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There is a worldwide agreement that solid state batteries are the next energy revolution. Excitement about the development of this novel and potentially game-changing technology is big. Those invested include leaders in all industries such as cars, medical technology, computer systems, and the Internet. University research is up, and industry investment is strong. There is little doubt that solid state technology is the next big power breakthrough.

What Are Solid State Batteries?

Batteries, which hold chemical energy and disperse it as electricity, have been made of the same basic design since their inception. An anode, cathode, and liquid electrolyte are combined into a container that holds energy and disperses electricity. Ingredients have changed, and the current top batteries contain lithium-ion which propelled the rechargeable battery industry forward and is a vast improvement from alkaline. However, the basic design of batteries has always been a solid container with poles containing a fluid electrolyte conductor.


This liquid battery design dates back over 2000 years, with the “Baghdad Battery” being the first known battery. It was unearthed in the middle east and is composed of a small clay jar, 5.5 inches tall and three inches wide, holding a copper tube, capped at either end with asphalt, and run through with a narrow iron rod in one end. It was likely filled with a fluid such as vinegar or wine and the design could store and conduct a small amount of electricity. So it is fair to say that battery technology has not advanced quickly.


Until now. Solid state batteries are being researched around the globe. There are some in small scale development now and, once they become widespread, they will create a revolution in stored power. Liquid electrolyte-based batteries such as lithium ion are heavy, flammable, temperature sensitive, and limited by their container shape. Solid state batteries are as described; they conduct electricity using solid materials for their anode, cathode, and electrolyte. This eliminates the need for liquid and therefore its container, which opens a lot of possibilities for size, shape, flexibility, and application.

Pros & Cons of Solid State Batteries

There are many reasons to be excited about the changes in stored power that solid state batteries will bring.

PROS

  • They are far safer than liquid electrolyte batteries, they are non-flammable, do not heat up, and many can be used in hostile heat and cold that make liquid batteries unstable.
  • They have a much higher capacity for energy storage, which means they can be much smaller.
  • They also could be cheaper, holding twice the energy at a fraction of the cost.
  • They will last longer on a single charge and charge faster.
  • They are flexible, both physically and in application.

CONS

  • The biggest downside of solid state batteries is that they are a new technology and therefore expensive.
  • Developers are still working out the best combinations of materials and the best way to arrange them in physical space.
  • There will be mistakes along the way (although not likely as dramatic as the exploding Tesla), and those mistakes cost money.

Anytime a new technology appears, there is significant resistance from industries who have often just adapted to the last big shift. There is production even within the commercial realm, but on a small scale. It will probably take a large industry, such as automakers, being willing to take an initial hit to profit to push the solid state battery industry forward.

5 Facts about Solid State Batteries you Should Know

1

Interest Is Widespread

All industries interested in rechargeable battery technology are working on developing solid state technology. Solid state battery technology has the potential to radically change the Internet of Things, vehicles, medical devices, and computer technology. The list of companies invested in solid-cell technology research is vast. Among these are giants including Toyota, Dyson, BMW, Bolloré Group, and Apple. Beyond industry, university research interest is also worldwide as more scientists work to tackle the challenge of reusable power.

2

Tomorrow Is More Than a Day Away

As the leading alternative to current lithium-ion battery technology, solid state batteries are coming, but they are not right around the corner. This technology has been in the works for over ten years already and is just now on small-scale commercial production. Some manufacturers such as Toyota and Dyson, hope to have solid state batteries in their products within the next few years. Whether large-scale production will be successful is yet to be seen as solid cell batteries are just commercialized, and mostly for low power sensors.

3

Development Challenges

Development of solid state batteries is impeded by our inability to understand them. To reproduce on a mass scale, to puzzle out the potential safety issues, and to produce the highest quality solid state batteries, we must understand how they work. The components that make solid cell technology so good also make them difficult to analyze.

The materials used in solid state batteries technology adhere tightly to each other, which is great for the end product but makes them difficult to take apart and examine. Researchers are working to use specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electron microscopes to examine the technology more closely.

4

Cost of Large-Scale Production

As is true with all new technology, cost is one of the biggest challenges. Although the cost of energy is lower for solid cell versus liquid battery technology in an individual level, mass production remains solidly in the lithium-ion camp. It is just cheaper to make and buy lithium-ion liquid batteries, and that is not likely to change for at least a decade. Large industries such as automakers and computer technology, will have to be willing to take a financial loss at first as they shift production from the mass-produced lithium-ion liquid technology to the new solid cell technology.


Factories will have to be retooled, materials will have to be sourced, and workers will have to be re-trained to manufacture the new batteries on a large scale. All this, and the technology hasn't yet matured to where it's ready to be produced on that level.

5

Challenge of Material Selection

Most of the research time being invested into the solid state battery technology is on finding the best materials to use. They have puzzled the concept out and now researchers are looking hard to find a solid material conductive enough to be used in large or small batteries that is cost-effective, easy to mass produce, and flexible. There are many formulas being testing and all solid-state materials may end up being different according to use.


Some batteries with solid state polymers are already on the market, such as France's Bolloré Group power rental vehicles. However, these have issues running at cold temperatures. Ionic Materials polymer conducts at room temperature while Toyota is working on a sulfide superionic conductor that can manage temperatures from negative 30 degrees Celsius up to 100 degrees Celsius.


Toyota's solid state battery can also completely charge or discharge in seven minutes. Fisker says their solid-state battery can hold two-and-a-half times the energy as lithium ion, charge in as little as one minute, and have a range of 500 miles.


Solid Power is developing a lithium-sulfide battery that can run on existing battery production lines. Front Edge Technology has a lithium phosphorus oxynitride that is flexible enough to make thin-film batteries that could be laid over technology invisibly.

Cymbet micro-batteries can be added to a circuit board much like a computer chip and are made of half-centimeter bits of lithium phosphate electrolyte on silicone. Others are working on dynamic variations such as glass electrolytes or solid electrolytes with a small amount of liquid.

Conclusion

low battery notification on the phone
image credit: Unsplash

If solid state batteries are the next evolution for rechargeable batteries and a technology that will change the way we carry and used stored power in ways we find it hard to imagine, then what will it take to move this technology from the niche market to common use? The barrier is capitalism because it is not profitable for companies to make that switch. Many are waiting for the “perfect” solid state battery to be developed. Others are waiting for costs to come down. Neither of these approaches has ever helped push a technological revolution.

Luckily there are always a few companies that have been willing to take the initial hit to move the whole forward. That exploding Tesla was unfortunate but opened the eyes of those in the car industry. Companies such as Fisker, Toyota, and Dyson now understand the need for solid state technology development and will put in the initial investment. As is often the case, the drive within the niche markets in computer technology and medical care will lead industries that touch us all towards a better power future with solid state technology.

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