additional benefit.
“We want to significantly increase the energy density of the cells and reduce the costs of material use and production at the same time. We will also significantly reduce the use of primary material to ensure a truly 'green' battery,” explained Oliver Zipse, BMW AG’s Chairman of the Board of Management.
"The greenest electric car in the world will be a BMW – sustainable from the initial idea to recycling after its use phase. We are developing the battery cell of the future: it will be powerful, safe, cost-effective, and recyclable - from material selection to recyclability after the use in the vehicle,” emphasized Frank Weber, a member of the firm’s Board of Management for Development.
BMW’s timeline indicates that the company is still fine-tuning its solid-state technology. The company expects to have a line of EVs with solid-state batteries in the demonstration phase before 2025, and the Neue Klasse lineup will roll out by mid-decade.
Another early adopter is Volkswagen Group, which has teamed with the startup QuantumScape to introduce solid-state battery EVs by mid-decade.
Forbes contributor Michael Taylor describes how solid-state technology could be a game changer for Volkswagen.
“Despite spending billions of euros to launch a fully-fledged instant range of EVs, Volkswagen still lags behind Tesla in range, perceived as critical in the minds of Tesla fans,” he wrote, “But its shortfall could be switched to an insurmountable advantage by 2024.”
“The result could be Volkswagens, Audis, Porsches and Bentleys fitted with 450-500-mile batteries that are safer and lighter than any current lithium-ion battery and can be fully recharged in 15 minutes,” Taylor added.
The success of the solid-state technology would also enable Volkswagen to shed the diesel emissions scandal of 2015, in which the company and other auto makers were accused of manipulating the results of emissions tests.
Toyota is another company that appears to be convinced that solid-state batteries can hold their own in a diversified auto market crowded with fuel cells as well as conventional batteries and internal combustion engines.
Toyota’s commitment to hydrogen fuel cells and gas-electric hybrid technology is especially noteworthy, but last December the company announced that it is teaming with the government of Japan and industry stakeholders to accelerate the commercialization of solid-state batteries. The collaborative endeavor aims to introduce an EV with a solid-state battery this year, leading to quick scale-up into the market.
Even if all goes according to plan, EVs with solid-state batteries will not be widely available for the next several years. In addition to technology tweaks, the manufacturing and supply chains need to scale up.
Signs of rapid acceleration are increasing, though. In one especially interesting development, last summer the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced a new ceramic formula that resolves the key problem of dendrite formation.
Dendrites are thin, branch-like filaments that form in the electrolyte, where they have an impact on a battery’s performance and lifespan. Though typically associated with liquid electrolytes, dendrites can also form in solids.
The researchers developed a new class of solid electrolytes that suppresses dendrite formation, made by inserting micro-particles of ceramic into the pores of a specialized polymer, or plastic.
Because of the polymer skeleton, the new electrolyte is soft and flexible as well as solid. The researchers anticipate that battery manufacturers can use it as a drop-in replacement for conventional battery components.
Additional private sector innovators are also emerging into the market.
Last week, for example, the Israeli startup Addionics announced a solid-state battery partnership with the leading materials firm Saint-Gobain. The partnership is supported by the BIRD Foundation as part of a broader effort to facilitate U.S.-Israeli innovation that can be marketed globally.
All of this is very exciting, but for the here and now the EV market is still dominated by conventional lithium-ion batteries. Millions of them are set to roll out on the roads in the coming years as startup EV makers shift into high gear and legacy automakers continue to transition into battery technology.
Fleet managers who are seeking rapid decarbonization can, and should, rely on the latest generation of conventional lithium-ion batteries to deliver the goods, at least for the near future.
Considering the lifespan of typical fleet vehicles, an investment in present-day EVs will put fleet managers in a good position to transition rapidly into solid-state technology when it becomes widely available, most likely towards the end of the decade.
Here in the U.S., fleet managers can get guidance on rapid EV adoption through a new coalition called the Corporate Electric Vehicle Alliance, launched under the umbrella of the green investor group Ceres.
With momentum growing for rapid decarbonization, fleet managers will gain an edge if they pounce on today’s zero emission technology, while positioning themselves for tomorrow’s opportunities.
Image credit: BMW Group
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.