TOKYO -- Solid-state batteries have the potential to dominate the next generation of batteries, letting Japanese companies regain prominence in a field they once led.
Although the use of rechargeable solid-state batteries in electric vehicles has drawn the most attention, it is in consumer electronics that this new technology could make its impact felt first.
Japanese electronic components maker TDK is at the forefront with a tiny solid-state battery that can sit on a fingertip. That signals a chance for Japanese companies to reclaim market share from their rivals in South Korea and China in the highly competitive field.
Unlike the current lithium-ion generation of batteries, solid-states have no liquid that can leak so they are safer, and they also have the capacity to hold a far greater charge.
TDK has completed developing a chip-sized battery a few millimeters long that can be recharged 1,000 times. It has already begun shipping samples and is setting up operations for mass production. The company expects applications in the home, the office and the factory for equipment like lighting and air conditioners. For the last of these, the tiny batteries would replace the alkaline button batteries now used to power the sensors that measure temperature throughout a room to adjust the level of the air conditioner.
Many kinds of next-generation batteries are under development, but solid-states are the furthest along and may soon find practical applications.
One promising application is as a replacement for lithium-ions in electric vehicles. Japanese automaker Toyota Motor aims to have solid-state batteries ready for market during the early 2020s that can charge faster and give cars a greater range. Germany's Volkswagen plans to have mass-production in place by around 2025.
But neither of these projects has reached the stage where batteries are ready for shipping.
If tiny solid-state batteries from companies like TDK reach the market, their applications could spread throughout society far beyond vehicles. Challenges like greater charge capacity remain to be resolved, but it may not be long before these batteries find their way into computers, smartphones and all manner of consumer electronic products.
It is no surprise, therefore, that so many companies are competing to develop solid-state batteries.
Japanese materials and electronics maker Taiyo Yuden aims to have a larger battery measuring several centimeters on a side ready by around 2020 for products like smartwatches. And electronic components maker Murata Manufacturing is developing an ultra-thin 50-micron version that can serve the future market for wearable devices like smart contact lenses.
Hitachi Zosen intends to promote applications in the aerospace sector in 2019, and establish technologies to enter the market for electric vehicles in the later 2020s.
The competition for solid-state batteries is global in scale and not limited to Japan. South Korea's Samsung SDI and LG Chem are developing their own for electric vehicles, and a number of startups around the world are involved in the field.
But Japan, with its wealth of knowledge about industrial materials and material-processing technologies, has the potential to lead the pack in battery development.
Sony was the first to commercialize lithium-ion batteries, but it lost market share as upstarts from South Korea and China got their hands on the manufacturing technologies. Similarly, Panasonic was the leader in producing batteries for electric veicles, only to see China's CATL overtake it to become the largest supplier in 2017.
With the advent of solid-state as the next generation in battery technology, Japan has a chance to get back in the game.
As more and more devices become networked in the "internet of things," there will be a tremendous demand for batteries that can be miniaturized and prolong the working life of sensors. Solid-state batteries could play an essential, if backstage, role in the data economy of the future. market researcher Fuji Keizai forecasts that the solid-state battery market will take off around 2030 and grow to be worth some 2.78 trillion yen ($24.67 billion) in 2035. In 2017, it was worth a mere 2.1 billion yen.