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[News Analysis] How far along is Korea in solid EV batteries?

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (left) shakes hands with Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Chung Euisun. (Yonhap)
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (left) shakes hands with Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Chung Euisun. (Yonhap)

Despite daunting competition against market giant China and tech-savvy Japan, South Korean battery makers -- LG Chem, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation -- have been making headway in the global electric vehicle battery industry.

In the first quarter this year, buoyed by several consequences including the COVID-19 pandemic, LG Chem even seized the top spot with a 27.1 percent share of the global market.

But they may face a harsh shift in dynamics if they fall behind in developing next-generation batteries, according to experts and industry sources.

A crucial factor is the race to develop solid-state batteries. These are also called dry batteries, as they use solid electrodes and solid electrolytes, instead of the liquid or polymer gel electrolytes found in lithium-ion or lithium polymer batteries. Dry batteries are not only potentially safer but also offer higher energy densities, meaning they can store the same amount of energy while being smaller and lighter.

The Fuji Economic Institute in Japan predicts that the market for all-solid-state batteries will grow to 38 trillion won ($22.8 billion) in 2035.

Japan has had the most advanced technologies so far, and it has been the most vocal in promoting the marketability of solid state batteries. Firms in the US, China and Europe have also since joined the race.

Dry batteries also received attention in Korea recently after Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong invited Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Chung Euisun to Samsung SDI’s EV battery plant in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province on May 13. The two reportedly discussed Samsung’s dry battery technology.

It raised the question: so how far along is Korea in solid-state batteries?

In short, Korea is behind.

In contrast to Japan’s plan to mass produce dry batteries starting in 2022, Korean battery makers do not have a prototype yet, according to the industry.

“The strategy right now is to be a fast follower, as Toyota is the leader in solid-state battery technology,” an industry source said.

Another source compared it to Samsung Electronics’ strategy to catch up with Apple when the iPhone first came out.

Granted, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology made a significant leap in the research by announcing the world’s first technology to solve a problem related to dendrites in March.

Dendrites are needle-like crystals that can develop on the anode of a battery during charging and reduce battery’s lifespan and safety.

“Though Samsung solved the dendrite problem, it will take four to five years to solve other issues, and another one to two years for mass production (of solid-state batteries),” a company official said.

In comparison, Japanese carmaker Toyota said in 2017 it would introduce solid-state EV batteries by 2020 and mass produce them in 2022. For this, Toyota partnered with Japanese battery maker Panasonic in December 2017. The Toyota-Panasonic alliance decided to form a joint venture for the research and development of EV batteries and eventually launched Prime Planet Energy & Solutions in April 2020.

Doubts over solid batteries

Meanwhile, Korea’s biggest EV battery maker LG Chem is sticking to conventional lithium-ion batteries for now.

“LG Chem will have a sample of a solid-state battery around 2025. However, there is no plan yet for mass production,” an LG Chem official said.

“Lithium-ion batteries are becoming cheaper and they have been proven to be safe to a significant level. Just because solid-state batteries are technologically more advanced, there is no guarantee they will become a trend in the EV battery market.”

Market watchers also doubt Toyota’s claim of progress. Japan’s Nikkei daily reported they won’t see widespread commercial use of solid-state EV batteries before 2030.

Meanwhile, Hyundai, as an EV manufacturer, has also reportedly been looking to develop its own solid-state-batteries.

“Hyundai Motor is researching various types of batteries including solid-state-batteries,” a company official said.

In May 2018, Hyundai Motor invested $5 million into Ionic Materials, a US-based solid-state battery developing firm, according to news reports. Three months later in August, Hyundai Motor made second investment into another US-based solid-state battery firm Solid Power. Samsung Electronics also made investment into this firm.

By Kim Byung-wook (