Just as it was stepping up its economic offensive against China, India, through a newly-floated state-owned company, inked a pact with an Argentine firm mid-last year to jointly prospect lithium in the South American country that has the third largest reserves of the silver-white alkali metal — a crucial building block of the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs), laptops and mobile phones.

The new company, Khanij Bidesh India Ltd — incorporated in August, 2019 by three state-owned companies, NALCO, Hindustan Copper and Mineral Exploration Ltd, with a specific mandate to acquire strategic mineral assets such as lithium and cobalt abroad — is also learnt to be exploring options in Chile and Bolivia, two other top lithium-producing countries.

Currently, India is heavily dependent on import of these cells and the move to ink sourcing pacts for lithium is seen as another salvo in the front against China, a key source of both the raw material and cells. India is seen as a late mover as it attempts to enter the lithium value chain, coming at a time when EVs are predicted to be a sector ripe for disruption. And 2021 is likely to be an inflection point for battery technology, with several potential improvements to the Li-ion technology, and alternatives to this tried-and-tested formulation, under advanced stages of commercialisation.

The most promising are solid-state batteries that use alternatives to aqueous electrolyte solutions — an innovation that could lower the risk of fires, sharply increase energy density and potentially take only 10 minutes to charge an EV, cutting the recharging time by two-thirds. These cells can extend the driving distance of a compact electric vehicle while maintaining legroom — a quantum leap in battery tech.

The new options

Despite the improvements in lithium-ion batteries over the last decade, long charging times and weak energy density are still barriers. While the Li-ion batteries are seen as sufficiently efficient for applications such as phones and laptops, in case of EVs, these cells still lack the range that would make them a viable alternative to internal combustion engines. A number of alternatives are being fostered to achieve more optimal options.

# Toyota’s solid state battery: Among the 1,000-odd global patents involving solid-state batteries, Toyota heads the list. The Japanese automaker is attempting to wrest back the lead from the Chinese, who are current Li-ion battery pack leaders — with the Nigde, China-headquartered Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd the world’s largest supplier of lithium ion batteries and Shanghai Energy dethroning Japan’s Asahi Kasei in battery separator material. Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an EV equipped with a solid-state battery and will unveil a prototype this year. Nissan too is in the fray.

Apple battery tech: In the last fortnight of 2020, Apple Inc said it’s moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle. While the rumours were abuzz for a while, the subtext held out a clue — Apple’s own “breakthrough” battery technology would be a vital cog in its goal of building a personal vehicle for the mass market. Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a person quoted by Reuters who was privy to Apple’s battery design.

# QuantumScape’s solid-state battery: Californian battery start-up QuantumScape Corp. is being seen as another extremely bright prospect. Founded by Stanford University scientists a decade ago, and with financial backing from Volkswagen AG, QuantumScape is one of the leading developers of solid-state lithium metal batteries for use in EVs.

Earlier efforts to create a solid-state separator (electrolyte) capable of working with lithium metal had to compromise on the other aspects of the battery like the cycle life, operating temperature, cathode loading, and excess lithium deposits on the anode. QuantumScape seems to have circumvented this, and its use of a solid state separator technology eliminates the side reaction between the liquid electrolyte and the carbon in conventional lithium-ion cells’ anode.

Appreciation for the technology has come in from Dr Stanley Whittingham, co-inventor of Li-ion battery and winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who said: “The hardest part about making a working solid-state battery is the need to simultaneously meet the requirements of high energy density, fast charge, long cycle life, and wide temperature-range operation… If QuantumScape can get this technology into mass production, it holds the potential to transform the industry.” Volkswagen plans to have production running for solid-state batteries as soon as 2025 via the partnership with QuantumScape.

# Tesla’s new tabless battery: In September 2020, Tesla unveiled plans to develop a new “tabless” battery that could improve an electric car’s range and power. A tab is the part of the battery that forms a connection between the cell and what it is powering. Tesla will produce its new batteries in-house, which CEO Elon Musk predicts will help dramatically reduce costs and enable the company to eventually sell EVs for the same price as petrol-powered ones, the company announced at its much-hyped “Battery Day” event in Palo Alto, California.

These new tabless cells, which Tesla is calling 4860 cells, will give the company’s EV batteries five times more energy capacity, make them six times more powerful, and enable a 16 per cent range increase for Tesla’s vehicles.

# In July 2020, researchers at Stanford University claimed that they had developed a new electrolyte design that boosts lithium metal batteries’ performance, increasing the driving range of EVs. They said that the electrolyte solution had been one of the most significant factors holding back progress for lithium metal batteries. Researchers at Penn State University had earlier claimed to have developed a lithium-ion battery that is safe and can last up to one million miles. At Penn State’s Battery and Energy Storage Technology Center, a team of researchers developed the new battery.

# Chinese tech group QingTao Energy Development is spending over $150 million in R&D of solid-state batteries, among other areas. The investment will last for three years starting in 2021.