The electric car’s role in the future is assured by today’s race among General Motors, Hyundai, Nissan, Tesla, and others to advance range and affordability. With a rising number of startup challengers, these automakers agree that winning depends on making the electric car’s engine—its battery pack—cheaper, lighter, smaller, safer, and longer-lasting.
The current lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have buried previous lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride designs, but there’s fervent interest in alternatives to the Li-ion concept that Exxon, of all entities, patented in 1976.
Earlier this decade, a startup enterprise called Sakti3, working in deep secrecy one building away from Car and Driver’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters, quietly began touting a solid-state lithium-ion battery that eliminates the normal liquid electrolyte to improve energy density and safety while shortening recharge times and, potentially, lowering manufacturing costs. British inventor and consumer-electronics manufacturer James Dyson was so convinced that his firm bought Sakti3 for more than $100 million in 2015.
Various universities, research organizations, and automakers including Toyota also are targeting solid-state manufacturing, where a lithium-ion battery is created layer by layer through vapor deposition—the methodology long used to construct computer chips. At the University of Texas at Austin, research fellow Maria Helena Braga is eager to patent a battery using a solid-glass electrolyte in combination with an inexpensive sodium anode. Along with three times the energy density of today’s lithium-ion batteries, Braga’s new formulation has demonstrated 1200 charge-discharge cycles and successful operation below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
On the surface, this sounds like one of countless pursuits with a slim chance of discovering gold at the end of a long rainbow. What makes Braga’s endeavor especially interesting is her mentor: Professor John Goodenough, who has been active in the lithium-ion field for four decades. Most significant, Goodenough created the breakthrough in this field—a viable lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode—in 1980 while in residence at Oxford University. In 1991, Sony added a carbon anode to that concept to commercialize the first lithium-ion batteries for use in cameras.
At 94, Goodenough visits his laboratory daily to work with Braga, whose solid-state-battery research began at the University of Porto in Portugal. A growing cadre of electric-car enthusiasts, developers, and manufacturers is rooting for their success.