Late last year, in a laboratory in California, a minor technological miracle took place. A battery which could reliably power an electric vehicle for 500,000km was made.
That is quite a breakthrough when you consider that, with current battery technology, most car makers offer a maximum warranty of eight years or 160,000km.
This is the promise solid-state batteries hold. They should be more reliable. Safer. More compact. Hold more energy for a given size and weight. They are, not to delve too deeply into hyperbole, the Holy Grail of battery technology.
So, when can you buy one? Ah, there’s the problem…
That Californian battery was a small one, created in a laboratory by a company called QuantumScape. QuantumScape is a high-tech start-up, working at the sharpest edge of technology and breaking genuinely new ground. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky operation, though; it’s funded to the tune of some €300 million, by Volkswagen and the car maker wants to start putting QuantumScape’s battery designs into production as soon as possible.
The omens look amazing. QuantumScape’s prototype battery has been put successfully through 1,000 full charge and discharge cycles. Assuming you can build that technology up into a full-sized battery capable of powering an electric car for 500km on one charge, that’s how you get a 500,000km battery. And it could go further than that. After 1,000 charges and discharges, the QuantumScape battery had degraded by just five per cent, leaving it still capable of charging up to 95 per cent of its original capacity. By contrast, most current electric car batteries will have slipped to 80 per cent of their original capacity by the time they’ve done that 160,000km.
Jagdeep Singh, founder and chief executive of QuantumScape, said: “These results from the Volkswagen Group’s PowerCo testing make clear that QuantumScape’s anodeless solid-state lithium-metal cells are capable of exceptional performance. While we have more work to do to bring this technology to market, we are not aware of any other automotive-format lithium-metal battery that has shown such high discharge energy retention over a comparable cycle count under similar conditions. We’re excited to be working closely with the Volkswagen Group and PowerCo to industrialise this technology and bring it to market as quickly as possible.”
So, we’re done then? We can all relax and await the delivery of our new solid-state battery-powered cars? Ah, not quite I’m afraid. Robert Guy, director of aftersales for Volkswagen Ireland, and a man who helps to train technicians to maintain and repair existing batteries, told us that: “While this is an exciting breakthrough for automotive innovation, there is still a way to go until solid-state battery technology can be scaled up to the levels required for series production. Globally, Volkswagen Group and its battery company PowerCo are pushing forward in battery cell research and development while, here in Ireland, we are number one for EV sales three years running. Emerging technologies will be key to helping us achieve our long-term sustainability goals. However, we are also fully committed to a low emissions vehicle strategy that encompasses efficient internal combustion engined vehicles, plug-in hybrid technologies and battery electric vehicles.”
Translation? Don’t get your hopes up too high, too soon. Solid-state batteries work, we know that. But so far, they work at a prototype level, and haven’t yet been proven ready for scaling up to the sizes needed by a production car, nor necessarily reliable at that level. There’s a lot of potential tripwires between here and there.
Nissan is arguably the company that’s most bullish when it comes to solid-state battery tech. By the end of 2028, Nissan wants to introduce its all-solid-state batteries (ASSB), which it reckons offer better performance, longer life and much, much quicker charging — as little as ten minutes for a full charge from a DC rapid charger in some cases.
The cost of those packs is expected to be much more affordable too. Against a current estimate by the US Department of Energy that a battery pack for an EV costs $153 per kWh (although other sources peg that as low as $86 per kWh) Nissan wants to initially make ASSB packs costing $75 per kWh, reducing to $65 per kWh as production ramps up. That, claims the company, would allow for price parity between an EV and a combustion-engined car.
That would be great, but so far all we have is a promise from Nissan that it will happen. We haven’t seen any proof that it actually will, although on the upside Nissan is a company with a huge engineering base, and one that has a proven track record in electric car innovation. So, there’s hope.
There’s hope from Toyota, too. Originally, Toyota had wanted to use the occasion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to show off a prototype electric vehicle using solid-state batteries, but Covid put paid to both the car and the sports. In the meantime, work on developing those solid-state batteries has continued, but progress hasn’t been entirely smooth. Nonetheless, from 2027, Toyota says that it will introduce the first of its much-vaunted solid-state batteries. If Toyota can fulfil that promise, we really could be looking at a game-changer as Hiroki Nakajima — an executive vice president of Toyota, and also the company’s chief technology officer — is promising batteries with a 1,000km range and a recharge time of as little as ten minutes. That promise has been a little tempered, though, as Nakajima has also admitted that, in the early days, those solid-state batteries will likely be small in number and expensive to produce, meaning that they’ll only be offered in the most expensive models.
So, is this all bad news? Not really — while hopefully solid-state batteries will come to fruition, in the meantime existing lithium-ion technology still has more than a little life left in it. Already, we have a mainstream model — the Volkswagen ID.7 — that promises as much as a 700km range using its largest battery pack (and a still rather impressive 600km range on its smallest one) while Tesla’s cheapest, rear-wheel-drive Model 3 now offers more than 500km on one charge. Lithium batteries might not be as reliable, nor quite so impervious to damage, as solid-state batteries it’s true, but the good news for buyers is that a dramatic battery revolution isn’t going to upend the market any time soon, so it’s safe to buy an electric car now, knowing that it won’t be obsolete in six months.