Electronics is a fast-paced industry. Barely a month passes
without the launch of a brand new, high-powered smart device
claiming to revolutionise the way we live, work or drive and
most of these products are made possible by batteries.
Amid the seemingly relentless march of technological
progress, it is perhaps easy to overlook the fact that
engineering the batteries that make many of these advances
possible is a difficult process in which the odds are on
Incidents of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries in phones, cars
and even aeroplanes catching fire have served as sobering
reminders that this said to be game-changing chemistry is not
yet perfect. As a consequence, rafts of researchers around the
world are working feverishly to try and design better
One company doing just that is Ilika Plc, a UK AIM-listed
new materials specialist, which is developing Li-ion solid
state batteries (SSB) that it believes can resolve many of the
issues associated with incumbent Li-ion technology and create
openings for batteries to be used in a variety of new
Instead of using the liquid or polymer electrolyte found in
conventional Li-ion batteries, SSBs use a solid ion conductor
– a ceramic one, in Ilika’s case
– making the battery less flammable.
Estimates for the size of the SSB market vary. Ilika quotes
figures from France-based industry consultants Avicenne, which
forecast that the sector’s value will grow from
$8bn in 2013 to around $32bn by next year.
A more recent forecast by research firm Markets and Markets
predicts the industry will be worth just $1.1bn by 2020, while
emerging technology tracker IDTechEx estimates a market size of
$7bn by 2027.
This suggests either wild over-optimism on the part of
Avicenne, which could not be reached to discuss its
projections, or that there is some discrepancy between what
different forecasters include within their definition of
According to IDTechEx, Li-ion batteries celebrated their
25th commercial anniversary last year, but the relative lack of
significant innovation in their design over the last two and a
half decades has brought to light limitations in terms of their
safety, performance and cost.
Lithium-iodine SSBs were first commercialised in the 1970s
to power pacemakers, but it is only fairly recently with the
introduction of new sulphide-based materials that SSBs have
been made rechargeable and considered as potential competitors
to their more prevalent liquid electrolyte counterparts.
Ilika’s CEO, says that SSBs are not in
competition with conventional Li-ion technology but have
their own specific target markets.
Graeme Purdy, Ilika’s CEO, says that his
company was prompted to develop an alternative to "traditional"
lithium batteries when Toyota Motor Corp. began putting out
feelers for more reliable technology to power its
hybrid-electric vehicles (EVs).
Toyota launched its best-selling Toyota Prius
electric-gasoline hybrid in 1997, powered by
nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries. Since then, it has
experimented with various lithium battery chemistries,
including liquid electrolyte Li-ion technology, and is now
using Ilika’s high throughput physical vapour
deposition (HT-PVD) technology to develop batteries for its
next phase of plug-in hybrid EVs.
"We were first approached by Toyota in 2008, which has a
vision to replace the Li-ion batteries in its hybrid vehicles
with SSBs because of their improved safety profile," Purdy told
"During the course of that work, we realised that SSB
technology – in which flammable liquid electrolyte is
replaced with a solid ion-conductor – could be used to
produce batteries that can power autonomous sensing devices for
the Internet of Things in many areas such as medical,
industrial, agriculture, sensors for smart cars and homes."
Liquid state batteries contain a cathode and an anode
prepared from powders mixed to form an ink, deposited as
slurry, which is first dried then calendared to make films
several 10s, even 100s of microns thick. By contrast,
Ilika’s separator films, deposited by PVD, are
just a few microns thick.
As well as making it less prone to igniting, this battery
design imparts other advantages, including a smaller footprint,
faster charging, longer life span and low leakage.
Although Toyota is using Ilika’s technology to
design alternative Li-ion batteries for its cars, Ilika
insists that its trademarked Stereax SSBs, which it makes
itself and are the company’s first product
available for commercial licensing, do not compete directly
with traditional Li-ion technologies.
"Stereax batteries are useful for miniature applications in
medical devices and the semiconductor industry as well as in
high temperature environments," Purdy explains.
These batteries are made from many of the same materials as
conventional Li-ion products, but because Ilika currently only
produces them in small quantities, their selling price is
higher than the mass produced Li-ion batteries.
Ilika’s SSB. These graphite-free batteries
allow for miniaturisation
and higher performance.
Like other Li-ion batteries, Ilika’s SSBs rely
on raw materials derived from natural resources. Purdy says
that the company sources the lithium for its batteries in
pellet form from speciality metal suppliers, but declines to
divulge any further details about its procurement.
Average spot prices for lithium have increased threefold
since 2014, but Purdy is not worried, for now, about rising
costs or availability of this key raw material.
"We are aware about the risks associated with lithium being
sourced from a small number of countries, however our SSBs use
so little lithium – it represents less than 1% of the
battery, that’s under a milligram – that
the cost does not concern us at the moment," he told
IM. "Clearly, when the shipped volume of our
Stereax SSBs grows, fluctuations in materials costs may have a
Unlike conventional Li-ion batteries, Ilika’s
SSBs do not contain graphite. "This is used in conventional
batteries to increase electrical conductivity in electrodes.
The Stereax SSB has thin films that do not require additional
help for the conduction of charge," Purdy explains.
Potential for growth
Demand growth for Li-ion batteries is being driven by the EV
and energy storage markets. EV production growth and the
sharp rise in Li-ion battery manufacturing was one of the
most eye-catching industrial trends of 2016 and most industry
observers agree that battery consumption as a whole is set
for strong growth as consumer and industry demand for
electronic devices expands.
Because solid state lithium batteries are considered likely
to be safer than current liquid state chemistries and can
potentially offer better performance, the technology could be
used in a number of new applications on top of the major
existing Li-ion markets.
Ilika is currently targeting two specific sectors as
priorities: millimeter-sized batteries to power implantable
medical devices and industrial applications related to factory
automation and so-called "Industry 4.0" – a trend
towards automation and data exchange in manufacturing
technologies. Purdy says that the company is in commercial
discussions with potential licensees in these sectors.
But while new models of the same kinds of battery powered
devices – such as smart phones and tablet computers
– roll off production lines with almost alarming
frequency, meaningful advancements in actual Li-ion chemistries
have felt like a long-time coming, particularly for investors
wooed by bullish market penetration scenarios pedalled by
everyone from mining companies to industrial conglomerates over
the last decade.
According to London-based stockbroker Beaufort Securities,
Ilika’s ambitious aims are focused on the right
areas – namely miniaturisation, capacity in a small
footprint and increased performance – but the company
has not delivered results fast enough for some.
"Progress is being made, although significant
underperformance during the past year tells us that investors
are growing weary of Ilika’s forever jam-tomorrow
stories," the brokerage said in a recent note on Ilika.
It added that highly protected technologies "should be
capable of delivering the knock-out blow" at some
However, this field is congested and competitive. SSBs,
including batteries with non Li-ion formulas, are being
researched by well-funded companies and institutions in
Switzerland, the US, Korea and Japan, among others.
The challenge for Ilika, as with all SSB developers, is to
nail down licensing deals with industrial majors. Until this
happens, SSBs are just another concept floating in a crowded
sea of research, trying to net the next big fish in battery