Ford started production yesterday on his F-150 Lightning pickup, a DIY vehicle that takes the automaker’s – and the United States – best-selling vehicle and swaps its gas-guzzling engines for powerful electric motors powered by more than 1,800 pounds of batteries.
The mattress-sized pack can deliver a range of over 300 miles, but if Ford wants to win weekend warriors pulling 28-foot motorboats, it needs better batteries.
While today’s batteries can store more energy than ever — they’ve improved by 5% a year in energy density for the past few years — those steady, incremental increases probably won’t be enough to make EVs a good idea for many consumers. Today’s cells are better in every way than those of five years ago, but they still leave a lot to be desired. What is needed are some breakthroughs.
EVs make up a relatively small portion of the overall car and truck market, but they account for nearly 80% of the demand for lithium-ion batteries, much faster than devices such as laptops and phones. And the demand will only increase. According to Wood Mackenzie, the world is expected to need 5,500 GWh of batteries by 2030, a fivefold increase from today, thanks to changing consumer tastes and the looming phasing out of fossil fuel vehicles.
In the next five years, the battery world is about to undergo a major transformation. I scoured a long list of startups to find the nine most interesting developing technologies to make batteries weigh less, charge faster and last longer. Over the past year and a half, they’ve collectively raised $4.1 billion — some of that through special-purpose acquisitions, but the vast majority from late-stage venture and corporate rounds.
The battery technology that’s been getting the most attention lately is solid-state, and for good reason. Automakers are salivating at the idea of EVs with a range of more than 400 miles that can be recharged in 15 minutes, which can provide solid-state batteries.
Solid-state batteries earn their name by replacing the liquid electrolytes that carry ions from one side of the battery to the other with solid versions. Solid electrolytes offer a number of benefits. First, they can prevent the growth of dendrites, stalactite-like spikes of lithium that can form on the electrodes of a battery. Dendrites grow relatively easily in the liquid, so battery manufacturers add an ion-permeable separator to prevent dendrites from bridging the gap between positive and negative electrodes.
If the separator is damaged, such as with defective Chevy Bolt batteries, dendrites can short out and cause a fire.
The other thing that makes solid electrolytes possible is what is known as a lithium metal battery. In a typical lithium-ion battery, lithium ions are stored in graphite on the anode side. Graphite anodes are cheap and stable, but they add weight to a battery. If eliminated, lighter batteries could store more energy, but lithium metal anodes are prone to forming dendrites. To keep dendrites from growing long enough to short-circuit the battery, researchers are working on solid electrolytes that not only block the stalactites but also won’t cause problems with the anode’s highly reactive lithium.
Three companies in particular are very promising in solid state. One is Factorial, which has raised $253 million, including a $200 million Series D that closed in January and was led by Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis, the automaker created by the merger of the Italian -American Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the French PSA Group. Factorial, based in a Boston suburb of Woburn, Massachusetts, operated in stealth mode until last April.