Toyota Close to Game-Changing Breakthrough in Solid-State Batteries
In 1992, Sony revolutionized portable electronics by harnessing the power of lithium-ion batteries. This breakthrough allowed for the introduction of products like mobile phones and handheld video cameras, radically changing the lives of billions of consumers. In recent years, the cost of lithium-ion batteries has decreased significantly, leading to the rapid growth of electric car sales. However, the underlying technology has remained relatively unchanged since its commercialization.
Now, after three decades of incremental improvements, the industry is on the verge of a major shift. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, has hinted at a manufacturing breakthrough for solid-state batteries, a potentially game-changing technology. Solid-state batteries offer several advantages over traditional lithium-ion batteries, including increased safety, faster recharging, and longer driving range. Toyota aims to release electric vehicles (EVs) equipped with solid-state batteries by 2027, capable of traveling up to 1,200 kilometers on a single charge.
Peter Bruce, co-founder and chief scientist of the Faraday Institution, a British battery research institute, describes the ongoing global race to develop solid-state batteries as potentially disruptive. If Toyota or another company can produce cost-competitive solid-state batteries that meet the required lifetime and energy density metrics, it could have profound implications for the auto industry, challenging the current dominance of companies like Tesla, BYD, and CATL. It could also impact the global geopolitical landscape and enable the application of batteries in new areas of transportation, such as aviation.
Despite the hype surrounding solid-state batteries, there are skeptics who question whether the technology has truly addressed fundamental scientific issues and whether cost-effective mass production is achievable. While sales of lithium-ion batteries continue to grow, some argue that the excitement around solid-state batteries implies that current solutions are insufficient, which they believe is not the case. Analysts caution that the technology, for now, remains a hyped-up research project.
Solid-state batteries function differently from lithium-ion batteries in that their electrolytes are solid rather than liquid. This difference offers improved safety and the potential for lighter batteries. However, solid-state batteries face challenges related to ensuring durability, as repeated charges and discharges can lead to the formation of dendrites, which can cause battery failure. Additionally, achieving a stable contact between solid materials is crucial for their success.
Toyota’s recent breakthrough claims relate to addressing the durability issues associated with solid-state batteries. The company has partnered with petrochemicals group Idemitsu Kosan to develop and produce a sulphide electrolyte, a key component in solid-state battery commercialization. While basic technology challenges are becoming less insurmountable, scaling up production for mass manufacturing remains a significant hurdle. Toyota’s engineers claim to have made advances in the stacking process, crucial for achieving production rates comparable to lithium-ion batteries.
The introduction of solid-state batteries could profoundly impact the global automotive industry. Currently, China holds a significant advantage in battery technology and manufacturing, producing over 75% of batteries worldwide. Chinese battery giant CATL dominates the market, enjoying a 37% share. However, solid-state batteries could provide an opportunity for other companies and countries to catch up. Toyota is not the only company investing in this technology, as Nissan, Honda, and South Korea’s major battery producers are all working towards developing solid-state batteries. US startups QuantumScape and Solid Power, partnered with Volkswagen and BMW, respectively, have also made progress on their own solid-state battery technologies.
Solid-state batteries could help revive Japanese carmakers’ EV strategies, positioning Japan as a global leader in battery production. As China controls the processing of battery raw materials, solid-state batteries may provide some relief from certain vulnerabilities, such as graphite supply restrictions recently imposed by Beijing. However, solid-state batteries will require even more lithium, exacerbating ongoing concerns about lithium shortages.
China and South Korea remain skeptical about solid-state batteries reaching their full potential. CATL researchers have been working on solid-state batteries for over a decade but have not yet found a cost-effective method for mass production. Korean industry leaders echo these sentiments, expressing doubt about Toyota’s claims of successful production.
Aside from technological and production challenges, it is unclear whether solid-state batteries can lower production costs in time to accelerate EV adoption worldwide. Although economies of scale will help reduce costs, lithium-ion batteries continue to improve in terms of performance and cost. Solid-state batteries’ sensitivity to moisture and oxygen may keep manufacturing costs high, while their complexity may require expensive vehicle redesigns.
Toyota’s CEO, Koji Sato, has been cautious about labeling solid-state batteries as a game-changer in the global EV race. He envisions a phased approach, with solid-state batteries initially introduced in high-end models while lithium-ion batteries remain in use for more affordable vehicles. Many industry executives believe that solid-state technology will gradually be integrated into traditional batteries, leading to their evolution rather than complete replacement.
Despite the remaining challenges, solid-state batteries have the potential to revolutionize the transportation industry. Improved battery performance could enable new forms of mobility, from robotaxis to regional aviation, and open up opportunities for innovative applications. While uncertainties remain around the timeline and ultimate impact of solid-state batteries, the ongoing progress represents a significant step toward realizing a greener and more sustainable future in transportation.