Electric cars, solid state batteries. The future according to Made in Italy

Solid state batteries have been talked about for years, but they haven’t yet come out of labs. Now the Comau study shows promise: it could be built on a large scale using Italian technology

Like it or not, electric cars are the near future of the auto industry. Like it or not, the auto industry in the near future will have a big knot to solve: that of batteries. The battery is the heart of an electric vehicle, and today it is one of the most expensive components that can be manufactured. Autonomy depends not only on the battery, but also on performance, charging times and the final price of the car. But also safety because there is no point in denying it, even today it is impossible to say that electric car batteries are 100% safe: unfortunately, it still happens, even if much less than in the past, that the electric car “inexplicably” a fire. However, the explanation is usually there and must be looked for thoroughly in a battery that was damaged due to incorrect driver behavior or a factory defect causing one or more chemical reactions that led to a fire. One possible answer is the risks of fire and explosion of batteries, which the industry has been trying for years to make a reality with investments of millions and millions of euros in research, in so-called solid-state batteries. These types of batteries, say the researchers developing them, are “intrinsically safe” because, when manufactured, the chemical reactions that lead to a battery fire cannot occur inside them. Severe net damage or visibly tampered with.

Liquid state vs solid state

In today’s electric and hybrid cars, the auto industry uses different types of batteries, with very different shapes and chemical formulas, but all contain lithium ions and all contain a “liquid state” electrolyte. Made to the maximum, these batteries consist of three main components: a positive electrode (called the cathode), a negative electrode (called the anode), and a liquid or gel through which electrons move (called the electrolyte). So-called “solid-state” batteries are made in a very similar way, but the electrolyte is not a liquid or a gel: it is a solid, usually a ceramic-type material or a polymer. This “hardness” of the electrolyte rhymes with “stability” and, in practice, the fact that the electrolyte is solid prevents it from igniting and/or exploding. All this, among other things, with other advantages such as a greater amount of electricity that can be collected compared to conventional batteries with a “liquid” electrolyte (with the same weight and size of the battery).

battery lab

While there are indeed many “giant factories” in the world today that are capable of mass-producing, at lower and lower costs, conventional liquid electrolyte batteries, the same cannot be said for solid-state batteries. In fact, at present, there is no industrial process that would allow the production, in an automated and economically sustainable manner, of solid state batteries of sufficient size and capacity for use in electric vehicles. There are many studies going in this direction, but no manufacturer is capable of building large quantities of solid-state batteries for the automobile industry. The lack of an industrial process for building solid-state batteries, among other things, frightens the manufacturers themselves who, at this very sensitive historical moment of transformation, are spending billions of euros to build new factories and new production lines for liquid batteries. It is very easy to explain this fear, and it is also understandable: if a factory spends a few billion euros today to build a huge factory building batteries of a certain type, how can it spend a few billion euros from scratch in a few years to change everything and build another type of battery?

I study

If solid state batteries haven’t arrived yet, it’s also for industrial reasons: there are no factories to manufacture them and we don’t even know how to make them, because there isn’t yet a single type of solid state battery on any bet. But there are many experiments, one of which seems to give rise to hope: the British company Ilika Technologies, in cooperation with the Turin-based Comau (Stellantis Group), has conducted a study – within a project also funded by His Majesty’s Government – on the scalability of a particular type of solid-state battery, Which Ilika has been working on for years. The study served, in practice, to clarify whether and how it is possible to move from the experimental stage to the production stage, and on what scale. The results are promising: Ilika’s processes, born in the laboratory, are scalable thanks to know how And Comau, on an industrial scale, among others, without the battery manufacturer bleed to death during the transition to solid state. In fact, about two-thirds of the machinery in use today to produce conventional lithium-ion batteries can also be reused with a liquid electrolyte to produce new solid-state batteries. If all goes as predicted by Kumao and Elica, the money invested today to produce the batteries needed to survive in the electric car market will not be “ditched” tomorrow, because most of the machines can also be kept in the new production lines of new generation batteries. “Now we have to move on to the next stage: getting into the details of each battery production machine, moving from concept to machines – explains Gian Carlo Tronzano, global director of the Center for Global Battery Cell Efficiency in Comao – a new project in progress that has been discussed, if approved we will start in October It will last for two years.”

From concept to machine

All research projects related to the most advanced batteries in Comau pass through Tronzano, a company that has been working on technologies for the production of power complexes for the automotive industry for more than ten years: “We started with the production of packaging, then we went down to the units, both the prototype and Mass productionwe have worked on cell manufacturing”, explains the physicist-manager. However, Comao does not produce batteries: it produces the machines used to produce batteries. In short, to solve the problems of those who today have to spend those famous billions of euros to build barns with indoor battery production lines, which, Tomorrow they will have to spend more money to go from liquid state technology to solid state.If this is the technical option that will win over others, and that may not necessarily be why he cannot know today, for sure, what kind of battery we will use tomorrow : “It is a competition of technologies – continues Tronzano – technologies are evolving and it is not yet clear which will be the winner. This is why we work with many partners and on many fronts. “Today, on the other hand, Comau already produces the machines needed to make batteries for different types of cars: from mild hybrid to 100% electric, with cells of all shapes.

From machine to machine

Therefore, today’s lithium-ion batteries with a liquid electrolyte are perhaps the necessary bridge to transition from a thermal motor to a 100% electric motor. But it is not certain that we will continue to use them in ten or fifteen years. What is currently predictable, and confirmed by the Tronzano experience, is that the first solid-battery electric cars will be high-end models, and very expensive. Therefore, the new technology will appear first in a wide range of premium manufacturers: “My hypothesis is that maybe we will see the first prototypes already in two or three years – explains Tronzano – but commercial cars won’t arrive for five years. I hope the facts prove wrong ” . We’ll see, in a few years, which car manufacturers will be able to bring solid battery electric cars to market first and foremost, at what price. If, compared to current technology, this technology turns out to be really useful, we may well enter the long “solid state” phase, with a good chance of the production line coming out of which the battery for the car we drive is Made in Italy.

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