Even After You Fix the Explosions, Superbatteries Are Hard to Make
QuantumScape has released its first data, and battery scientists are impressed
A half century ago, Exxon pioneered, then abandoned a blockbuster new battery based on pure metallic lithium, a light element that packed the most energy punch of anything on the market, but also ignited dangerous explosions. Over the subsequent decades, numerous companies and labs tried to resurrect Exxon’s effort but foundered on the same shoal — the propensity of metallic lithium batteries to short-circuit and catch fire.
That long history of failure lies behind the release of data this week by two high-profile companies claiming metallic lithium breakthroughs that could lead to electric vehicles priced well below gasoline-fueled cars. The disclosures — today by VW-backed QuantumScape, which went public in a reverse merger last week; and this coming Thursday by Denver-based Solid Power, backed by Ford — won’t put to rest skepticism about the reality of commercializing metallic lithium batteries. But several leading researchers who examined QuantumScape’s data said in interviews that they were impressed with what they saw, especially that the company’s battery was depicted as working at normal temperature and charging in 15 minutes or less.
Among other companies also in the chase, GM last month said it was working on a metallic lithium battery that, if further development pans out, could power its mid-decade EV models. Two other high-profile competitors are South Korea’s Samsung, which published a much-discussed paper on metallic lithium in the prestigious journal Nature Energy in March; and the startup Sion Power.
All together, we have a scrum competing to at last deliver the metallic lithium superbattery.
“The holy grail of lithium-ion batteries is to go back to lithium metal,” Stan Whittingham, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year as the inventor of Exxon’s abortive metallic lithium battery, told me in a video interview. Whittingham, who serves as a paid member of a scientific advisory committee at QuantumScape, said the company seems to be ahead of the competition in terms of metallic lithium development.