Why Mercedes-Benz and Hydro-Québec partner on future battery technologies

The battery technology is a key element of electric mobility and has made significant progress in recent years. Lithium-ion batteries are the most common type used in electronics and electric vehicles today. In the years ahead this technology will continue to set the pace, but there is more to come.

The battery is not an off-the-shelf product, but an integral part of the vehicle architecture. The intelligence of the battery lies in a highly complex overall system, which defines the characteristics of the vehicle with respect to performance, range and charging times. As part of its research and development activities, Mercedes-Benz AG is currently going into a development partnership with Canadian battery material specialist Hydro-Québec on future technological leaps of electric vehicles. The focus: Solid state batteries.

A talk with Karim Zaghib, General Manager of Hydro-Québec’s center of excellence in transportation electrification and energy storage.

Karim Zaghib, General Manager of Hydro-Québec’s center of excellence.

What is your vision on future battery technologies?

Karim Zaghib: Our vision is very clear: We want to reinvent energy for a sustainable future. Our aim is to develop ultra-high-performance battery technologies and storage systems that will accelerate transportation electrification and make it possible to bring more renewables onto power grids, on a global scale. If we want to leave a viable planet to future generations, the time to act is now.

What #next big things are you currently working on?

Zaghib: My Center’s efforts are focused on advanced lithium ion batteries and solid state batteries. We developed a first-generation solid-state battery in the 1990s and have continued our R&D to improve both efficiency and manufacturing methods with a view to a new generation. Solid-state lithium metal batteries are supposed to be a next important technology milestone, having a very high energy density, are long lasting and very light moreover harnessing the potential of solid-state-materials on safety. With our latest developments we have achieved very promising results.

How do the activities of Hydro-Québec and Mercedes-Benz fit?

Zaghib: We’re pleased to be partnering with Mercedes-Benz, an automotive company with an enviable reputation, to pursue our research even further. Our development program will allow us to test new materials quickly in field conditions, and so accelerate the development cycle and respond to the concerns of automobile manufacturers.

What exactly is the difference between today’s Li-ion technology and solid-state?

Zaghib: Solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte material instead of the typical liquid electrolyte. The electrodes are solid too. The job of the electrolyte is to transport ions between the electrodes, as the battery charges and discharges. Solid electrolytes open up the possibility of using new types of anode, such as lithium metal, which makes it possible to have higher energy content combined with optimized safety than today’s graphite anode. This is a very exciting field of research with still a lot of opportunities.

What ways do you see to reach market readiness?

Zaghib: Lithium-ion chemistry is a very powerful chemistry with great potential. The transformation from Li-ion to solid-state batteries is not going to happen overnight. Despite the first generation of Lithium-Metal Polymer solid state batteries with moderate energy density, further solid-state solutions aren’t production ready yet but are worth to work on further as they have some vital advantages. Note that for solid-state batteries, both the electrode and electrolyte types are made of a solid material. New generations of these materials will be quick to charge and are basically non-flammable. What we definitely can say is that the solid-state battery technology has made big steps during the last years. Currently we are working on ceramic solution, for example. Both polymere or ceramic solid state electrolytes can be used. They have different characteristics and might be suitable for different use cases each. In particular ceramic materials offer very high stability against high temperatures and can tolerate higher temperatures during e.g. fast charging processes very well.

How important is sustainability for your development work?

Zaghib: (Laughs) The most important! Otherwise I would not do the job already for 30 years. When it comes to the sustainability of batteries, the question how to design and produce the battery sustainably is core. We need to further develop efficient recycling technologies for batteries. The choice of material plays a decisive role here. We have a long track record in working with sustainable materials and their application to large cells and battery packs.

Are solid state batteries the ultimate successor of li-ion based batteries?

Zaghib: We will need diverse energy storage technologies for a sustainable future. There is not one technology as a silver bullet for all industries and applications.

What fascinates you most about your research field?

Zaghib: The energy transition is the most exciting time for the industry for decades. Completely new markets are emerging. The development is incredible and it makes me happy to work in a field with so much potential.

Hydro-Québec and its Center of Excellence in Transportation Electrification and Energy Storage is a world-class innovation hub in the field of battery materials for electric vehicles and other energy storage applications, both stationary and mobile. Directed by Karim Zaghib, an internationally renowned expert, the Center has a high-caliber team working to revolutionize the energy industry. Zaghib was recently named one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds for the three years in a row. The center of excellence commercializes Hydro-Québec technologies protected by over a hundred of families of patents.

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