After nearly a decade in operation, QuantumScape, a San Jose-based startup backed by Volkswagen and Bill Gates, is finally breaking its silence. In a virtual “battery day” event for investors, the recently public company announced that its “solid state” batteries for electric vehicles will charge faster, hold more power, and last longer than traditional EV batteries.
Solid-state batteries have eluded researchers for decades. Most EV companies use “wet” lithium-ion batteries, which use liquid electrolytes to move energy around. But these batteries can be slow to charge, can freeze up in subzero temperatures, and contain flammable material that can be hazardous in the event of a crash.
QuantumScape claims to have developed a production-ready solid-state battery with cells that are made of solid and “dry” conductive material. And while most startups pursuing solid-state batteries remain mired in the lab, QuantumScape says it will be ready to go into production in 2024.
“We don’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to be close to what we’re doing,” said Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of QuantumScape.
QuantumScape says its solid-state batteries will represent a significant improvement over conventional lithium-ion batteries, enabling electric vehicles that can travel 80 percent further than an electric vehicle with a traditional battery. There are other advantages too. They retain more than 80 percent of their capacity after 800 charging cycles. They’re noncombustible. And they’ll have volumetric energy density of more than 1,000 watt-hours per liter at the cell level, which is nearly double the density of top-rate commercial lithium-ion packs.
The key breakthrough is the use of a ceramic “separator” to replace the liquid electrolyte used in conventional battery cells to act as the medium through which positive and negative ions move around. It’s not like any ceramics that you may have at home, in so far as they are designed to be flexible, not rigid. Energy can continue to move throughout the cell in extremely cold temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius — a temperature that renders other solid-state designs inoperable or seriously degrades wet lithium-ion batteries.
The separator is around the size of a playing card and as thin as a human hair. “At the heart of it all is this new separator,” Singh said.
QuantumScape says its batteries last a real long time, perhaps “hundreds of thousands of miles of driving,” by eliminating the “side reaction” between the liquid electrolyte and the carbon in the anode of the conventional lithium-ion cells. And the batteries will charge at a much faster rate too, up to 80 percent capacity in just 15 minutes, an amount that typically takes 40 minutes or longer.
Solid-state lithium metal batteries are considered “the holy grail” in the battery industry, said Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a technical advisor to QuantumScape. He pointed out that Stan Whittingham, key figure in the development of lithium-ion batteries and a winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry, published a paper in 1976 about lithium metal anodes, calling it the “basis for a new battery system.”
“This problem is over 40 years old,” Viswanathan said. “If lithium metal batteries are successful, this would mean that for mass-market EVs, for the same weight of the battery pack, you can get about 50 percent additional range for EV or additional battery time in the context of consumer electronics.”
Whittingham himself is endorsing QuantumScape’s solid-state batteries. In a statement, Whittingham described the hardest part about making a working solid-state battery is “the need to simultaneously meet the requirements of high energy density (1,000 Wh/L), fast charge (i.e., high current density), long cycle life (greater than 800 cycles), and wide temperature-range operation.”
“This data shows QuantumScape’s cells meet all of these requirements,” he continued, “something that has never before been reported.”
Singh said that consumer electronics like smartphones and laptops would be an obvious application for solid-state batteries, but the demand for the technology is far greater in the auto industry, which is in the midst of a seismic shift away from combustion engines and toward batter-powered propulsion.
“Ordinarily, I would say that we would be pursuing this space as well for consumer devices because, you know, it’s easier,” Singh said. “But we’re finding so much demand. The automotive case is so massive.”
QuantumScape, which was spun out from Stanford University in 2010, has formed a joint venture with VW to produce solid-state battery cells for the German automaker’s electric vehicles, and eventually for other carmakers. The deal isn’t exclusive: VW’s recently released ID 4 electric SUV will initially use batteries made by South Korea’s LG Chem, before eventually shifting to ones produced by SK Innovation.
QuantumScape recently became publicly traded after completing its reverse merger with a special acquisition company called Kensington Capital Acquisition. The deal was received well by investors. At a recent price of $42.50 a share, QuantumScape stock is valued at roughly $19 billion, making it one of the top five most valuable automotive suppliers in the US.
The race to achieve huge improvements in battery technology is one of the most expensive and hotly contested on the planet right now. Practically every automaker is betting that electric vehicles will be the future, with some of the largest countries (and largest auto markets) in the world moving to phase out gas-powered cars and trucks. To ensure that shift, batteries need to more powerful, last longer, and be cheaper to make in order to attract entice enough customers to make the switch to battery-powered vehicles.
QuantumScape will be going head-to-head with some of the biggest and best capitalized companies in the world, including China’s CATL (valued at $85 billion), LG Chem ($62 billion), Samsung ($37 billion), Panasonic ($33 billion), and most recently, Tesla ($608 billion). Elon Musk’s electric car company recently announced that it would begin manufacturing its own battery cells, and even mine its own lithium, in a massive effort to drive down the cost of its electric vehicles.
Singh said he’s aware that his competition will be fierce. But there’s no reason why QuantumScape’s current rivals won’t become future customers.
“Tesla, probably even more than any other company, is completely opportunistic,” Singh said. “If this battery works, they’re gonna want to use it.”