"The future is solid, the present is fluid" — Prof Shirley Meng
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Last week, SES (formerly SolidEnergy Systems) held SES Battery World, a keynote event during which the GM-and-Hyundai-backed startup unveiled the world's largest lithium metal battery for EV applications (dubbed the ‘Apollo’) and a plan to set up Shanghai Giga, the world's first lithium metal gigafactory.
The presentation was split into three parts to share the company’s future plans: Hermes (their cell platform for materials development and testing), Apollo (their large-format cell form factor for EVs), and Avatar (SES' data platform to create digital twins of their cells for more accurate failure prediction).
The company is set to list on the NYSE via a SPAC merger with Ivanhoe Capital Acquisition Corp and will be listed as $SES if approved.
Back in September in the run-up to the Battery World keynote, SES released 3rd party data on their hybrid lithium metal 'Hermes' cells (take a look at the thread below for a quick recap on their technology, energy density, and pack safety):
Hermes cells use a hybrid lithium metal battery technology, meaning a high concentration solvent-in-salt liquid electrolyte on the cathode combined with a protective coating on the lithium metal anode. According to SES, this solid anode layer enables the high energy density afforded by lithium metal without the inherent risk of dendrite growth, which has historically been a problem. SES is using Hermes cells as their platform for materials development.
(If you’d like to get into the weeds with the 3rd party validation data yourself, you can check out SES’s summary of external 3rd party testing here, and a more detailed original report from one of the external reviewers, Eclipse Energy, here.)
For Battery World, SES put together videos featuring not one, but two different go-kart proofs-of-concept demonstrating the performance of Hermes cells in EV applications (check out SES on Wheels and SES & Hyundai on Wheels on the Battery World recap page to watch):
"We put the Hermes cell into a real-world driving test, which is 24% lighter, 77% higher energy density and 35% longer range compared to other standard go-kart Li-ion batteries."
Apollo, which SES says is the "largest lithium metal battery the world has ever seen", is a 107 Ah cell that weighs just 0.982 kg with specs of 417 Wh/kg and 935 Wh/L on a cell level. SES has tested Apollo cells at 1C, C/3, and C/10 and says they can be readily made with today's manufacturing equipment. A typical automotive EV will take 150-300 of these cells to power the vehicle.
However impressive this display was, it was just one cell. SES noted that the cell presented onstage was one of the first they’ve produced and, as a result, there’s very limited test results on Apollo cells. SES founder and CEO Qichao Hu also mentioned a slurry of challenges ahead for the outsized form factor:
Scaleup. Upsizing from 4.2 Ah to 107 Ah is a whopper of a task. Key challenges include (1) making their solvent and high concentration liquid electrolyte in-house, and (2) mass manufacturing the large-format lithium anode with a coating, which no manufacturer currently makes today.
Technical. Apollo cells will require external pressure due to anode expansion, Hu confirmed. This has been tackled through internal cell design, pack design, and module design to accommodate cell swelling. Only a very preliminary check on these Apollo cells has been done so far (including the fresh-from-the-oven sample shown onstage), but SES stated they will announce more data next year.
SES announced Shanghai Giga, the world's largest lithium metal battery gigafactory, will open in 2023. Shanghai Giga (not to be confused with Tesla’s Giga Shanghai) will be a 300,000 square foot facility capable of producing up to 1 GWh of lithium metal batteries per year once completed.
SES announced they are working closely with General Motors and Hyundai to supply automotive A samples by 2022, B/C samples by 2024-25, and production by 2025. SES is the "only company to enter into automotive A sample joint development in lithium metal with car companies.”
Key markets for SES will be standard ground-based EVs as well as aircraft, which the company sees as having huge market potential. Some work is also being done on drone applications with smaller format cells. In addition, SES is working with a slew of other partners to get their technology off the ground.
Throughout the talk, Hu emphasized how SES is a software company in addition to being a hardware company (hence the .ai domain for their website). Avatar is the name of the company’s AI-powered software platform that collects data on “every step of the entire process” and creates a “digital twin” — a model of a cell that SES says can be used to monitor battery health and predict performance issues and failures before they happen.
Multi-layer polymer coated Li anode for high density Li metal battery. The patent describes a polymer coating over the lithium metal layer (204) on current collector (202), comprised of at least 2 polymeric layers (206 and 208).
High Salt Concentration Electrolytes For Rechargeable Lithium Battery. The patent describes a lithium imide salt with a fluorosulfonyl (FSO2) group (concentration >2 mol/L solvent).
Electrolyte system for high voltage lithium ion battery. The patent describes a high voltage cathode material, and the electrolyte comprising imide salt (LiFSI) and a perchlorate salt (LiClO4).
“The future is solid, the present is liquid” — Prof Shirley Meng
Since the demise of Pellion Technologies, battery startups have largely avoided combining lithium metal anodes with liquid electrolytes. Notable exceptions include Cuberg (acquired by Northvolt), Factorial Energy, and now SES. It's great to see the advancement of lithium metal batteries in production and concrete plans for the tech to slot into OEMs’ net-zero goals (i.e. Hyundai and GM). Overall, this is a step forward for lithium metal, a pre-requisite for many high-capacity applications requiring volumetric densities of >1000 Wh/L.
However, the event does invite some critique. The 3rd party validation results look promising, but we’ll need to see repeated fast-charge testing and more safety tests to be completely sold. It also appears to be very early stages for the Apollo form factor, which faces a whole mountain of manufacturing challenges to overcome (and we’ve yet to see much data from the 107 Ah cells). After all, “it’s not valuable to humankind if it can’t be scaled.”
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