Eighty-Two-Year-Old Glassmaker Eyes Future in Next-Gen Batteries

Written by Chisaki Watanabe and Emi Urabe. This article first appeared in Bloomberg News. 

Ohara Inc. sees batteries playing a bigger role in its future.

The Sagamihara, Japan-based optical glassmaker, whose products are used in precision optical devices such as digital cameras and telescopes, is eyeing a share of the fast-growing battery market with a material that it says can be used in both next-generation batteries and to enhance conventional batteries.

The company’s efforts rest on a material called LICGC, or lithium-ion conducting glass-ceramics, which it wants to use in solid-state lithium-ion batteries. Solid-state batteries, which dispense with the liquid electrolyte blamed for causing batteries to heat and catch fire, are currently under development by companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Dyson Ltd.

Solid-state batteries are creating buzz — and attracting investments — as researchers search for safer and more powerful energy storage and as the auto industry beefs up production of cleaner cars.

“Solid-state batteries will take time and they are a mid-term, long-term business,” Kousuke Nakajima, an executive officer at Ohara, said in an interview.

Shares in Ohara, which was founded in 1935, have more than doubled since the start of the year. The company, which also makes glass ceramics for hard disk substrates, is a supplier to Canon Inc., which holds an 18 percent stake in Ohara.

Demand for lithium-ion batteries for EVs will grow from 21 gigawatt hours in 2016 to 1,300 gigawatt hours in 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

According to BNEF’s long-term outlook for electric vehicles, 530 million electric vehicles could be on the road by 2040, representing 33 percent of the global car fleet. Moreover, more than half of all new car sales will be electric by that time.

Battery Additive

Ohara found that its glass ceramic can work as an additive to conventional batteries filled with liquid. Adding the material to a cathode can accelerate the speed at which lithium ions move, Nakajima said.

Adding LICGC boosted the capacity of a battery by 25 percent at 20 degrees Celsius below freezing, and as much as 44 percent at room temperature, according to the official.

“While trying out different things for next-generation batteries, we’ve also come up with a way to use our material in lithium-ion batteries with liquid electrolyte,” Nakajima said.

Automakers — both Japanese and foreign — are interested in using LICGC as an additive. Ohara also wants the material to be used as a solid electrolyte for small batteries for watches and smartphones — and eventually in electric vehicles.

But challenges remain, Nakajima said. Ohara’s electrolyte, which is oxide-based, is competing with sulfide electrolytes being developed by companies such as Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co.

Sulfide types tend to have higher lithium-ion conductivity and are used more often to make prototype solid-state batteries. Still, oxide-based solid electrolytes are more stable in the atmosphere, and will require less in terms of capital investment, Nakajima said.

Toyota, which commissioned Ohara as part of a government pilot project to develop solid-state batteries that ended in 2016, is researching both oxide and sulfide electrolytes, according to Akiko Kita, a spokeswoman for the automaker.

“We consider the sulfide type closer to commercialization,” she said by email, adding that while the oxide version has high potential, it still needs a technological breakthrough.

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