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University of Texas Technology Commercialization Director Les Nichols: Solid State Battery won’t necessarily replace lithium-ion

When news broke that Professor John Goodenough – the pioneer of the modern lithium-ion battery architecture – had created a new “solid state” battery with 3 times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries, the lithium exploration business had a hear palpitation. Les Nichols, Program Director of the Physical Science Licensing Office of Technology Commercialization at The University of Texas, however, assures me in this podcast that lithium-ion batteries won’t be replaced anytime soon. But could these sodium-based solid electrolytes one day make lithium-ion batteries obsolete? Listen now to find out!


James West:    Les, thank you for joining me today.

Les Nichols:   You are welcome.

James West:    Les, recently there was a press release from the University announcing the launch of a new solid state battery, and this was by John Goodenough, who was involved in the formulation of the currently widely used lithium ion battery formulation. What is the main chemical composition difference between your proposed solid state battery and currently lithium ion battery technology?

Les Nichols:   Well, the main difference in this new invention from Professor Goodenough is the electrolyte in between the anode and the cathode, which is necessary for enabling the transfer of the ions back and forth for charge and discharge – the electrolyte in this new case is a solid, as opposed to current lithium ion, which has liquid electrolyte, which many times is a flammable liquid. So we see that some of these hover-board issues where the hover-board catches fire, or we see telephones, mobile phones that sometimes catch fire, that is because of this flammable electrolyte in the lithium ion battery.

So one of the benefits of our new invention is the non-flammable nature of the solid electrolyte.

James West:   What does the envisioned raw material requirement look like in terms of main ingredients as a ratio of total inputs per kilowatt hour generated?

Les Nichols:   Okay, great question. Now, I can’t go into too much detail, because some of this information is brand new and we’re currently filing patents on it. But I can say that the raw materials to synthesize this solid electrolyte are readily available and inexpensive. They’re environmentally friendly, and we envision a pretty simple and inexpensive process to manufacture.

James West:    Hmm. So just for clarity’s sake, and I’m not sure whether you’ll be able to shed light on this – does this mean that we won’t be needing expensive lithium, graphite, cobalt etcetera?

Les Nichols:   Well, now not necessarily, because certainly lithium has been used because of this outstanding properties for ion transfer. Now, we are running tests with our new material that replaces lithium with sodium, and sodium is certainly much more readily available, being as how there’s so much in the oceans. So it’s easily, readily available, inexpensive, and some of the testing we’ve done so far shows very good results using the sodium as the ion transferor.

James West:    Okay, so but in terms of cobalt and graphite, are they still going to be required?

Les Nichols:   Well, again, we currently are using carbon in the anode, so there could be some graphite involved. Cobalt, not so much.

James West:    Okay. So then, what is the likely timeline and evolutionary path until we might begin to see these new batteries in automobiles or consumer electronics?

Les Nichols:   That really is going to be dependent upon the licensees that I work with, because in my role in a technology transfer office, I’m taking the patents that we’ve got filed and we are filing around this technology, and we’re going to license these patents to battery manufacturers who have in-house R&D, so that they can focus on developing products out of the technology, while we continue at the University to focus on the fundamental research aspects to completely and totally understand this material, and exactly how it interacts with anode and cathode materials of different types. So we’re going to do the fundamental stuff here, these companies are going to license the technology and move it into development of product form factors, coin cells, wound batteries and pouch cells, so that they get into the product.

So we can estimate, I don’t know, two years or so to get to a coin cell product, and probably another year or a couple of years after that to get to pouch cell products that you would see in your laptops or your electronic vehicles. But that’s just a guess at this point.

James West:    Okay. So it’s very early stage yet.

Les Nichols:   It is early stage, that’s correct.

James West:    I see. So what are the advantages from a life cycle perspective in terms of cost, environmental footprint, energy density, cycle-ability, etcetera?

Les Nichols:   Again, we kind of touched on the low cost of the materials required to produce this electrolyte. We are currently in the midst of running cycle tests to determine the lifespan, if you will, charge and discharge cycle; because like current batteries, we expect degradation over time when you charge and discharge. But one of the things that’s truly beneficial about the solid electrolyte: it prevents the growth of dendrites, which are these tin whiskers, as we like to call them, that end up shorting out the anode and cathode, which causes these fires in a lot of cases.

So our material is not going to enable that to happen, is going to prevent that from happening, so it should be much safer and it shows in the laboratory tests to be much safer. And we’re still working on cycles; we’ve got some samples that have run thousands of cycles with minimal degradation, so everything looks really positive right now, but it is very early stage.

James West:    Okay. And so I guess you probably don’t really have a sense yet of how complicated this will be to scale to large commercial applications like automotive batteries?

Les Nichols:   Exactly. It’s tough to say. I mean, what we know now is that the synthesis method is easy, so we can certainly envision a simple scale-up. But it’s really going to be dependent on magnitude, because some of these plants like the big battery plant being built by Panasonic and Tesla out in Nevada, you know, that is a massive facility. So it’s going to depend on some of the scale factors that you’re talking about, as far as how many batteries you want to build per day.

James West:    Right. So what other competing technologies are out there that might one day replace this new one?

Les Nichols:   I asked our researchers that, and they’re not aware of anything that would compete with this. Now certainly there are several research efforts going on in solid electrolytes, because people realize that this flammable liquid that’s used in lithium ion today is hazardous. So there are polymer electrolytes and such that I’ve seen, but they have their own challenges, having to do with temperature, high temperature performance – because just like any polymers, there are going to be temperature limitations. So our glass electrolyte gets around that.

James West:    Okay. So but in terms of competing technologies, certainly a 3 x improvement on energy density is not something that is likely to come along that easily, even in these other sort of forms of electrolytes. I mean, the polymer electrolyte doesn’t…

Les Nichols:   Yeah, that’s correct. 3 x is pretty good.

James West:    Okay, interesting. So then are there any applications that your researchers have discovered for which the battery just will not be applicable?

Les Nichols:   None. It will be applicable for most all applications that we can envision.

James West:    Okay. And how long has this sort of idea been in development? When was it first thought of, and how long did it take to get to this point, where you’re ready to start licensing it for commercial development?

Les Nichols:   Yeah, in 2014 the original work on the material was being done and the electrochemical properties of the materials were discovered, and initial patents filed in that year. So it’s been two and a half, three years since it was initially developed.

James West:    Okay, so does this potentially throw a wrench into the manic investment hysteria surrounding all things lithium, and does this mean that lithium won’t be part of the future energy storage mix in any way, shape or form?

Les Nichols:   No, James, I don’t think so. Like we’ve said, we are doing tests with sodium as well as with lithium, but the benefits of lithium are clear, and are still there. This is just a way to maybe enable lithium to be used in a safer and more effective way. So I don’t think it displaces lithium at all.

James West:    Oh, okay, that’s great. And can you tell me what is the weight ratio per kilowatt hour relative to lithium ion batteries, the traditional formulation?

Les Nichols:   Well, I can tell you that the volumetric and weight per kilowatt hour is increased relative to existing lithium ion batteries. Exact ratios, I don’t have those numbers.

James West:    Okay, great. Well, Les, that’s very enlightening. I’d like to thank you for your time today.

Les Nichols:   Thank you, James. Appreciate it.