Sales of battery-electric vehicles have begun to accelerate and, by some estimates could account for as much as half of the U.S. automotive market by 2030. But not everyone is convinced, skeptics pointing to their higher cost, limited range, slower charging times and other limitations.
But a growing number of automakers believe help is on the way in the form of next-generation solid-state batteries. This new technology could provide the critical push that makes BEVs as easy and cost-efficient to own and operate as today’s gas-powered vehicles.
Until recently, solid-state batteries were little more than a lab curiosity, researchers struggling to produce any bigger than those used in devices like hearing aids. But batteries big enough to power an automobile are on the near-term horizon. Ford plans to start field testing the technology next year and, just this week, Nissan, Stellantis and Mercedes-Benz all announced tentative plans that could seen see solid-state batteries put into production — and into their BEVs.
The race is on
In a statement jointly issued with battery startup Factorial Energy, Stellantis said it has set a “target of having the first competitive solid state battery technology introduced by 2026.”
As for Nissan, it announced Monday that it will invest over $1.4 billion to commercialize solid-state batteries as part of its Ambition 2030 program. The second-largest Japanese automaker plans to begin mass producing solid-state batteries in 2026.
Other companies hoping to have the technology in production between 2026 and 2030 include BMW, Ford, General Motors and Toyota.
There’s a mega-billion-dollar race underway to find next-generation battery technology — or technologies. And a variety of alternatives are vying to replace today’s state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. These include chemistries like lithium-sulfur and aluminum-ion.
Some manufacturers, including Tesla, are already turning to iron phosphate batteries. These don’t have quite the energy density of lithium-ion but, since they cost far less, they provide more than enough for limited-range commercial vehicles and retail customers on a budget.
But solid-state batteries seem tantalizingly close to reality. At their most basic, they simply replace the gel-like goop in today’s lithium-ion cells with a solid or foam-like core. And they appear capable of delivering the best of everything, or so proponents claim:
- Higher energy density — translating into more range in a smaller, lighter package;
- Quicker charging times, perhaps as little as 8-10 minutes;
- Reduced fire risk; and
- Substantially lower production costs.
Where today’s lithium-ion batteries run about $100 to $150 per kilowatt-hour, Nissan estimates solid-state cells will initially cost about $75 per kWh, dropping to $65 as production volumes increase. Some estimate the figure could come down to $50. Even at the mid-range figure, that would make an EV “comparable in price” to a gas-powered vehicle, said Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida, during a video presentation.
Clearly, “there’s a lot of potential with solid-state technology,” said Sam Abuelsamid, the principal auto analyst with Guidehouse Insights.
And that explains why virtually everyone in the auto industry is talking about the technology lately. And why more and more manufacturers are beginning to lay out timetables for putting the breakthrough technology into production.
Skeptics remain wary
Still, there are plenty of skeptics. Despite all the recent announcements, said Abuelsamid, “It doesn’t mean anything will happen.” There are plenty of research firms now producing coin-sized solid-state cells. Scaling up to automotive sizes, he cautioned, is another matter. And even then, developers like Solid Energy Systems, Solid Power, Factorial Energy and Quantumscape have to prove they can assemble their batteries at extreme high volumes.
By 2030, President Joe Biden’s goal is having plug-based vehicles account for 40 to 50% of U.S. sales. To meet that with solid-state alone would require production capacities approaching a terawatt-hour of batteries.
All the planned investments, said Abuelsamid, “don’t mean anything will happen. There’s a lot of work still to be done and they have to prove they can produce solid-state batteries at mass production volumes.”
Plenty of “ifs”
The next several years could prove critical.
Ford and BMW both plan to begin field testing vehicles using solid-state batteries next year, with General Motors looking at a 2023 timetable. Nissan said this week that it will open a pilot production plant in 2024, two years before its mass production facility is tentatively scheduled to open.
If solid-state can deliver on its promised benefits and can scale up as hoped — a lot of “ifs” — it could revolutionize the auto industry and, said Nissan’s Uchida, effectively eliminate the reasons why motorists might hesitate to switch to electric vehicles.