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Toyota's game-changing solid-state battery en route for 2021 debut

Japan's government to join forces with industry to supercharge development

Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda speaks in front of an image of a concept car during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A trip of 500 km on one charge. A recharge from zero to full in 10 minutes. All with minimal safety concerns. The solid-state battery being introduced by Toyota promises to be a game changer not just for electric vehicles but for an entire industry.

The technology is a potential cure-all for the drawbacks facing electric vehicles that run on conventional lithium-ion batteries, including the relatively short distance traveled on a single charge as well as charging times. Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an electric vehicle equipped with a solid-state battery in the early 2020s. The world's largest automaker will unveil a prototype next year.

The electric vehicles being developed by Toyota will have a range more than twice the distance of a vehicle running on a conventional lithium-ion battery under the same conditions. All accomplished without sacrificing interior space in even the most compact vehicle.

Solid-state batteries are expected to become a viable alternative to lithium-ion batteries that use aqueous electrolyte solutions. The innovation would lower the risk of fires, and multiply energy density, which measures the energy a battery can deliver compared to its weight.

It would take roughly 10 minutes to charge an electric vehicle equipped with a solid-state battery, cutting the recharging time by two-thirds. The battery can extend the driving distance of a compact electric vehicle while maintaining legroom.

Toyota stands at the top of the global heap with over 1,000 patents involving solid-state batteries. Nissan Motor plans to develop its own solid-state battery which will power a non-simulation vehicle by 2028.

The shift toward the new battery technology will also have an effect on companies further down the supply chain.

Japanese auto materials makers are rushing to set up the necessary infrastructure to supply automakers. Mitsui Mining and Smelting, commonly known as Mitsui Kinzoku, will start up a pilot facility that will make solid electrolytes for the batteries.

The production site, located at a research and development center in Saitama Prefecture, will be able to produce dozens of tons of solid electrolyte annually staring next year, enough to fulfill orders for prototypes.

Oil company Idemitsu Kosan is installing solid electrolyte production equipment at its Chiba Prefecture site with the aim of beginning operation next year. Manufacturing solid electrolytes requires solidifying sulfides, which is a specialty of the metal and chemical industry. Sumitomo Chemical is developing material as well.

Japanese manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic have been pioneers in commercializing battery cells for vehicles. But since the late 2000s, Chinese rivals have emerged to prominence. Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited, also known as CATL, is now the world's largest supplier of lithium ion batteries. Japan's Asahi Kasei, once the global leader in battery separator material, gave up the crown last year to Shanghai Energy.

Electric vehicles are anticipated to become commonplace amid the global shift away from carbon. The Japanese government has been encouraging the domestic development of solid-state batteries, under the outlook that most of the technology relating to automotive performance will depend on China if the status quo holds.

The government is putting together a fund of about 2 trillion yen ($19.2 billion) that will support decarbonization technology. Policymakers will consider using those funds to provide subsidies of hundreds of billions of yen that will fund the development of the new batteries.

The goal is to support the development of a mass-production infrastructure within Japan. Because solid-state batteries use lithium, an element with limited global reserves, the government will assist in procuring the material.

The rest of the world is following suit. Germany's Volkswagen plans to have production running for solid-state batteries as soon as 2025 via a joint-venture with a U.S. startup.

Chinese tech group QingTao (Kunshan) Energy Development will spend over 1 billion yuan ($153 million) into R&D of solid-state batteries, among other areas. The investment will last for three years starting in 2021.

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