BMW and Ford Team Up In the Most Expensive, Highest-Stakes Race in Batteries

They will battle VW, GM and Toyota to conquer the lithium metal anode

For seven months, lithium-metal darling QuantumScape has enjoyed an often-fanatical following as the front-runner in the attempt to commercialize next-generation electric vehicle batteries. Now, though, its arch enemy, Denver-based Solid Power, has unexpectedly emerged with a big, $130 million investment led by Ford and BMW on the promise of an industrial-size scaleup of its technology next year.

Which is to say: It’s a race.

Only a little over four months ago, Solid Power announced that it had produced a 22-layer pure lithium-metal test cell at a size of 20 amp-hours, an attempt to capture the much higher energy density possible in such a battery, far greater than ordinary lithium-ion. The cell was relatively large — a bit bigger than a smart phone, and much heftier than QuantumScape’s most recent 2 Ah cell, about the size of a postage stamp. Still, Solid Power’s achievement did nothing to dethrone QuantumScape, which continued to hog the attention.

Yesterday, though, Solid Power CEO Doug Campbell announced a vast improvement in his company’s work: As part of the Ford-BMW investment announcement, Campbell said the company would now make even larger, 100 Ah cells — the size needed for commercial EVs — and deliver them next year. For the subsequent year or so, Ford and BMW plan to install the cells in demonstration vehicles for performance and safety validation. If successful, the cells could be fully ready for commercial use by early 2024 and sold widely in EVs by the end of the decade.

The gap between technical readiness and actual commercial deployment appears to be a cautionary stance since no one knows with certainty whether Solid Power will succeed, nor how much time it will take the automakers to design and manufacture the vehicles that will go around the batteries. But Solid Power’s results so far convinced the two big automakers, in addition to a venture capital firm called Volta Energy Technologies, to put down the $130 million. “We believe that the underlying technology and maturity may be the most advanced in this field,” Peter Lamp, BMW’s head of battery technology, told me in a video call yesterday.

With the $130 million, Ford and BMW enriched one of the most expensive two-month periods in battery investment history: Last month, GM led a $139 million investment in SES, a lithium-metal company based in Massachusetts. In March, VW paid the last half of a promised $200 million investment in QuantumScape after the startup met undisclosed milestones. Also in March, Northvolt, a Sweden-based battery company, bought Cuberg, a Silicon Valley-based lithium metal play, for an undisclosed sum.

Toyota is also in the lithium-metal anode race, as is China’s Nio. No one knows what market-leader Tesla is doing if anything with lithium-metal.

But from a theatrical standpoint, the Solid Power versus Quantumscape, and corresponding Ford-BMW versus VW races may be the most dramatic direct rivalries. In my own experience, battery researchers are an unusually restrained and courteous lot, refraining generally from lockerroom taunts. But not those developing lithium metal. Perhaps because the stakes are so much higher for them — if they are successful, they could increase energy density, and thus how far an EV can go, by some 50% — they can be exceedingly brusque.

But even in that context, the verbiage passed between Solid Power and QuantumScape is of a different order. To say they loathe each other is a disservice to displays of commercial hate and disgust everywhere. When you talk to QuantumScape, company managers seem unable to resist a contemptuous potshot at what they view as an unworthy rival that cannot produce the same test performance as they can. When you talk to Solid Power, they wonder how anyone can take seriously a company — QuantumScape — that’s existed for a decade and yet has still only produced a two-layer cell. With me anyway, neither has taken a swing at any other company. It’s not clear why they appear to confine their public disdain solely for each other.

Meanwhile, neither company has released an independent, third-party validation of its cells.

In Solid Power’s case, its 20 Ah cell — the one released in December — in fact was a mixed bag. Its scale was impressive — 22 layers, and of automotive size. But it fell short in important ways: For instance, it could not be fast-charged at room temperature without a catastrophic loss of capacity. It performed well fast-charging only at a hot 70 degrees Celsius, an unrealistic temperature.

In an interview yesterday, CEO Campbell suggested that the company had overcome these shortcomings in lab tests, and would now find out how they performed at larger scale. Hau Thai-Tang, Ford chief product platform and operations officer, told me that the automaker had subjected Solid Power’s cells to its array of tests and that they had “passed all those requirements.”

One message of the lithium-metal race is the preparedness of the world’s automakers to bet really big on a still unproven battery formulation, in part a measure of their unwillingness to be existentially threatened should one or more of the frontier technologies succeed.

While gambling, none of the automakers has placed chips on only one of the frontier startups. Ford said yesterday that it will be making its own cells by 2025. BMW has a relationship with Sila Nano, whose silicon anodes, delivering a substantial energy punch, are slated to be ready in 2025. Lamp, the BMW battery lead, said it’s possible that his own company would deploy Sila Nano’s anodes in its cars for a few years, then lithium-metal. “The final target is you want lithium metal and solid state,” he said.

In his most recent earnings call last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk weighed in on the colossal achievement it is to scale up. “Those who have never done production, they just don’t understand how insanely hard production is,” he said. “ … Protoypes are trivial. They’re child’s play.”

Hence why Solid Power’s news is important, and why many in the battery community are now watching for clues on whether the company has overcome the flaws its stuff showed in December. “In terms of size, Solid Power seems to be in the lead at the moment,” said Matt Lacey, an electrochemist with Scania, the truck-making arm of the VW group. “What concerns me with SP though is that besides energy density the performance did not look great on previous evidence. I’m guessing they will need some years to improve that to be competitive, but in the meantime Ford/BMW have something to design around.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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