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LOUISVILLE, Colo. — Doug Campbell considers himself an unlikely leader for a battery startup on the cusp of big breakthroughs.
A little more than a decade ago, his first exposure to batteries came when he inherited a team of engineers working on lithium-ion batteries for aerospace applications. He quickly cribbed the basics.
“I kid you not, I had to pull up Wikipedia,” said Campbell, whose background was in business development. “I was like, ‘OK, cathode, anode, I think I got this.'”
After spending the past decade as CEO at Solid Power Inc., Campbell and his solid-state battery company are on firm footing. The company, which went public via a special purpose acquisition company in December, counts Ford Motor Co. and BMW as major backers. Samsung Ventures and Volta Energy Technologies are also investors.
Solid Power reached another milepost Monday, unveiling a fully operational production line that’s now producing sulfide-based battery cells at the company’s headquarters outside of Boulder, Colo.
Solid Power says the cells will initially be used for internal testing and that it is capable of producing 300 cells per week. Prototypes are expected to be delivered to Ford and BMW by the end of the year. While it’s too early for set plans, Solid Power says it is targeting the start of mass production in 2026 for battery cells that would support vehicles in 2027.
Starting production represents a concrete step in eventually reaching that scale with solid-state batteries that automakers hope can deliver extended range – as much as 50 percent higher than what’s available from conventional lithium-ion batteries today – for car buyers who are buying EVs in greater quantity than ever before.
Further, Campbell says temperatures in Solid Power’s particular solid-state blend are extremely stable, reducing the need for certain aspects of cooling, which in turn, reduce overall battery costs by about 10 percent.
“This contributes to the overarching value proposition of increasing performance and reducing the cost, and that’s dead center to the market pain right now,” he tells Automotive News.
Building the prototype production line has not been Solid Power’s only major project. Nearby, the company is constructing a massive, football-field-sized plant in the north Denver suburb of Thornton, where Solid Power intends to produce electrolyte — enough to annually power 800,000 EVs by 2028.
Such scale is an ambitious goal, and it’s one shared by any number of competitors in the battery space, where fledgling solid-state technology has been — at least in sizes large enough for automotive applications — both promising and elusive.
The global solid-state battery market accounted for $290 million in revenue in 2021, according to consulting firm P&S Intelligence, and that’s forecast to grow to $3.9 billion by 2030. Solid-state battery tech could be nothing less than “the future of electric transportation,” the firm proclaims.
But that has long been a goal that’s been slow in materializing.
“Solid state, it’s a bit like fusion energy,” said Jonathan Geurkink, mobility analyst at research and data firm PitchBook. “Everyone knows it’s going to be the future, but the future keeps getting pushed out.”
For all their higher energy density, faster charge times and chemistries that are less flammable, he said solid-state batteries can be fragile. At a time when automakers are placing hopes in companies like Solid Power and competitors such as Factorial Energy, QuantumScape, SES Holdings and others, the durability of solid-state batteries remains an unknown.
“You can get a lot of things to work in the lab,” Geurkink said, “but can you get them to scale in manufacturing? Can you get them to work on the road for ten years and 200,000 miles? I don’t know.”
Solid Power might be further along than most in providing an answer. Beyond starting its own prototype line, the company signed a joint-development agreement with SK Innovation to manufacture battery cells. Terms of the deal call for Solid Power to license its technology and manufacturing practices.
Campbell said he believes that manufacturing process will be a linchpin in Solid Power’s success. The company is designing its manufacturing footprint to match that of today’s lithium-ion cells in an effort to make products compatible with today’s gigafactories.
“We are not reinventing the wheel from a manufacturing standpoint, and with some very modest retrofitting, gigafactories spitting out lithium-ion cells today could be switched over to solid state,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to compete with those factories; I want to enable them.”
Establishing that, of course, hinges on the success of the battery, which incorporates a high-content silicon anode, sulfide solid electrolyte and a nickel, manganese and cobalt cathode. Future products now in R&D may eliminate the need for nickel and cobalt – two materials in high demand and scant supply.
If it’s a long-term project, Solid Power is accustomed to patience.
Solid Power was originally founded in 2011 by Campbell and two University of Colorado professors — Conrad Stoldt and Sehee Lee. Two years later, the company received a $3.45 million grant from ARPA-E, the U.S. government agency that funds high-potential energy tech typically too embryonic for private investment.
Solid-state technology had existed for thin-film batteries, but not for automotive-grade batteries.
Solid Power, using battery technology licensed from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Colorado, soon raised further funding from the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA. It did not raise its first round of venture capital until 2018.
“We wanted to take our time and de-risk the technology,” Campbell said. “This was early. So the approach was, ‘Let’s go after some patient capital, and then when the time is right, then let’s approach the VC community.”
The company’s knack for good timing continues to pay off.
Solid Power’s December SPAC merger netted $542.9 million, and came mere months before the economic downdrafts that have tightened the flow of venture capital and hindered public listings.
“For competitors, it’s going to be harder for them to raise funds, harder for them to scale up,” Geurkink said. “So I think it does somewhat benefit the incumbents, if you will, like QuantumScape, like Solid Power, that already have good OEM backing and support. … Those two companies are the key frontrunners, certainly in the funds they’ve raised and the relationships they have.”
With the economic doldrums less of a concern, with a strategy of retrofitting existing factories with key partners, and with an electrolyte facility being built and a line now producing cells, Campbell is more succinct:
“There’s a lot of blue-sky potential.”