From The Mobilist Inbox This Week

Solid Power pivot, Ford wakes up, Cyber threat

Pivot at Solid Power? In December, Solid Power, the Denver-based solid-state battery startup, announced a big achievement — it had scaled up its pure lithium-metal anodes to an industry-standard, 20-amp-hours, an impressive 22-layer cell with specific energy density of a whopping 330 watt-hours per kilogram. It had a couple of serious flaws — performance plunged during fast-charging and at room temperature. But the company said it was working on that, and expected better performance this year. At the time, industry darling QuantumScape had produced only a single-layer cell. And, for public confidence of its progress, Solid Power had even sent its cells for independent, third-party validation, and expected results in a couple of months.

Early this month, the company announced a big new investment — Ford and BMW were leading a $130 million infusion of cash. In part, Solid Power planned to use the money to scale up to 100 Ah cells, the size required for commercial EVs. The company said it had overcome its fast-charging and low-temperature shortcomings and was pushing ahead. One thing caught my eye — unlike prior news releases by the company, the announcement said nothing about lithium metal, which was strange since most experts view the possibility to use lithium metal and its much higher specific energy density as the biggest rationale for going to the trouble of developing solid state technology. I asked Solid Power, Ford and BMW whether the cells they were describing had lithium-metal anodes. All three responded “Yes.”

It was surprising, then, when Solid Power announced yesterday that it is now producing a silicon anode. It said it will upgrade a 2 Ah silicon-based cell (five by 10 cm in size, in 10 layers) to 20 Ah by the end of this year, and 100 Ah next year. The silicon anodes will be ready to be in cars in 2026. This is all about being a platform play, the company said — it will produce silicon and lithium-metal anodes. Will McKenna, Solid Power’s spokesman, said the company expects its lithium-metal cells to be ready for EVs in 2027, the very next year after the silicon.

Yet, to my knowledge, Solid Power had never before spoken publicly about an intention to produce silicon anodes, nor of itself as a platform. It has yet to release the results of the third-party validation of its lithium-metal cells. So what’s going on?

James Frith, head of energy storage at BloombergNEF, told me he reckons that the company is moving to a two-tier product structure — with silicon, the cheaper product, to come first, and lithium-metal, the premium product, to come after. He said this was smart from a risk perspective: “In order for the economics of solid-state cells to work, we calculated that you really need a lithium metal foil thickness of ~20 microns, or a very high [energy] cathode material loading on the other electrode. This is hard to achieve and even if it can be done it’s not clear how fast you can run manufacturing lines using such thin and soft lithium foil. So the expansion to silicon provides some resiliency.”

Frith added, “Previously, a lot of Solid Power’s commercialization time frame and cost hinged on lithium metal foil production scaling and reducing costs. If that doesn’t happen, they have another product they can take to the market to ensure that they are generating revenue.”

That is, the silicon move may be a hedge in case Solid Power’s lithium-metal efforts don’t pan out. QuantumScape, Solid Power’s arch rival in the lithium-metal space, has repeatedly dissed Solid Power’s solid state technology. Without citing Solid Power by name, QuantumScape CEO Jagdeep Singh has claimed that Solid Power’s sulfide electrolyte won’t retard dendrite growth sufficiently to go commercial.

(McKenna told me that Solid Power is buying its silicon anode from an outside supplier, but declined to say from whom. BMW, Solid Power’s partner, is an investor in Sila Nano, but Sila Nano CEO Gene Berdichevsky declined to say whether Solid Power is a customer.)

In a webcast presentation today, Ford described a new battery play that it calls “Ion Boost Plus.” An executive spoke of the Solid Power investment and Ford’s hopes for its solid state architecture and silicon anode. Lithium-metal was not mentioned. Ford spokeswoman Jennifer Flake told me, “Solid Power is in the process of scaling up their silicon-based anode solid state cells now. They have tested them and shared the data with Ford. We will soon be receiving our first sample cells to test within Ford.”

So has Solid Power elected to pivot — just in case? McKenna did not like the question. His complete response:

“The list of companies pursuing sulfides is extensive compared to other chemistries. The platform allows for three unique cells for multiple automotive product life cycles geared to satisfy OEM objectives. Multiple products is not a pivot. It’s an expansion. As I can see the angle you’re planning to take, this is the last question I will answer.”

Ford’s waking-up parties: Last week, I wrote about Ford’s coming-out party for an electric version of its hyper-popular F-150 pickup. The gist — Ford is exhibiting lots of public excitement about its EV offerings, but until now has been electric-ambivalent compared with some of its competitors. Reader Anthony Lawrence remarked, “I guess they never read The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

This is precisely the point — until recent months, Ford had been betting that the industry is not in the middle of an inflection point. With that gamble, Ford, a legacy player, was risking going the way of Kodak. Now, the optics are of a company in a panic. In its webcast this morning, Ford said it is raising its spending on EV development above $30 billion by 2025, up 36% from its prior target of $22 billion. Ford looks like a company that believes it misunderstood what was happening.

The cyber threat: Yesterday, I wrote about the substantial, little-discussed cyber threat to the future of electrification — bad actors, both from states and criminal groups, have been mapping out and placing malware in the power grid, and gaining the capability of messing with EVs themselves. Mobilist reader Bob Koure responded, “As bad as things are now, it’s about to get worse. There are a myriad of internet-connected devices coming (IoT) and for those, by and large, the design emphasis is on low manufacturing cost, not security.”

And this on the geopolitics of electrification attacks, from Trey Herr, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council: “If Russia is worried about us putting forces in Europe, it’s ‘How can I slow it? I am going to look at the Texas grid, and destabilize or crash it. I need to know how it operates. What operators are lazy? Who has excess power?’”

Big Canadian battery project: A long-gestating, $500 million stationary battery storage project in Ontario has gotten a big financial boost. The Canada Infrastructure Bank has agreed to invest $170 million in the 250-megawatt project, which is a partnership between NRStor and a First Nations company, Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corp. Annette Verschuren, CEO of NRStor, told me that the project will be connected directly to the grid and will use wind and solar power.

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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