A new polymer that conducts ions at room temperature is showing promise as a battery material for electric cars, consumer electronics, and grid storage systems. The polymer, developed by engineers at Ionic Materials, Inc., could serve as a solid electrolyte—possibly one day acting as an alternative to the conventional liquid electrolytes used in virtually all of today’s lithium-ion batteries. “This will be the first viable solid-state solution for batteries,” Mike Zimmerman, founder and CEO of Ionic Materials, told Design News.
The new material, patented by the company, represents a departure from the status quo in solid-state battery development in that it is a polymer, or plastic, instead of the more common ceramic or glass material. “All of the solutions to date have been ceramics or glasses,” Zimmerman told us. “But they can be brittle and hard to scale up.”
Mike Zimmerman of Ionic Materials: “This will be the first viable solid-state solution for batteries.” (Image source: Ionic Materials, Inc.)
The key to Ionic’s effort is that its material scientists were able to develop a conduction mechanism that allows ions to transfer through the polymer at room temperature. “The most desirable way to incorporate a solid electrolyte into a battery is through the use of plastics,” Zimmerman added. “But it hasn’t been done before because there’s not been a polymer that could conduct ions at room temperature.”
Solid-state electrolytes have been a Holy Grail of sorts for the battery industry for years. Automakers and consumer electronics manufacturers want them because they are inherently safer than liquid electrolytes. They also offer the promise of higher energy density, lower cost, and faster recharge times.
Up to now, however, solid-state batteries have faced numerous challenges, including manufacturability issues. But Zimmerman said that his company’s new material is inherently better-suited to manufacturing than ceramics or glasses. “Because it’s a polymer, it can be scaled into high volume,” he told us. “It can fit into battery manufacturing very easily.”
Zimmerman also says his polymer material would eliminate the overheating and explosion problems notably seen in some lithium-ion batteries, while offering twice the energy density of those chemistries.
The technology is attracting interest from venture capitalists, automakers, energy companies, and even other battery manufacturers. Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi announced it is investing in Ionic Materials earlier this year, as did Hyundai Cradle, Hyundai Motors’ venture capital arm. Similarly, French-based energy giant Total has invested in the technology. And battery manufacturer A123 Systems is teaming with Ionic on batteries for plug-in vehicles.
Zimmerman said he expects the technology to begin ramping into production in about two to three years. One of the keys to that rapid deployment, he said, is its manufacturability. “It’s a solid and it can be extruded,” he told us. “You can make it using any plastics processing.”
Zimmerman will be on hand at the upcoming Battery Show to discuss the solid-state battery in a session titled, "Enabling Solid State Batteries Through Polymer Innovation."
Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.
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