Don't Wait for Solid-State Batteries to Buy an EV

It’s going to be a while

The future of batteries sounds absolutely amazing. There will be more capacity (which means more range) in the same amount of space and a recharge time of about five minutes.

Your local Chevron station would become a ChEVron (see what I did there) charging location. Electric vehicles (EVs) would be lighter, cheaper, and be back on the road as quickly as a gas-powered car. The source of all this magic is solid-state batteries, and they're going to change the world. Except, don't hold your breath waiting for one in a car anytime soon.

A Toyota fuel cell car concept.

Maximalfocus / Unsplash

Every few months, a company, sometimes a major automaker, informs the world that solid-state batteries are just around the corner. It feels like we're always about five years from a significant breakthrough. In one massive announcement, everything we know about EVs will change overnight, and that EV in your driveway will be the four-wheeled equivalent of the portable CD-player, usurped by the iPod of cars. 

The Future is… Later

Two such pieces of news have made the rounds in the past two years. Toyota announced that it will have a solid-state prototype vehicle on the road in 2025, while Samsung unveiled a battery with 500 miles of range.

The catch with that Samsung breakthrough is that it can only be recharged 1,000 times. That means it'll last maybe three years for a daily driver. No one wants a car that lasts three years before needing to replace the most expensive component. 

It's definitely not ready for the general public, but that 1,000 charges is excellent news for solid-state battery research. The biggest issue with these batteries is that, while they're quick to recharge and are incredibly dense, they don't last very long.

At issue is the lithium metal anodes in the batteries. During charge and discharge cycles, they grow tiny little crystals called dendrites that dig tiny holes into the electrolyte and that cause short circuits, which kill the battery. 

"For most of us, the reality is that the EVs on the road today and available in the next few years will do 95% of the things we need a car/truck/SUV/or van to do."

Right now, every company out there is trying to figure out how to create a solid-state battery that has all the outstanding benefits of the technology without the tiny crystals shredding the electrolyte. The research is ongoing, and even though we might see a solid-state battery-powered car on the road, it doesn't mean we're going to see one in the local showroom in the next year or two.

Automotive Grade

Unfortunately, that's not how technology works in the automotive world. To be fair, that's not how technology works, even in the world of smartphones and computers. New hardware takes years, sometimes decades, to perfect before someone takes to the stage and wows an audience with the next big thing.

To the world, it seems like everything has changed in an instant, but the engineers and scientists behind that new thing probably spent entirely too many evenings and weekends away from their friends and family in order for your life to be a little bit better because of a hardware upgrade to your smartphone. 

A lot of that time is spent making sure the new hardware works as intended and is safe. A small error in the execution or manufacturing of a piece of hardware could mean a device that fails or, even worse, that's unsafe. 

Someone looking at the console screen in an electric vehicle.

Jenny Ueberberg / Unsplash

The issues are compounded by the need to make items "automotive-grade." Anything that goes into a vehicle needs to undergo an intense series of stress and longevity tests. These components need to be able to withstand searing heat, sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of thousands of miles of vibrations, water, dust, spilled coffee, collisions, insects...really anything you can imagine that can happen to a vehicle. 

Scaling

Then all those individual items need to be placed in a test vehicle and tested again to see how they interact with other components. After all that is done, you have to build a lot of them, as Eli Leland, co-founder and chief technology officer of Voltaiq, a company that builds software to gauge the health of batteries in EVs, among other things, points out.

"Solid-state batteries have shown impressive advances, but these technologies are several years away from making it into production vehicles, at a minimum. Once you have a complete, scaled-up cell design, it still takes multiple years to qualify a battery for a vehicle in light of the demanding warranty requirements for automotive powertrains," Leland told Lifewire in an email.

"For something as new as a solid-state battery, you'd expect a couple of iterations, and those engineering cycles add up. The technology does hold a lot of promise, however, and you're likely to see solid-state batteries in consumer applications like wearables or mobile electronics long before they make it into a car."

So yes, solid-state is coming, and it is going to be wonderful. But it's also going to be a long while, and in the meantime, advances in lithium-ion batteries continue, and vehicles powered by that technology will become denser and charge quicker as time progresses.

For most of us, the reality is that the EVs on the road today and available in the next few years will do 95% of the things we need a car/truck/SUV/or van to do. So yes, look towards the future, but not at the expense of missing out on what's happening right now. If you did that with phones, you'd still have a Nokia in your pocket. 

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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