Quantum Leap for Solid State?
QuantumScape going public, new US DoE projects, career insights with Crystal Jain, and more.
Hello and welcome to Intercalation Station - we’re Andrew & Nick, two energetic individuals in the battery space. We hope this newsletter will be your stop for the latest battery innovations in research and industry, intercalated monthly into your inbox. We’d love it if you share & subscribe!
🔬 RESEARCH NEWS
U.S. National Labs Tackle Battery Manufacturing
Tesla’s recent battery day fanfare has brought manufacturing to everyone’s attention. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy has emphasized its support to accelerate scientific breakthroughs towards battery manufacturing competitiveness.
A total of $15 million was awarded to 13 public-private projects that include national labs and industry partners. We believe these projects give a great overview of what the biggest challenges are in nearly at-scale-commercializable battery technologies:
Lithium brine processing
Hydrothermal production of single-crystal Ni-rich cathodes for high rates
Surface conditioning of high-Ni low-Co cathodes
Single crystal Ni-rich cathodes with advanced lithium salts
Continuous synthesis of electrolyte components
Continuous high yield production of defect-free, ultrathin sulfide glass electrolytes
Roll-to-roll processing of sulfide solid electrolytes
Halide-type solid electrolyte production
Scale-up of halide-solid electrolytes
Graphene monoxide production for anodes
NMP-free electrode coating of ultrathick architectures
Metalized polymer current collectors
Laser and acoustic diagnostics for battery manufacturing
🏭 INDUSTRY NEWS
QuantumScape driving out of stealth in style
Silicon Valley-based QuantumScape (QS) will be the first US battery manufacturer to go public in the last 10 years. They hope to bring solid-state batteries to market, and will be going public via the ever so popular SPAC method, resulting in a market cap of $3.3B (£2.6B). According to CEO Jagdeep Singh, QS will use the transaction to fund the company’s plans for commercial production. See their investor presentation here.
QS has been notoriously stealth on their solid-state electrolyte technology for the past decade, but their team of investors including Volkswagen, Kleiner Perkins, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Khosla Ventures, have attracted attention all over the world.
Energy density: >400Wh/kg vs conventional Li-ion ~250 Wh/kg
Separator: Solid-state ceramic with high dendritic resistance.
Lithium metal anode: Anode-less cell design with lithium plated during charge cycles.
Fast charging: < 15-minute fast charge from 0 to 80%
IP: 200+ patents in the portfolio and 100+ trade secrets
Cost: 17% lower manufacturing costs with established manufacturing processes
Market: The only Li-metal solid state battery with automotive OEM validation
Manufacturing: 2025 production at 20 GWh scale for factory #1 (QS-1)
While these all sound incredible, we took to our community to critique technical details and voice key concerns.
With the use of pure lithium metal in an anode-less manufacturing process, one of the concerns is how to maintain cell/pack mechanical integrity which occurs during charging and discharging cycles. As Steve Levine writes, the key to making lithium metal work is depositing it with glassy smoothness on the surface of the copper current collector, with no bumps, undulations, or defects of any sort. If volumetric changes or defects are not properly controlled, cells can be easily damaged. QS’s claim to 4C charging means a mammoth task of uniformly plating 2 um/min of lithium metal - as pointed out by Dan Steingart via Faraday’s law:
Cycle life is a critical metric when evaluating battery performance, to see how much the charge fades with cycle number. We have yet to see this kind of data from QS.
As with all battery manufacturing, we expect QS needs several years to validate the scalability for commercial volumes, specifically with the ceramic separator materials as well as manufacturing packs and modules beyond pilot-scale cells.
Overall, QS has an incredible technology with huge claims that has left parts of the scientific and academic community with what we’re calling skeptical optimism. Dr Matt Lacey shared on Twitter his thoughts in a detailed thread, estimating 355 ± 41 Wh/kg for a possible QS pouch cell (assuming NCA cathode 4mAh/cm2, 23 x 16cm cell with 20 electrode layers)
“Improvements in the tech will happen but we just need to be careful with hype vs reality. Many battery companies have failed to fulfil their potential as there are many challenges and solid state is the latest "hot tech". When it's validated in an application it gets interesting.” - Dr Billy Wu, Imperial College London.
Nonetheless, this is a tremendous commercialization move from Volkswagen to invest in the future, and we’re expecting an increasing number of joint ventures between automotive OEMs with battery companies in order to push the frontier of the electric vehicle. With limited public information, we’re staying skeptically optimistic and we’ll see how the market reacts in a few months when we see the QS stock ticker.
Additional reading from Steve Levine
The origin story of Quantumscape - Steve Levine
👩🔬 COMMUNITY FEATURE
As we grow, we’re experimenting with interviews with battery professionals to become a more connected community. We hope this will allow our readers to learn about other battery professionals’ origin stories, and to reach out to form a wider network. Tweet us at @IntercalationSt if you’d like to share your story!
An interview with Crystal Jain
Crystal is currently a graduate student of Materials Science at Georgia Tech. Her research, advised by Dr. Gleb Yushin (Co-Founder, Sila Nanotechnologies), focuses on fabricating a high energy-density thin-film solid state battery. Over the summer, she interned with Tesla’s Cell Manufacturing team as a process engineer. Prior to graduate school, she worked at Apple for 4 years as an Engineering Program Manager on the OLED display technology of the Apple Watch and iPhone. Her interests lie at the intersection of technology development and commercialization for batteries.
If you’re interested in connecting, send Crystal a message on LinkedIn.
Tell us the Crystal Jain origin story. How did you become interested in science and engineering, and more specifically in the field of batteries?
I have asthma and run half marathons often, so I monitor air quality pretty closely. In grade school, I built a haze monitor to measure atmospheric haze levels in different cities. I proved that automobile traffic and haze were directly correlated. That sparked my initial interest in air quality and sustainability. Minimizing carbon emissions from automobiles is essential in tackling the world’s CO2 levels. Batteries play a huge role in that, and will continue to do so as the global demand for electric vehicles increases.
Upon graduating with a ChemE degree from Berkeley, I was open to graduate school, but didn’t know which area to focus. From previous internship experiences, I knew that the classroom & industry often differed from one another. I decided to use industry to figure it out. Apple presented a unique opportunity as an Engineering Program Manager (EPM). As an EPM, I worked across the aisle with engineering, operations, vendors, and business teams to drive technical readiness of OLED display technologies. I found that new materials development drove some of our greatest technical competencies as a company. After 4 years marked by successful launches of the Watch Series 2 & 4, I decided to apply to graduate school and pivot to a more hands-on materials role in the energy storage industry. Dr. Yushin’s lab at Georgia Tech has a strong emphasis on commercializing energy storage research, which made it the best personal fit.
You’ve worked at Apple on the watch team, interned at Tesla on the battery team, and currently doing your masters in Georgia Tech on battery materials. What was most interesting about each of those roles?
Apple: I discovered my love of consumer product development and traveling around the globe.
Georgia Tech: It greatly enabled me to pivot industry and role. As a grad student, I have a hand on every part of the battery I make, from the design to fabrication to validation.
Tesla: As a former PM, I now got to sit on the other side of the table in a more “hands-on” engineering role as I donned a respirator and helmet to troubleshoot issues on our pilot line.
What exactly are you working on now at Georgia Tech?
I’m making a solid-state thin-film high-energy density battery which uses a metal fluoride compound as the cathode. The goal is to enable a more cost-effective battery (metal fluoride compounds are much cheaper than traditional cathode materials such as LCO) with an extremely thin design.
It’s such a huge step in the work environment. How was it to transition from a big company like Apple into a battery research group?
It’s definitely not easy. The opportunity cost of leaving industry to pursue higher education can oftentimes be high; losing a stable income and promotion opportunities for two years isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. There is also a stark contrast in culture. Because grad school moves at a much slower pace than industry, it requires a lot of self-motivation and creating your own schedules. Research also almost always goes wrong, in ways you would never expect it to! That being said, I value my time in graduate school. It’s certainly opened more doors, re-oriented me in terms of industry space, and granted me more time to pursue my hobbies.
What’s next for you after your masters degree?
I’m interested in developing and scaling new battery materials & chemistries in industry. I’d like to stay committed to consumer products & commercialization.
The majority of our readers are PhD candidates and post-docs who many are interested in industry careers - what’s your advice for academics who are interested in working in the battery divisions of corporations like Tesla or Apple?
My advice for current PhD students is to complete a few engineering internships during the course of their graduate program. Reach out to professionals in your field of interest (doesn’t have to be batteries specifically!) to ask them more about their day-to-day. I’d recommend doing at least 2 internships: 1 in R&D and 1 in manufacturing / operations. Grad school research often involves getting a prototype to work, but appropriately scaling, validating (crucial when a battery’s consequences can be life or death), and monetizing is something that you truly need to experience in a company setting. With a few industry experiences under your belt, you will then be equipped with insider knowledge of academia, design, and operations. Having this at your disposal helps inform your next steps!
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
Know someone who you’d like us to feature next? Let us know!
🎧 WHAT WE’RE READING/LISTENING TO
🚀 STARTUP MOVEMENT TRACKER
🌞 THANKS FOR READING!
If you enjoy this newsletter or know someone who would, subscribe here. For news tips, feedback, or business enquiries, please reach out and have a great week!
About the writers: Andrew is an engineering science PhD student at the University of Oxford (@ndrewwang). Nicholas is a business manager at UCL Business and involved in physical science and computer science startups in London (@nicholasyiu).