How A Colorado Startup Could Change The Game For Electric Cars

Courtesy of Solid Power
Solid Power’s 22-layer, 20Ah all solid-state lithium metal cell compared to the company’s first-generation 10-layer, 2Ah cell.

Doug Campbell is on a mission to harden the hearts of electric cars. 

The co-founder and CEO of Solid Power has spent the last eight years developing a new kind of battery for carmakers. If it works, the Louisville, Colorado-based company could help overcome two major roadblocks to electric cars. According to a recent survey, U.S. consumers worry the cars are too expensive and could run out of power between charging stations.

“What our technology does is it improves range and lowers vehicle cost,” Campbell said. “It’s as simple as that.”

As the name of his company suggests, Campbell thinks the key is a more-solid electric car battery. The lithium-ion batteries powering almost all of today’s electric vehicles rely on a liquid electrolyte, which ferries charged ions from a cathode to an anode. While the technology makes it practical to charge and recharge, the liquid can catch fire if overloaded.

For decades, scientists have seen a potential answer in solid electrolytes, which could allow a battery to soak up more energy without overheating.

Se-Hee Lee and Conrad Stoldt, both professors of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, demonstrated a sulfide-based ceramic could be up to the task. As a bonus, the technology appeared compatible with the equipment used to make traditional lithium-ion batteries. The university spun off Solid Power to commercialize the technology in 2014.

Solid Power recently announced the technology appeared one step closer to car dealerships. Its pilot production line in Louisville has been updated to produce a larger prototype of its solid-state battery cell. Campbell said the device, which looks like a tightly packed envelope, shows the company is making progress at building batteries large enough to power electric cars.

“The achievement here is we’re actually getting into the range of automotive scale,” he said.

The company also released data on smaller prototypes. According to Solid Power, a battery cell in the research and development phase can operate at temperatures below freezing, which is often a challenge for electric cars. It can also charge from empty to 50 percent capacity in 15 minutes. Since the company runs its own production line, Campbell said those results could quickly be scaled up into a larger battery cell.

The announcement comes days after QuantumScape, another solid-state battery startup, announced test results for its own technology. The company claims its battery cells can charge to 80 percent capacity in 15 minutes and retain capacity after over 800 charging cycles.

While the QuantumScape results are impressive, they’re based on test results from individual layers, which still have to be stacked together to form a battery cell. Campbell said this suggests Solid Power could have a leg up when it comes to manufacturing.

“They still have a mountainous challenge in front of them, which is achieving production scale, which is not trivial,” he said. “And I can say that confidently because we just went through it.”

QuantumScape gained attention for its public offering earlier this year, which drew in $680 million. The company also counts Volkswagen and Bill Gates as investors. Meanwhile, just over $26 million in private investment has been sunk into Solid Power, according to the company. Sam Jaffe, a battery-industry analyst with Boulder-based Cairn Energy Research Advisors, acknowledged that’s a big difference, but it doesn’t mean QuantumScape has the better battery technology.

“It just means they’re good at fundraising,” he said. 

Long term, Campbell doesn’t imagine the Louisville plant will build the actual batteries for the next generation of electric cars. The company has partnerships with automakers like Ford, BMW and Hyundai, which could apply what Solid Power learns in larger manufacturing plants. The batteries would also need to survive an arduous qualification process, which is why Campbell doesn't expect the technology in a vehicle until 2025 at the earliest.

Campbell does hope Colorado continues to become an “innovation hub” for the electric car industry. Since Solid Power launched in 2012, he has watched several other battery startups pop up along the Front Range.

“I can’t overemphasize how cool that is,” he said.