Race for 'dream batteries' speeds up, but are they all they're cracked up to be?
Korean battery makers and auto manufacturers are rushing their investments to develop solid-state batteries that are touted as "dream batteries" for their high energy density and safety. They have yet to be commercialized by any company in the world.
The Kakao outage on Oct.15 was caused by a fire at the SK C&C data center which authorities said is highly likely to have started from spare lithium-ion batteries that were used for an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). UPS allows a computer to keep running, for at least a short time, when incoming power is interrupted, and is considered an essential part of a data center. The batteries were made by SK On.
Various Kakao services including KakaoTalk messenger, banking and payment, were unavailable for more than 10 hours due to the fire.
It was not the first UPS fire case in Korea. A total of 54 fire cases related to UPS were reported from 2018 to October this year, according to the National Fire Agency, causing some 282 million won ($205,100) of damage.
There has also been a sharp increase in the number of fires in other sectors that use lithium-ion batteries. Known for their efficiency and lightness, lithium-ion batteries are used in various sectors that require charging including electric vehicles (EVs), smartphones, home appliances and electric scooters.
A total of 223 fires were reported related to lithium-ion batteries in 2021, according to National Fire Agency, including in EVs, electric scooters, smartphones and drones. There were 131 cases in 2019.
Lithium-ion batteries consist of four core components — cathodes, anodes, electrolytes and separators. The parts that cause fires are the electrolytes that allow lithium ions to move between anodes and cathodes.
“Current lithium-ion batteries use liquid electrolytes so are combustible,” said researcher Park Jun-woo of the Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute (KERI).
“But if we can solidify the electrolytes, safety will be guaranteed and density could be advanced,” Park added.
Not using liquid electrolytes also reduces a battery's weight and volume, enabling more powerful batteries in EVs, which allows for longer ranges. For example, an EV with a lithium-ion battery that can run 700 kilometers (435 miles) on a single charge would be able to run 930 kilometers with a solid-state battery of the same size.
On Nov. 2, the Korean government and the country's three largest battery makers created a battery alliance promising 50 trillion won by 2030. Of that amount, 19.5 trillion won will go into R&D, including the development of solid-state batteries.
Samsung SDI said it is scheduled to complete the construction of a pilot plant for solid-state batteries next year. SDI broke ground on the 6,500-square-meter pilot plant in March in Suwon, Gyeonggi.
If completed, the plant will be the first of its kind in the world.
The battery maker announced last year that it succeeded in developing technologies for solid-state batteries that can run 800 kilometers per charge and that have an extended life cycle that can be charged over 1,000 times. Their commercialization is planned for 2027.
LG Energy Solution also joined the race, developing batteries that can be charged at a room temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. A disadvantage of solid-state batteries is that they can only be charged at high temperatures of at least 60 degrees Celsius. LG Energy's batteries will be introduced by the end of 2030.
LG Energy is also developing oxide-based solid-state batteries.
Sulfide and oxide electrolytes are the two major candidate materials used to make solid-state batteries. Sulfide electrolytes are known as the suitable material for batteries for EVs, which SDI has been developing, while oxide electrolytes are for smaller batteries like those used in wearable devices.
“Many global companies like Toyota and SDI are eyeing sulfide electrolytes for the development of solid-state batteries for EVs,” said Chang Jeong-hoon, a senior analyst at Samsung Securities.
“Professor Ryoji Kanno of Tokyo Institute of Technology, who first discovered sulfide electrolytes, said oxide electrolytes have higher interfacial resistance so are not suitable for EV batteries that need more power and output.”
LG Energy is the only Korean company that is developing both types. LG Energy hopes to start mass production of the oxide-based solid-state batteries by the end of 2026.
SK On invested $30 million in Solid Power, a Colorado-based solid-state battery manufacturer based in Colorado that has also received investment from global carmakers including Ford and BMW.
Hyundai also invested about $100 million in U.S. start-up Solid EnergySystem last year. The automaker acquired an unknown stake in Massachusetts-based Factorial Energy, as well, to co-develop solid-state batteries.
It said it aims to mass produce its own solid-state batteries by 2027 and launch an EV model equipped with its own solid-state batteries by 2030.
Volkswagen plans to start mass production of EVs equipped with solid-state batteries in 2025. The U.S. company invested $300 million in California-based QuantumScape.
General Motors and BMW are aiming for mass production by 2030.
But many experts say despite the promising prospects, solid electrolytes face several formidable obstacles that will hinder quick commercialization.
“Solid-state electrolytes have insufficient lithium-ion conduction compared to liquid electrolytes, which will limit the power of vehicles when applied to EVs,” Myung Seung-taek, a professor at Sejong University’s nanotechnology and advanced materials engineering division, wrote in a report.
Researcher Park from KERI also pinpointed the expense issue, urging that more cooperation is needed between the government and companies.
“Solid-state batteries are expensive because of the raw materials,” Park said.
The price of sulfide lithium, the raw material of sulfide electrolytes, is around $12,000 per kilogram. If that is made into solid-state batteries, the batteries will cost some $587 per kilowatt-hour.
That’s some five times more pricy than the current lithium-ion batteries, which are being traded at some $100 per kilowatt-hour.
“In the case of Japan, companies spend a lot of money and sometimes cooperate with government institutions by sharing their data and research results for the rapid development of solid-state batteries, although they are all competitors,” Park added.
“But in Korea, companies are just competing against each other,” Park said. “We really need cooperation to make this happen.”
Of the top 10 companies that have the most solid-state battery-related patents, six are from Japan, according to data from the Worldwide Intellectual Property System.
Samsung Electronics stood at No. 5 and Hyundai Motor at six.
Toyota and Panasonic have announced that they will release a hybrid vehicle equipped with solid-state batteries in 2025, and a pure EV before 2030. The Japanese carmaker has been developing solid-state batteries since the early 2000s.
Nissan will complete a solid-state battery production facility by the end of 2024, and release its first EV model in 2028.
Honda said it will likely start pilot production of solid-state batteries in early 2024, to release an EV model before 2030.
The size of the solid-state battery market will likely grow to 160.1 gigawatt-hour in 2030, taking about around 3.8 percent of the total battery market, according to SNE Research.
BY SARAH CHEA [firstname.lastname@example.org]