Solid-state batteries are already forcing spark-plug giant NGK to shift focus

Solid-state batteries hold the promise of lighter weight and greater energy storage capacity for electric cars, while also moving away from expensive metals and acids used in lithium-ion battery designs.PHOTO BY NISSAN

Report: NGK Spark Plugs is getting ready for a future without spark plugs

The rapidly approaching electric car future, accelerated by government mandates targeting internal combustion engines, would seem to spell the end for quite a few companies that have produced components for engines. But several of those companies have foreseen the eventual demise of internal combustion technology and began planning for its phaseout years ago.

This includes 81-year-old NGK Spark Plug, based in Nagoya, Japan. The company has turned its attention to creating solid-state batteries, which hold the promise of lighter weight, greater energy storage and faster recharging times for electric cars. Solid-state batteries are so named since they don’t contain the liquid electrolytes present in lithium-ion batteries, which is what makes them heavy, difficult to build and a fire hazard when damaged. Instead, they are composed of solid conductive materials that can include ceramics — NGK’s area of expertise for decades.

“We realized that it was inevitable that the industry would at some point shift from the internal combustion engine to battery EVs, and that ultimately this could make our spark plug and oxygen sensor businesses obsolete,” Takio Kojima, senior general manager of engineering and R&D at NGK Spark Plug told Reuters.

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While Toyota is pursuing solid-state batteries composed of sulfide-based solid electrolytes, NGK is focusing on developing batteries composed of ceramics, which offer greater stability at high temperatures. Solid-state batteries that use ceramics are already in use in small personal devices such as fitness monitors, Reuters notes, but scaling up this technology to car batteries still requires solving a few problems.

“It’s relatively easy to work in smaller sizes, but when you get to larger sizes it gets very difficult to assemble each layer because it’s difficult to make each layer the same thickness,” Hideaki Hikosaka, a member of NGK Spark Plug’s solid state battery r&d team, told Reuters.

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The company is currently aiming to match the performance of traditional lithium-ion batteries by 2020 and to create lighter and more powerful solid-state batteries during the next decade.

Still, this is easier said than done: Battery experts predict that scaling up solid-state designs will pose significant challenges and will create competition among different battery designs, as their internal makeup will vary greatly based on their specific needs. This means we’re likely to see a much greater variety of solid-state batteries on the market in different vehicles.

The good news for electric car owners will be lower battery weight and greater range once solid-state technologies are scaled up and become cost-competitive. The good news for the environment will hopefully be less reliance on the mining of rare earth metals, and more cost-effective and cleaner ways of recycling batteries. But the road toward solid-state batteries is far from certain, especially when it comes to making this technology competitive in the early days of its use in electric cars.

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