Toyota has embraced electrification at a snail's space. When former CEO Akio Toyoda was still at the helm, his slow approach to electric vehicle (EV) acceptance is mainly driven by his motivation by a quote he famously made: "Carbon is the enemy, not the internal combustion engine." That's why he led a team of engineers to develop the hydrogen combustion engine, among other emissions-reducing technologies that also included its popular range of hybrids. Under its new CEO Koji Sato, however, electrification will receive a major push. While its solid-state battery research has already been ongoing for years, it's only recently that it reached a breakthrough with the technology. If true, then the company that used to be the EV laggard will suddenly be at the forefront of electrification.
Toyota has already planned to release solid-state batteries in its mass-produced EVs by 2027. However, to meet that goal and make it attractive to consumers, the Japanese automaker must be able to reduce the cost of manufacturing. Fortunately, that's what the company has recently claimed to The Guardian. The breakthrough was achieved because Toyota says it has simplified the production of the materials required for solid-state batteries, with the Japanese automaker touting the discovery as a significant leap forward that enables shorter charge times and more extended driving range.
“For both our liquid and our solid-state batteries, we are aiming to drastically change the situation where current batteries are too big, heavy, and expensive,” said Keiji Kaita, president of the Japanese auto firm’s research and development center for carbon neutrality. “In terms of potential, we will aim to halve all of these factors.”
But there's one reason why we can't be too excited yet. Remember, the battery is still in the prototype stage, and there are hurdles to overcome if battery production will be scaled up. “Often there are breakthroughs at the prototype stage but then scaling it up is difficult,” David Bailey, professor of business economics at the University of Birmingham, said. “If it is a genuine breakthrough it could be a game changer, very much the holy grail of battery vehicles.”
Speaking with the Financial Times, Kaita added that Toyota isn't good at promoting its technology until the vehicle actually gets released, revealing that the company had already made early breakthroughs in durability issues of solid-state batteries three years ago. “We are not very good at promoting ourselves and because we’re excessively cautious, people only realize that we were working [on a certain technology] once the product is completed.”
Many may be surprised, but Toyota has already made solid (pun intended) progress with a solid-state battery. In fact, the Japanese automaker has more than 1,000 patents with solid-state batteries. Toyota plans to first implement solid-state batteries in its hybrids first before implementing them fully into its EVs.
Kaita also added that their breakthrough with the solid-state battery will give it a range of 745 miles. Despite the long-range, which is even long by internal combustion engine (ICE) standards, the battery can be charged in just 10 minutes. Yet to achieve this long range and short charge times, Toyota says that they managed to halve the size, weight, and cost of the solid-state battery.
But as with Toyota's usual path towards carbon neutrality, the Japanese automaker isn't solely betting on solid-state batteries. Instead, Toyota is also saying there's still plenty of room for breakthroughs with current liquid-based lithium-ion batteries. “We don’t actually view solid-state batteries as the ultimate solution,” said Toyota’s chief technology officer Hiroki Nakajima to the Financial Times. If Toyota is able to meet its internal deadline of putting these batteries into mass production in 2027, it would be a game changer in the automotive industry as a whole. It will give the Japanese automaker a leg up in the development of EVs.
The Race To Solid-State Batteries
Toyota isn't alone in the development of solid-state batteries. Since this is the holy grail of battery technology, every automaker that has committed to EVs has been racing to be the first to bring to market a range of new EVs with solid-state batteries. The question now is, why is everyone so committed to the technology? Batteries are the most expensive component in an EV, and it also hugely contributes to an EV's weight. If you want a longer-range EV, you either make your electric motors very efficient or make the batteries bigger. Automakers have been trying to balance both efficiency and range, yet even then, the batteries still take up more space than a conventional fuel tank.
A reason why lithium-ion batteries are the way they are right now in terms of space is because of the liquid electrolyte component of the battery. The energy density of lithium-ion batteries has improved over the years, but the battery still isn't energy-dense enough for the auto industry's goals and requirements. In addition, due to that liquid electrolyte, lithium-ion batteries are more dangerous compared to solid-state batteries. Remember those Tesla fire incidences? While the chances of a fire in an EV are much lower according to AutoInsuranceEZ (especially since there's no combustion process in an EV versus an ICE), there's still room for safety improvement in batteries especially when it comes to crash and battery puncture safety.
Solid-state batteries, on the other hand, are much safer due to the removal of that liquid electrolyte and thus, even less prone to fires than an EV with lithium-ion batteries. In fact, from the same article by AutoInsuranceEZ, the chances of a fire in an EV is only 25 per 100,000 cars, while gas vehicles are the second most prone and hybrids are the most susceptible to fires.
Solid-State Batteries Sound Good, But Is There Any Downside?
Why yes, solid-state batteries come with their own cons as well, but most of it are mainly due to the technology being in its infancy. Solid-state batteries are harder to recycle and thus, fewer parts are recovered down the line. But there's another challenge with solid-state batteries that barely anyone's talking about--dendrite formation.
So, what's with dendrites and solid-state batteries? Well, dendrite formation also happens in lithium-ion batteries, but at a much slower pace than in solid-state batteries. According to EE Power, "dendrite formation happens during charging when the lithium metal electrochemically grows irregularly on negative electrodes", which leads to the build-up of dendrites. The dendrites then react to the electrolyte and then decomposes it, slowly reducing the battery's life span and capacity to hold energy. However, Honda might have found a solution to this!
Lastly, there's the part about the materials being expensive and hard to source and manufacture, but these are just initial hurdles that are expected to be remedied as the technology continues to be improved. As it is, the potential of solid-state batteries far outweighs the cons of the technology.
Tough and expensive
Established and affordable
Low risk of thermal runaway
Risk of thermal runaway
Solid-State Batteries Provide An Exciting Future
With Toyota's news regarding its breakthrough in solid-state batteries, the path towards a no-compromise EV future is closer than ever--assuming of course that the company's statements are true. Then again, Toyota has a track record of not yet premiering a technology until it's already in a prototype vehicle at the very least.