Will Solid-State Batteries be the Next Big Step Forward For EVs
The continued development of solid state batteries may level the playing field between traditional and electric motorcycles.
It was inevitable the solution to the problem would come from the automotive world. Toyota has announced it has developed a solid-state battery prototype. Their intention was to showcase vehicles utilizing the new technology at the Tokyo Olympics (which they may still do when the 2020 Olympics take place some time in 2021). Solid-state batteries are, if not THE answer, very close to solving the primary problem surrounding electric motorcycles—and, if you want to think about them, electric cars. Toyota says use of the solid-state batteries will not occur in the company’s cars until 2025. Not really all that far away.
Lithium-ion batteries have long held the dominant position in virtually all vehicle applications. The reasons are multiple. Lithium-ion batteries are energy dense—meaning they can hold a lot of charge for their size. Lithium atoms are miniscule (compared to other atoms) and their size not only accounts for the energy density but also allows for high voltages, which is exactly what you need for transportation applications.
The advancement of batteries from lead acid (like that 50-pound car battery from the old Buick), to nickel-cadmium to nickel-metal-hydride to lithium-ion has followed a directly proportional relationship between lighter weight and higher energy density. Lithium-ion batteries with low maintenance requirements and lack of memory (don’t remember a frequent lesser charge level) meant they became the modern standard for the who’s who of battery consumers.
So what is the big deal about solid-state batteries? There are several big deals but the greatest benefit is a new battery type capable of fully charging in 15 minutes—and those are numbers for an electric car, not an electric motorcycle.
Looking back on the excellent LiveWire we rode last issue, the primary drawback, and limiting factor in universal use of the LiveWire or other mainstream electric vehicles, was the charging time: one hour for a full charge using a rapid charger.
Now imagine a motorcycle charge in five minutes or less. Factor in, solid-state batteries are predicted to have twice the power holding capacity as lithium ion batteries. This is the game changer and innovation that levels the playing field; provided electric motorcycle and traditional motorcycle prices reach a closer level of parity.
Ride for 250 kilometres on the highway and stop for five minutes to recharge and the world suddenly contains greater possibilities. In addition to the fast charging ability, solid state batteries are said to perform better under extreme temperature and can be made more compact than the lithium-ion gel-based batteries of today.
Toyota isn’t the only company with solid-state goals. Volkswagen and Honda are also hard on the heels of the technology as is electronics giant Samsung, which announced its own solid-state breakthroughs earlier this year. Samsung’s battery was 50 per cent smaller than an equivalent lithium-ion battery and had the stored energy capacity to propel an electric vehicle 800 kilometres on a single charge and had a lifespan of 1,000 charges or a theoretical range of 800,000 kilometres (much longer than the actual vehicle life).
For Toyota it is big business as the company accounts for 15 per cent of the hybrid market in Canada and has sold 200,000 hybrids in our country since that first Prius back in 1997. Toyota’s current success in the rapidly growing market is dependent on a continuous supply of lithium-ion batteries and that alone is cause for concern.
The majority of the world’s lithium comes from just a few sources: with eight million tons, Chile has the world’s largest known lithium reserves. This puts the South American country ahead of Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (two million tons) and China (one million tons). But the processing of lithium for use in batteries is from pretty much one source: China.
A steady and continuous supply of the components of this “old” technology is far from guaranteed. The current predictions of continual exponential growth in electric vehicles (let alone everything else that uses the batteries) insure that the world will not have an ample supply, let alone one that’s affordable.
The looming shortage posed an interesting argument recently put forth in this race to electrify the world’s transportation network. Given the current supply and manufacturing capacity of lithium-ion batteries, personal vehicles should not be allotted that capacity, is one argument posed. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions—the mandate of electric vehicles—the argument goes it shouldn’t be passenger cars using the batteries but instead commercial vehicles that tend to travel more miles, run on diesel fuel and emit far more particulate into the atmosphere. It is an argument with merit—if you don’t want to ride a bicycle everywhere.
Batteries are a key to an electrified future but the business has as many geopolitical booby traps as the global oil industry: limited supply, mining ops in remote locations, production strangleholds, competition for components.
Other rare earth metals are also crucial to the process but they have the same problems as lithium, to a degree that the US has created a mandate for finding a domestic supply as well as its own aluminum for which the Trump administration recently hit Canada with a tariff.
Solid-state batteries aren’t the solution for all battery concerns (particularly lithium-ion). Where the supply of materials originates, how to dispose of hazardous materials when a battery no longer functions, where and how the electricity for the battery is generated: these are all big questions.
But solid-state batteries are a possible option. Imagine what batteries might be capable of doing in 2025 or 2030 when they come to market. Imagine what they could do for motorcycles. You might ride across the country on a battery as easily as you do today on pump gas.
In the meantime, where is Mr. Fusion when we need him? The entire device needed only household garbage and banana peels to produce 1.21 GigaWatts of power.
Now THAT was technology!
• John Molony, Canadian Biker Issue #349