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Business News/ Auto News / The EV battery of your dreams is coming
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The EV battery of your dreams is coming

wsj

Quiet developments signal that over the next five years we will see technological leaps.

Employees work at a lab for QuantumScape which is on track to deliver its first batteries for testing in vehicles by sometime next year. PHOTO: NICHOLAS ALBRECHT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNALPremium
Employees work at a lab for QuantumScape which is on track to deliver its first batteries for testing in vehicles by sometime next year. PHOTO: NICHOLAS ALBRECHT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In the next five years, significant upgrades to the batteries in electric vehicles should finally hit the market. In the works for decades, these changes are likely to mean that by 2030, gas vehicles will cost more than their electric equivalents; some EVs will charge as quickly as filling up at a gas station; and super long-range EVs will make the phrase “range anxiety" seem quaint.

One reason you might not be aware of these impending technological leaps is that they’ve long been overshadowed by flashier efforts at replacing existing lithium-ion battery tech in EVs altogether. Again and again, those promised battery “breakthroughs" failed to break through, which has left investors holding the bag and consumers disappointed.

Almost all of these coming developments are upgrades to the same tried-and-true lithium batteries that others have promised to disrupt. This gives them a huge advantage: They can be manufactured in existing facilities, and fit into existing supply chains. This matters because previous investments in battery-manufacturing capacity are so enormous—more than $30 billion in 2023 alone, according to BloombergNEF—that they make it that much harder for any technology that can’t be manufactured in those facilities to be competitive.

BMW’s 2025 battery rollout

It’s possible to optimize many features in a battery, from how fast it can charge to how many years it can last. One of the most important measures of a battery’s performance is how much energy a manufacturer can cram into a given battery cell, which is known as its energy density. Typically, that energy density has gone up a few percentage points a year, and it’s those slow, cumulative, hard-won gains that have gotten us to where we are today.

Bigger jumps in the energy density of batteries are rare. But BMW recently announced that it will begin selling the first vehicle using the company’s new platform for EVs, which it calls “Neue Klasse," in 2025. These vehicles will have a new kind of battery which will hold more than 20% more energy than the previous type, and charging speed and range will also improve by up to 30%, says a BMW spokesman.

What makes possible these improvements are a new, cylindrical shape for the battery cells, and tweaks to their chemistry.

New battery chemistries in 2026

Massachusetts-based battery-component manufacturer SES AI is on track to help automakers deliver vehicles with an additional leap in the energy density of their batteries in 2026, says Chief Executive Qichao Hu.

SES AI is already the first company in the world to deliver to an automaker advanced prototypes of batteries with a particular kind of new tech, and is working with GM, Hyundai and Honda. In 2025, SES AI expects to deliver the next iteration of its cells, which are suitable for use in a fleet of prototype vehicles.

If GM decides that the first vehicles to get SES AI’s new batteries should be, say, electric Hummers, then the company would help GM build 100 prototype Hummer EVs with the new technology, and they would then be run through a gantlet of tests for nine months to a year, Hu says. If all goes well, by 2026 the batteries should be ready to be put into production.

The key to SES AI’s technology is solid lithium metal, which is used in place of the graphite that’s in today’s lithium-ion batteries.

Battery 101

To understand why that matters, it helps to know a little bit about how today’s batteries work. A typical EV battery is like a sandwich made of thin layers. First there’s what’s known as an anode, made of graphite. Suffusing the whole cell is a liquid electrolyte—like Gatorade, but it has lithium salts instead of sodium. Then a thin “separator"—picture something like saran wrap. Finally there’s a cathode, which is a mix of various metals, typically lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt.

When a battery is pushing electricity to the motor of a vehicle, lithium ions are moving between the anode and the cathode, through the plastic separator, which has microscopic holes just big enough for lithium ions to move through. It’s the physical movement of those lithium ions from one side of the battery sandwich to the other that generates current.

In theory, a lithium metal anode can hold 10 times as many lithium ions as a graphite one. All other things being equal, this means the energy density of a battery using lithium metal in place of graphite could be up to 50% higher.

The result, says Hu, is that automakers could someday offer affordable EVs that have the same range as today’s high-end ones. That would mean even entry-level EVs might go 300 miles on a charge. High-end EVs with bigger batteries could, in turn, set new records for range, besting current record-holders which top out at around 500 miles.

Because the lithium metal in SES AI’s batteries replaces just one part of the battery cell, it can be incorporated into existing assembly lines. Currently, there are two dominant types of batteries for EVs, one optimized for high-end vehicles, and the other for lower-cost ones such as Tesla’s Model 3 and the coming tidal wave of affordable Chinese EVs. SES AI’s lithium metal technology works in both.

Superfast charging by 2028

SES AI is hardly the only company promising significant upgrades to today’s batteries within the next few years. StoreDot, a battery startup based in Israel, is working on new battery tech for making EVs charge so quickly that filling them up could someday be comparable to stopping at a gas station in a conventional vehicle.

StoreDot counts BP, Daimler Truck, Volvo and Vietnamese EV maker VinFast as investors and partners. StoreDot has announced that the first automaker to incorporate its batteries for “ultrafast charging" will be Geely-owned Polestar.

Like SES AI, StoreDot aims to replace the graphite anode in a typical battery with something different. Instead of lithium metal, StoreDot is using silicon in order to increase both the energy density and the charging speed of a battery.

Adding silicon to batteries is something battery makers have been doing for years, and has been key to some of the incremental gains in capacity that have already happened in the past decade. What’s different about StoreDot’s tech is that the company is figuring out how to replace the graphite in batteries entirely, with a substance that is up to 40% silicon.

StoreDot has delivered prototype batteries to automakers, and its current tech—which Polestar is testing—can enable a car’s battery to add 100 miles of range in just five minutes of charging. By 2028—just two years after SES AI’s batteries are set to debut in production vehicles—the company’s engineers aim to deliver to automakers a battery that can add 100 miles of range in just 3 minutes, says Chief Executive Doron Myersdorf.

2030 and beyond—the ‘Holy Grail’ of battery tech?

Briefly a darling of the 2020 to 2021-era SPAC boom, publicly traded solid-state battery maker QuantumScape has since had a rough time, in terms of its valuation. But the company is on track to deliver its first batteries suitable for testing in vehicles by sometime next year, says Quantumscape’s chief technology officer, Tim Holme. From there, it’s up to automakers to determine how quickly they’ll incorporate these batteries into new vehicles.

BMW is currently working with QuantumScape competitor Solid Power on developing solid-state batteries, but “all-solid-state batteries are still several years away from large scale production," says a BMW spokesman.

Solid-state batteries have been called the holy grail of battery tech because, in theory, they should be able to beat existing batteries by every measure that counts, including charge time and energy density. But they come with a number of challenges, including the way they physically expand and contract when they are charged and discharged.

QuantumScape Chief Marketing Officer Asim Hussain says the company has solved this problem, and many others, and that unlike many of its competitors, it regularly releases test data showing the performance and durability of its batteries.

In EVs, no rollout of new battery tech is a sure thing until it has passed automakers’ extensive internal testing. Even then there can be problems, like when GM had to recall tens of thousands of Chevy Bolts on account of the risk of fires in their battery packs.

This means all of the timetables battery makers have proposed can—and do—slip. Even so, the next five to 10 years should see a steady drumbeat of new battery technologies that yield performance gains beyond the incremental improvements we’ve seen over the past couple of decades. That’s likely to have profound implications both for adoption of EVs, and for which EV makers win and lose.

Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

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