Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Solid-state batteries
Launching a new partnership with BMW, CEO Doug Campbell is developing breakthrough batteries for electric vehicles and other markets.
An engineer by training, Campbell inherited a small research group focused on advanced lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery materials, such as solid electrolytes and high-voltage cathodes, in 2009. Much of the group's focus was on advanced military systems including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.
The group received early funding from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to continue research on advanced battery systems at University of Colorado. Much of Campbell's focus was on bridging the gap between R&D and a profitable business model, and he founded Solid Power with the group's two principal scientists in 2012.
Shortly thereafter, Solid Power entered a license agreement with the CU Tech Transfer office and received a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy office. Also known as ARPA-E, it's modeled after DARPA to advance "high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment," per ARPA-E's website.
That grant was "the fuel that really got us off the ground," says Campbell. Over the next four years, Solid Power was able to secure $13 million in non-diluted capital from various branches of government and from non-recurring engineering contracts with commercial customers. Last summer marked a major transition for the company for two reasons. First, it relocated into 25,000-square-foot, purpose-built facility in Louisville. The firm also raised its first equity round to scale production.
"Anyone in the automotive supply chain from auto companies all the way down to chemical companies . . . [is] investing now in solid-state batteries," says Campbell, citing Toyota, Volkswagen, and other top manufacturers.
Current state-of-the-art Li-ion batteries have a liquid electrolyte, making them comparatively heavy, complex, and hazardous. Manufacturing defects or rough handling can result in combustion, as seen with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Battery makers have been challenged to find a solid electrolyte that conducts ions effectively. Solid Power is one of a handful of companies that has come up with a solution.
"What differs for us," Campbell notes, "is we believe we have the materials -- solid-state battery materials -- with really the best combination of properties that are relevant to cells and then cost and manufacturability."
An inorganic solid electrolyte separates the cathode from the lithium metal anode, rendering it far safer than existing Li-ion batteries. It conducts ions but not electricity, which allows a much simpler battery architecture. This also amounts to huge performance improvements of 1.5 to 2X, on a mass basis, over current state-of-the-art Li-ion batteries. That will in theory amount to the equivalent increase in range for electric vehicles.
The best-performing Li-ion batteries available are around 270 to 280 watt-hours per kilogram. By contrast, Campbell states that Solid Power's first generation solid-state batteries deliver 350 to 400 watt-hours per kilogram. According to the scientific journal Nature, that's above the threshold needed to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage over conventional Li-ion batteries.
"Because you're no longer containing a liquid, issues such as shorting become a lot less of a concern," Campbell explains. "That helps reduce the package mass and volume, as well as costs."
He says Solid Power's batteries are also safer than the status quo. "You've eliminated that volatile, flammable electrolyte, you’ve replaced it with a very stable polymer or ceramic-type material that under abuse conditions -- hard short, nail penetration -- those kind of things, it exhibits incredibly benign failures. There's no explosion, combustion. . . . So as I say, you go from this multi-billion dollar loss related to a recall and you end up with just a simple warranty issue."
Having achieved impressive performance metrics including cycle life, durability and power density with small format batteries, Solid Power is working to replicate them with larger format cells. To Campbell's knowledge, the Louisville plant is the largest next-gen battery production facility in the U.S.
Solid Power is pursuing two paths to commercialization. "The big end goal for us is certainly the automotive market," Campbell states. "And that's where we're getting the vast majority of customer pull and industry interaction."
The big risk in the auto industry is the long time horizon to commercialization due to scaling, regulations and supply chain integration. All told, Campbell expects the process to take five to 10 years.
The second path is non-automotive markets including defense, aerospace and niche industrial markets. With that route, Campbell believes Solid Power can get to commercial sales revenues in two to five years. That's essentially because there are lower regulatory and technical barriers to non-automotive markets.
Among other distinctions, Solid Power was named Emerging Cleantech Company of the Year in 2014 by the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association and, in 2017, Breakout Cleantech Company of the Year.
Challenges: "It's all about production scale-up," says Campbell. "We are spec'ing and installing our first small-volume production line. Once operational, to the best of my knowledge, it will represent the world’s largest solid-state battery production facility in terms of watt-hours of cells produced. So that's a big deal."
He adds, "Optimizing it, installing it, getting it operational is probably our biggest challenge over the next 12 to 18 months."
Opportunities: "Solid state has really emerged as the most viable candidate to displace lithium-ion in the future," says Campbell. "Down the line, this is a technology that the [automotive] industry is really converging on as that most viable candidate, based not only on performance but also cost and manufacturability. So for a small group such as ourselves to have a constant, revolving door of Fortune 500 companies coming into our facility, it's very exciting."
In addition to the extensive joint development agreement with BMW Group, Solid Power is negotiating agreements with other automakers and non-automotive firms such as existing providers of Li-ion battery materials.
Needs: "Time," answers Campbell. "Schedule is probably our biggest risk. Can we do things quick enough? Can we get our equipment fast enough? Can we get things qualified? Can we get our partners lined up? . . . In many cases, the supply chain is somewhat undeveloped because there are some new material components in what we're working with, so being able to get those developed as quickly as possible." Solid Power will be delivering very large volumes of cells in the future if things go well, making supply-chain issues a key focus.