The Solid-State Race:
Automakers Reach for Battery Breakthrough
GM is the latest company to team-up with a battery
start-up in a bid to develop a solid-state vehicle battery.
By Dan Gearino
March 19, 2021
Mark Reuss, General Motors
president speaks at their Detroit- Hamtramck assembly plant on Jan.
27, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP
via Getty Images Related
• Automakers are pairing off with
battery companies to try to win the race to develop an electric
vehicle battery that costs less and has a much longer range.
The quest is for a “solid-state” battery, a technology that uses a
solid substance to transfer lithium ions in a form that weighs less
and takes up less space than current batteries that use liquids and
General Motors said
last week that it has a development
agreement with Solid Energy Systems, or SES, of Singapore, a maker of
solid-state batteries, that aims to produce a battery for electric
cars by 2023 and have a version to sell to consumers by some later
date. Volkswagen, Daimler and others also are betting on solid-state
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The competition to develop a solid-state battery is about gaining an
advantage in a fast-approaching era when many more consumers are going
to be buying their first EVs, part of a transition from an auto
industry that runs mostly on gasoline and diesel to one that runs
mostly on electricity. Legacy automakers are hoping that their battery
partners will give them an edge and help to close the gap with Tesla,
the EV powerhouse that, notably, has not announced any solid-state
“There are lots of approaches being taken that are trying to achieve
the same goals: increasing energy density, lower cost and higher
performance,” said James Frith, head of energy storage for
BloombergNEF, about the solid-state race. “In essence, the question is
really who can build these cells in a cost effective manner at scale
The switch to EVs is happening in large part because of policy changes
to address climate change, like the much stricter emissions rules
being implemented in the European Union. Automakers need to overhaul
their lineups to meet emissions rules, and their businesses will
depend on being able to produce EVs that people want to drive, which
means extending battery ranges and reducing costs.
Volkswagen appears to have a head start, having worked for nearly a
decade with QuantumScape of California on solid-state batteries, with
plans to have a battery on the market by 2025.
This week, Volkswagen showed how far along it is with a “Power
Day” news event that gave new details about its ramp-up of
battery manufacturing and plans to develop charging stations and other
“Let me begin with the obvious: E-mobility has won the race,” said
Herbert Diess, Volkswagen’s CEO at the Power Day event. “It is the
only solution to reduce mobility emissions fast.”
Longer Range and Shorter Charging Time
Today, nearly all electric vehicles run on lithium-ion batteries
in which lithium ions travel through a liquid or gel to discharge
In a solid-state design, a solid
material replaces the liquid or gel. The material, sometimes ceramic,
still allows the lithium to pass through. The solid takes up less
space than the liquid, which leads to a battery that is smaller and
lighter and can pack more energy into each unit of volume.
“Solid state batteries allow you to control what is happening inside a
battery more carefully than when using liquid electrolytes,” said
The idea of a solid-state rechargeable battery is not new, but
designers have run into problems with high costs and various technical
challenges, like the tendency of solid-state batteries to expand and
contract as they charge and discharge.
If QuantumScape, SES or any of the other developers of solid-state
batteries can affordably mass produce the technology, the result would
be a battery that has longer range and takes less time to recharge
than today’s most common batteries. There also would be safety
advantages, because solid-state batteries would be cooler and less
flammable than some current lithium-ion designs.
The idea is that a battery with those qualities would be so desirable
that consumers would eagerly leave behind their gasoline engines.
Automakers are often putting their battery partners front and center
in publicity about their technology plans, a sign that these industry
giants want some of the sheen associated with technology start-ups.
General Motors President Mark Reuss announced last week that his
company has a new partnership with SES to work on the Ultium system,
GM’s name for its battery platform. The companies will jointly build a
prototype assembly line in Woburn, Massachusetts, where SES has an
“Affordability and range are two major barriers to mass EV adoption,”
said Reuss. “With this next-generation Ultium chemistry, we believe
we’re on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation improvement in energy
density and cost. There’s even more room to improve in both
categories, and we intend to innovate faster than any other company in
SES, founded in 2012 by a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, has a
battery design that it says can hold 400
watt-hours per kilogram, which is much more than the 280 watt-hours
per kilogram of the lithium-ion batteries in today’s EVs.
The test for GM and SES will be whether it can hit those numbers while
mass-producing the batteries, and do so in a way that costs less than
today’s batteries. Needed: A Grand Slam
Volkswagen was early in pairing up with a solid-state battery company,
QuantumScape, and it has the advantage of working with a partner that
is getting positive attention from investors and the media for the
promise of its technology.
One of the people singing the company’s praises is Paul Albertus, the
former head of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects
Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, who now teaches at the University of
“In my view, looking at the data QuantumScape has shared, they’re
hitting a home run in terms of their performance data,” he said, in a
December panel discussion of the technology,
organized by QuantumScape. He has no financial relationship with the
company. “At the same time they’re also clearly stating, and I think I
agree with this, that they ultimately need to hit something like a
grand slam in order to bring this technology to market as a compelling
QuantumScape started in 2010,
co-founded by three people from Stanford University. Volkswagen began
working with QuantumScape in 2012 and in 2018 the German automaker
became the battery-maker’s largest shareholder and the companies announced
a plan to work together more closely
Among the other automakers working closely with solid-state battery
partners is Daimler AG, maker of the Mercedes-Benz brand, which is
collaborating with Blue Solutions of France. Daimler has already
deployed solid-state batteries from Blue Solutions in some buses, and
issue a small recall
this month because of short-circuiting. Daimler also has said
working with Hydro-Quebec
of Canada to develop solid-state batteries.
are both working with Solid Power of Colorado on solid-state
Hyundai is an investor in Solid Power,
but the South Korea-based automaker has said little about its
solid-state battery plans.
Honda and Jaguar Land Rover, among other companies, are working with
of the United Kingdom.
Some automakers are working on solid-state batteries using in-house
designs. This includes Toyota, which
has said it will introduce its battery and have it
available on the market in the early 2020s.
Nissan also is
doing in-house work
on solid-state batteries, but hasn’t said much about it.
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Toyota President Akio Toyoda spoke about next-generation EV
technologies at the
2018 Consumer Electronics Show
saying that solid-state batteries would be “smaller, lighter, and most
importantly, for both consumers and automakers, much more affordable.”
To illustrate what this could mean for range, QuantumScape has said
that a solid-state design could mean that an EV that now has a range
of 200 miles would have a range of 300 to 400 miles.
A Race With Tesla
As legacy automakers make this transition, they are not just competing
with each other but trying to catch up with Tesla, the company that is
the EV leader in most of the world.
So it is interesting that Tesla is so far not part of the solid-state
battery race. The company’s leaders have said they can increase range
and reduce costs through variations on their existing battery
Tesla is focusing on a shorter time horizon, targeting mass production
of the new battery it
announced last summer,
which is expected to go on sale in 2023.
The fact that Tesla doesn’t feel a need to talk much about its
long-term plans, while its competitors are talking a lot about theirs,
says quite a bit about who feels as if they have momentum and
credibility in the EV market, and who would like to build some.
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