For decades, battery researchers have toiled away trying to crack the code for a new battery that could trump lithium-ion batteries — the technology that brought the electric vehicle industry to where it is today.
Now a decade-old startup backed by members of the tech investing elite and global auto giants says it has created working batteries that could lead to electric vehicles with significantly longer ranges, that can be produced at a lower cost, are safer to operate, boast longer lifespans and support faster charging.
Meet QuantumScape, a battery company that's been in stealth for a decade while its team has worked on developing what the industry calls a solid-state, lithium-metal battery. The solid-state moniker refers to the elimination of the liquid electrolyte, which in traditional batteries fills the cell and is used for charging and discharging.
The company was founded by serial entrepreneur Jagdeep Singh (who created broadband infrastructure company Infinera) and Stanford scientists Fritz Prinz and Tim Holme. To date, QuantumScape has raised $1.5 billion in capital through a combination of funding from the likes of car giant Volkswagen and public funding by going public via a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. It's trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol QS and last week closed at $42.50 per share.
Early investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures — formed by tech titans Bill Gates, John Doerr and Vinod Khosla — as well as Lightspeed Ventures. Tesla's former CTO, JB Straubel, sits on the company's board, as does Doerr.
The secret sauce
What makes QuantumScape's battery hold such promise? A traditional battery has a positive electrode, called a cathode, and a negative electrode, called the anode. In a lithium-ion battery, the cathode tends to be a lithium-metal oxide, and the anode tends be made of graphite. A thin, porous separator keeps the two electrodes apart to prevent electrical shorting, and the liquid electrolyte moves the lithium ions.
QuantumScape's battery can use the industry-standard mixed-metal cathode, but the company has developed a unique solid ceramic separator. The battery is manufactured without the anode and without the electrolyte, which the company says makes it more compact, more energy-dense and safer to operate.
When the QuantumScape battery is charged and discharged, the lithium metal moves through the separator and creates a thin layer of a lithium-metal anode. The secret sauce is in the chemical composition and manufacturing process of the separator. When I questioned QuantumSpace's Singh about the material of the separator, he described it as the company's trade secret.
So how would these innovations look applied to an electric vehicle? QuantumScape says a car using its batteries could charge to 80 percent of capacity in just 15 minutes compared to the potentially hour-plus charging times required for today's EVs. The company says cars with QuantumScape batteries also could have an 80 percent longer range than ones using today's lithium-ion batteries.
"For the first time, it's not the battery that's the limitation," for EVs, Singh said.
For the first time, it's not the battery that's the limitation.
Fifteen-minute charge times and many hundreds — or even thousands — of miles on a charge would make EVs far more competitive with internal combustion vehicles and the swift gas station refueling experience.
The future of solid-state batteries
QuantumScape is making noise this week because it's showing off performance data. The company says this is the first time that a solid-state battery maker has shown that its battery works in real-world conditions. It'll talk more about the details of the performance results with a virtual panel this morning featuring a who's who of battery experts like former Tesla CTO Straubel, Nobel Prize winner Stan Wittingham, and Paul Albertus, former head of the US DOE ARPA-E IONCS solid-state battery program.
Don't expect the company's battery to revolutionize EVs overnight. Despite 10 years in development, QuantumScape is still far from the finish line.
The company still has to create a factory to produce the batteries at a commercial scale, and then it will have to go through a year of pilot testing with automakers such as Volkswagen. QuantumScape and Volkswagen have created a 50/50 joint venture to produce the first battery factory.
"It'll be 2024 before you'll see cars with these batteries in them," Singh said.
Many battery startups have faltered through the so-called "valley of death" between a viable technology and the funds needed to scale the tech to a commercial level.
But four years is also not much longer for a team that's been heads down for a decade. "What we didn't realize is how much work it would be. From this point on it's all about execution," Singh said.
At the same time over the next four years, lithium-ion batteries also will drop in cost and increase in energy density and keep making EVs cheaper and more competitive with gas cars.
While QuantumScape can take advantage of these innovations (as it uses some standard li-ion tech) it's also competing with lithium-ion batteries, which have been the single most important technology development in the electric vehicle industry.