University of Michigan lands $11 million research grant for ceramic EV batteries

The University of Michigan has been awarded an $11 million federal grant that will fund research for ceramic batteries in EVs that have the potential to double range and eliminate fire risk.

The U.S. Department of Energy grant, announced Tuesday, will establish an Energy Frontier Research Center at the Ann Arbor university, where a team of six professors will lead the research in partnership with 10 other faculty members at universities across the country, said Jeff Sakamoto, director of the center and professor of mechanical engineering.

The fundamental research will focus on developing solutions for solid-state batteries as opposed to lithium-ion batteries used by automakers today. Solid state batteries are safer and more efficient, Sakamoto said. The challenge is mass manufacturing them.

“Solid state battery research has been ongoing for about 10 years,” he said. “Since that time, it’s no longer the buckshot approach (to EV battery technologies). It’s kind of like the silver bullet approach. That one bullet is the solid state.”

The grant will be distributed over four years, and UM will have the opportunity to apply for a four-year extension of the project.

The center will work in concert with the state-funded $130 million electric vehicle training center at UM, which was unveiled in July, but the funding is separate.

With federal funding, Sakamoto was able to tap researchers across state lines, which was vital to the project given the need for specialist knowledge. For example, professors at Northwestern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were brought on board to help with hydrogen storage research.

Other partner institutions are University of Texas, Austin; Georgia Institute of Technology; Princeton University; Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Purdue University.

The research will happen away from the industrial sector, though automakers will pay close attention to outcomes, Sakamoto said.

“I can’t think of a single OEM right now that’s not interested or heavily invested in solid-state batteries,” he said. “The reason these OEMs are interested in this technology is not just because it has a lot of promise but because it is maturing quite quickly.”

The key benefits of a ceramic ion conductor over a lithium-ion battery are that ceramic is not combustible and it performs more efficiently the hotter it becomes, Sakamoto said. That means a ceramic battery has double the range and no risk of going up in flames.

However, the solid-state battery technology has not matured enough to be commercialized yet because it is expensive and exceptionally brittle.

“In terms of the mechanical processes, they’re no different than a coffee cup,” Sakamoto said. “You know what happens when you drop a coffee cup: It shatters.”

Still, Sakamoto said he is convinced that ceramic batteries are the future for EVs and that the new research will help eventually bring them to market.

“We need more advanced manufacturing to commercialize this technology,” he said.

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