Eager to regain its stature in the lithium-ion battery business, Japan is focusing on developing longer-lasting solid-state batteries, but it is not alone.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

In 2019 Yoshino Akira, along with M. Stanley Whittingham and John B. Goodenough, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery. The technology had been in the making since the 1970s, but a Japanese team led by Yoshino is credited with making it safer and commercially viable in the early 1990s. Due to their ability to store energy off-grid, Li-ion batteries now power most smartphones and other portable devices, as well as electric cars.

Japanese firms like Panasonic led the Li-ion business early on, but more recently the balance of power has shifted towards China’s CATL, LG of South Korea and others. Japanese firms are keen to reclaim their stature, and aim to do so by focusing on solid-state batteries. These work in much the same way as standard Li-ion batteries. The difference is that in the former, a liquid or gel electrolyte regulates the flow of lithium ions between electrodes, while solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte.

Solid-state battery technology offers a number of advantages, such as longer lifespan, more safety, faster charging, and lighter weight. Many are working on refining it, especially in Japan, which submits more patents for battery technology than any other country. According to The Economist, more than one in two solid-state-related patents were filed by Japanese firms and inventors between 2014 and 2018. The government has been generously funding solid state battery research in the past few years.

Japanese industrial and chemical firms are lining up to produce materials for solid-state batteries. Electronics component maker Murata Manufacturing plans to begin mass-producing them soon. Its president, Norio Nakajima, sees “lots of potential in wearables”. Interest in solid-state batteries for electric cars is high amongst Japan’s automotive giants. Honda and Nissan are involved, while Toyota said it plans to invest $13.5 billion in new car batteries by 2030, including solid state.

The main reason solid-state batteries are not already the dominant power source for electronics and EVs is the challenge of making them. The technology requires plant environments to be completely dry, for one. Takahashi Tsukasa of engineering firm Mitsui Kinzoku describes the production of solid electrolytes as a “very difficult process”. Maeda Masahiko, Toyota’s Chief Technology Officer, says “we can’t be optimistic yet”, though the company wants to start manufacturing in the mid-2020s.

Japanese firms are also facing stiff competition from foreign companies, particularly in the automotive industry. Most of the world’s big carmakers, including America’s Ford, Germany’s Volkswagen, and Hyundai of South Korea, are working on solid-state cars and could decide to make their own batteries. Volkswagen has been working with American solid-state-battery firm QuantumScape since 2012. In 2018 it formed a joint venture with the firm to produce solid-state batteries on an industrial scale. The race is well underway.

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