John Goodenough, the co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. But two years earlier, he announced that he made a breakthrough on a solid-state battery that could mean the end of internal-combustion cars. Goodenough, now 97, is self-isolating from the coronavirus and working on Nobel-related commitments. But the job of commercializing the potential breakthrough is being carried forward by the public utility Hydro-Québec.
The utility company has operated a battery research institute since 1967 and has been working with Goodenough since 1996. Goodenough’s previous Nobel-winning lithium metal phosphate technology is licensed directly to the Bolloré Group, as well as through battery companies Murata and A123 to automakers, bus manufacturers, and energy-storage producers around the world.
Electrek spoke this week with Karim Zaghib, the general director at the utility’s Center of Excellence in Transportation Electrification and Energy Storage. Zaghib considers lithium iron phosphate chemistry to be Gen 1 of its development of mainstream EV batteries. It’s being utilized by the likes of BYD, CATL, and Tesla — as well as a gazillion portable electronic devices (maybe the one in your hand).
But now the utility is working on the latest generation of Goodenough’s new battery technology that could be just as transformative: a ceramic oxide electrolyte. The electrolyte is the medium between cathode and electrode that ions travel across when the battery charges and discharges.
Meanwhile, as the fundamental science is being conducted on the ceramic oxide electrolyte, Hydro-Québec is collaborating with Mercedes-Benz on what Zaghib calls Gen 2, a solid-state lithium metal polymer battery. This is not related to Goodenough’s work. Nonetheless, it shows great promise.
In the case of solid electrolyte, we use a polymer to decrease the temperature from 80 degrees C to less than 50 degrees C. This is what you call Gen Two.
Zaghib told Electrek that Mercedes-Benz, in a 50-50 partner with Hydro Quebec, is designing the cells and modules that use the technology. Because the polymer materials reduce the operating temperature of the electrolyte, the EV battery can substantially increase its energy density while lowering the cost.
Zaghib projects that this research could be put into a production battery as early as 2026.
However, the big Goodenough-powered breakthrough would not come until Gen 3. Zaghib said:
The lithium ion battery today provides 250 watt hours by kilogram. So you can get [an EV with] range around 350 to 400 kilometers (220 to 250 miles). And the lithium ion battery has a liquid electrolyte, which flammable.
But if we switch to solid electrolyte, the electrolyte is not flammable so it’s safe. And then by using lithium metal as anode material, we can enhance the energy density by two times. So, we can go to 500 watt hours per kilogram. That would mean range increasing to as much as 800 kilometers (500 miles). And we could target cost down to $100 per kilowatt-hour for the pack.
To repeat: a 500-mile EV battery offered at the target price of $100 per kWh.
Zaghib said the key is reducing the operating temperature — from 80 degrees C in Gen 1, to 50 degrees C in Gen 2, and finally 25 degrees using Goodenough’s ceramic oxide electrolyte.
He sees encouraging signs in the lab but the challenge comes with manufacturing. It’s relatively easy to control a polymer or liquid material to produce an electrolyte material. But the ceramic material is a different story. He said it’s difficult to make an electrolyte film using ceramic material in a film that’s 20 microns or so. And it also has to withstand 1,000 full charging cycles.
So the revolutionary breakthrough is coming, but not tomorrow. Zaghib explained:
We need a proof of concept that this technology works first. Then we need another three years to scale the technology. After that, we need about five years to find a company to bring these technologies to commercialization. There aren’t any carmakers interested at this stage, because it’s basic science.
The open question is, How long it will take between Goodenough’s 2017 announcement about the revolutionary electrolyte, and when we can buy an EV that has ultra-long-range and an affordable battery? The science takes time.
Zaghib reminded us how long it took for the Gen 1 lithium iron phosphate to make its way to today’s EVs:
We start working on iron phosphate with John in 1996. It took almost 15 years for that technology to become commercially valuable.
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