Lithium batteries are at the heart of electric cars, phones, wearable electronics, energy storage, and so much more powering our increasingly digital and cord-free lives. It’s no wonder they are big business. The batteries’ tendency to catch fire when damaged, however, at least in several highly publicized instances, is a problem the industry has to fix if consumers are to regain confidence in major lithium-battery-powered products.
To this end, there’s no shortage of battery manufacturing start-ups looking to resolve the lithium-ion battery obstacle, specifically by replacing the volatile liquid core of these products with innovative solid-state approaches. Three battery start-ups say manufacturing batteries with 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, will not only solve the safety issue but deliver more energy-dense and faster charging batteries that are far smaller, lighter, and less expensive to produce than those currently available.
Introducing Design Freedom to Batteries
Sakuú, a California start-up hoping to bring the main benefits of 3D printing to the battery market, plans to open its first full production factory this year.
The company says its Swift Print battery cells can be manufactured in any shape or size and even customized to order on the company’s proprietary 3D printers. Complex shapes not possible with traditional manufacturing methods are a hallmark of 3D printing, which also enables production flexibility and speed because there’s no waiting for molds or manufacturing tools to be produced.
Sakuú says lithium-ion batteries will no longer be limited to rectangles, cylinders, or pouches and can instead be integrated into products enabling designers to fit batteries around their innovations rather than design them to accommodate standard battery shapes.
The Sakuú 3D printers, called Kavian, use metal, ceramic, glass, and polymer in the same layer to produce solid-state batteries faster, cheaper, and lighter than today’s methods, the company says. Although the specifics of the 3D printers are under wraps, the Kavian platform uses more than one type of 3D printing technology, while halving the number of steps compared to the traditional roll-to-roll battery manufacturing process.
The Swift Print battery technology includes binder jetting (where a metal or polymer powder is bound together with a fluid layer by layer), metal material jetting (where a molten or metal slurry is deposited and hardened layer by layer), and relies on an integrated AI quality control and inspection before the layers are stacked together.
Compared to how lithium batteries are manufactured today, Sakuú says its Kavian platform can slash manufacturing costs 33% in a factory that’s 44% smaller.
Are 3D Printed Batteries More Sustainable?
In addition to shape and size freedom, 3D printing may enable manufacturers to save on raw materials, such as the rare earth minerals lithium, cobalt, and manganese, and reduce or eliminate the use of solvents.
3D printing is called an “additive” technology as opposed “subtractive” because material is added to make a product, which produces virtually no waste. Especially in powder-based additive manufacturing, material left over is reclaimed and recycled for the next print.
3D printed battery start-up Blackstone Technology says its approach is more sustainable than traditional methods because it can not only save on battery metals during manufacturing, but the process will use 25% less energy.
Blackstone is further along in product maturity than Sakuú, having printed its first functional battery in 2021. Its technology, called Thick Layer Technology, is vastly different from Sakuú and relies on the 3D screen printing method. The company says the technology will be 30% cheaper than traditional battery manufacturing and can be used for both liquid-electrolyte and solid-state batteries.
3D screen printing uses a metal paste and a binder pressed in a screen printing process through a computer-generated mask, followed by a hardening step. The layer-on-layer printing is repeated until the part, in virtually any shape, is complete.
“The manufacture of solid-state batteries offers the potential for a quantum leap in energy density and will significantly reduce the cost of battery technologies,” Blackstone says. The company is in talks with Volkswagen about incorporating its batteries into the automaker’s e-cars.
In addition to making batteries in its Germany factory, Blackstone will mine and source its own materials from what it calls ethical sources. The company invests in rare earth mining operations, such as the Electra Battery Materials in Canada, and holds licenses in Norway to apply for extraction permits for a wide range of rare earth metals.
Supply-Chain Resilient Energy Tech
Dependance on dwindling supplies of rare earth metals today, primarily from China, is a significant hurdle in battery manufacturing. Companies and countries are looking to reshore battery production to remove potential supply chain disruption and secure energy independence. Nearly all auto-making countries have initiatives underway to domestically produce batteries for EVs.
In the UK, for example, 3D printing company Photocentric has received millions in government investment since 2020 to develop new industrial 3D printers to manufacture solid-state battery cells for electric vehicles. Still in R&D, Photocentric’s technology, unlike Sakuú’s or Blackstone’s, is based on resin 3D printing using photopolymers.
Photocentric has, so far, developed polymer electrolyte binders, along with anode and cathode powders into a printable photopolymer resin. Its patent-pending approach promises to enable low-cost mass manufacture of lightweight batteries for the UK market.
As companies across the world scramble to develop and establish better battery manufacturing, all options are on the table. The goal is not only to solve the current safety issues but to address the need for domestic manufacturing, secure material sourcing, and boost sustainability.
Although introducing a new manufacturing method to an established industry is a challenge, in the coming years, 3D printing may outshine traditional methods by also offering manufacturing flexibility, mass-customization, greener materials, and greater speed to market.
ChatGPT Is Getting To Know Retail. Will Shoppers Be Happier?
Giada De Laurentiis Leans Into Her 5 Million Fans With Giadzy, A New Multi-Pronged Venture
U.S. Government Sets Bold Goals For The U.S. Bioeconomy – Including A Target For 30% Of Bio-Based Chemicals