How to Spot Misleading Battery Research in the Age of EVs
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
In the modern battery industry, one of the hottest topics of research is the solid-state battery. With solid-state batteries, we can reduce the risk of fire in batteries while also improving their energy storage properties. Despite the fact that no solid-state batteries have ever been commercialized, it’s easy to find both companies and news sources claiming that we already have solid-state technology. How did this paradox come to happen?
In a field as hot as the EV industry, it’s extremely important to do your due diligence. Often times, especially with publicly-traded companies, generating hype for a new product will lead to a spike in stock price that can push the company further into the public spotlight, even if these claims turn out to be untrue. A recent example of this is the company QuantumScape, who promises to deliver all-solid-state batteries with lithium metal anodes and a proprietary solid electrolyte. QuantumScape is one of the few publicly-traded battery tech companies, and even has a partnership with Volkswagen that has been influential in shaping the perception of the company.
In early December of 2020, QuantumScape released data for its cells with a solid-state separator, which went on to create a major stir in both the battery community and the stock market. In this press release, a number of interesting phenomena were explored, including fast-charging, long lifespan, and excellent performance at low temperatures- all common challenges that lithium-ion batteries face. The solid-state battery is seen as the Holy Grail of the battery industry, so this data was received very well by battery professionals, and rightfully so; the release showed significant improvements in a number of areas and made the solid-state battery seem like it was ready for industrialization. Many battery professionals and media outlets were ecstatic about these results, with QuantumScape quickly being hailed as the saviors of the solid-state battery. With this publicity came a massive increase in stock price, with the value of QS stock tripling in only a couple of weeks.
While this meteoric rise for QuantumScape was certainly a promising sign for the battery industry, the booming stock price couldn’t last forever. After hitting a peak in late December of 2020, the stock had a long period of freefall that saw it return to its pre-data valuation of $40 a share in early February 2021. Over time, more and more flaws in the data were found, and the initial excitement of their data was gone. Most importantly, their claim to solid-state batteries was fundamentally flawed, and many people didn’t realize until months after the first data release.
When there is so much hype around battery innovations, and so many people want to make promises for the sake of gaining a competitive edge, how can you know what’s real? Here are a few guidelines that I’ve found helpful on my battery education journey:
Data is king. While executives can make all the promises they want about their technology, none of that really matters until they can prove it. Any claim made without data to back it up, especially those made by people who aren’t directly involved in R&D, should be taken with a major grain of salt.
Not all data is created equal. As we discussed earlier, simply sharing data is not enough to prove a point. The conditions in which data are collected are extremely important to contextualize the findings of a study. For example, if I wanted to convince you that my batteries had exceptional rate performance, I could cycle them at 50℃ so that the extra thermal energy allows for rapid movement of lithium ions, and if I am not clear about this when I share my data, then I would be misleading you with my results. This is why the data published by QuantumScape is so important- their clarity about cycling conditions represents a standard that should be followed by everyone in both industry and academia when publishing cycling results. Even if conditions are selected in a way that exaggerates performance, sharing these conditions enables a trained eye to identify how results are affected by conditions.
Know common buzzwords. Some of the hottest trends in the battery field today are often thrown around somewhat loosely in the interest of generating hype. By far, the most common misnomer is calling things solid-state when they don’t truly fill the definition. For the reasons we’ve already discussed, there is a huge incentive for solid-state battery development As we saw with QuantumScape, anyone claiming to have solid-state cells should be closely inspected- even if a solid-state separator is used, it’s entirely possible that the electrolyte is still liquid-based. The term “next-generation” is also used so frequently that it doesn’t have a strong definition- some will say that it could apply to advanced lithium-ion systems, and others will say that lithium-sulfur systems or all solid-state systems are the only batteries that can truly be classified as next-gen. All of this is to say that while calling a battery next-gen certainly sounds interesting, it ultimately doesn’t mean too much outside of attracting your attention.
Watch out for data comparisons. Of course, one of the best ways to demonstrate the value of your new battery technology is to stack it up against your competitors so you can quantify exactly how good your new technology is. Be wary when you see comparisons like this- try to track down the exact sources of data used. It’s not uncommon to compare against outdated results to give an inflated sense of your progress, so try to find what year the comparison data is from before making any serious judgements. After all, with how frequently we see figures showing how a certain company’s new cells are leagues better than everyone else’s, you have to imagine that they may not be comparing apples to apples.
Track down primary sources. This is always true when doing research, but it still applies in battery research. If you see an article that talks about research published by another group, whether it be academic or industrial, take a look at the original source, as this is the way that the people who collected the data intended for it to be shown. One of the most common sources of misleading information is key information getting lost in translation, and you can clear up this confusion for yourself by reading original sources.
The most important thing we can take away from this is that trustworthiness is incredibly important when developing new technology, whether it’s for electric vehicles, renewable energy, or anything that could require public support to achieve its full impact. There’s no shortage of doubters and critics surrounding EVs and their batteries, and each public mishap simply gives naysayers yet another reason to doubt. Whether it’s in academia or industry, being as transparent as possible about everything you do is the best way to avoid misleading people with your results. Even if the results don’t initially look as strong as they could be, in an industry as new and volatile as electric vehicles, the long-term value of public trust can far outweigh the short-term gain in hype.
Whether it’s solid-state batteries or some other brand-new technology, we will see great breakthroughs in battery research during our lives. Along the way to these discoveries, there will be people who claim to have the next big thing when they really don’t. With these principles in mind, you’ll find that spotting phony claims is easier than you might think.
Johansson, Patrik, et al. “Ten Ways to Fool the Masses When Presenting Battery Research**.” Batteries & Supercaps, vol. 4, no. 12, 2021, pp. 1785–88. Wiley Online Library, https://doi.org/10.1002/batt.202100154.
LeVine, Steve. “An Ultra-Secret Battery Startup Hints That It’s Blown Past Tesla — But Won’t Show the Goods.” Marker, 23 Sept. 2020, https://marker.medium.com/an-ultra-secret-battery-startup-hints-that-its-blown-past-tesla-but-won-t-show-the-goods-2ed31173610d.
Oberhaus, Daniel. “Did QuantumScape Just Solve a 40-Year-Old Battery Problem?” Wired. www.wired.com, https://www.wired.com/story/quantumscape-solid-state-battery/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.
“Solid State Battery Technology.” QuantumScape, https://www.quantumscape.com/technology/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.