Ford Motor Co. announced Monday it is increasing its investment in a producer of solid-state batteries, yet another move in the automaker's push to establish a sustainable supply of the components needed to power a coming wave of electric vehicles.
The Dearborn automaker joins German automaker BMW AG in contributing to a $130 million Series B funding round in Solid Power, a Colorado-based battery maker. Ford initially invested in the company in 2019. The latest investments make Ford and BMW equal equity owners; representatives from both companies will join Solid Power's board.
The move announced Monday, according to Ford, is aimed at accelerating the development of solid-state battery technology, an emerging development that industry experts and leaders believe has the potential to reduce the cost of EVs and improve their battery range. Solid-state batteries are seen as a promising alternative to lithium-ion batteries.
"Solid-state battery technology is important to the future of electric vehicles, and that's why we're investing in it directly as well as accelerating Ford's in-house R&D on next-generation battery technology," Hau Thai-Tang, Ford's chief product platform and operations officer, said in a statement.
The move comes on the heels of the Blue Oval announcing last week that it will build a $185 million, 200,000-square-foot global battery center — dubbed Ford Ion Park — somewhere in southeast Michigan. There, some 150 experts in battery technology development, research, manufacturing, planning, purchasing, quality and finance will work on projects aimed at speeding up Ford's research and development of battery and battery cell technology.
Company officials said the Ion Park team's work could support Ford one day manufacturing its own battery cells and batteries. The team will develop, test and build battery cells and cell arrays, focusing on lithium-ion batteries but looking also at solid-state technology. The center is slated to open late next year.
Thai-Tang, in announcing Ion Park, said Ford is at a point in its path to electrification where it makes sense to bring in-house some production of parts needed for electric vehicles.
But the automaker must maintain some flexibility as expensive battery technologies continue to evolve, he said: "Recognizing that capital intensity, we want to make sure that if the technology shifts from lithium ion to solid state that we can re-use as much of that manufacturing process and other capital-intensive assets as possible."
"We're working very closely with many solid-state startup companies," he said. "We are talking to everyone. We have a very good understanding of the potential, in terms of energy and power density, as well as cost. So the thing that's at the forefront of our consideration is, is that solid-state technology something that can scale up to true automotive uses?"
Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, explained that the expense required to build the lithium-ion batteries that are used in many of today's electric vehicles may prompt some automakers to figure out ways to stretch their investments to cover development and production of solid-state batteries. Automakers such as Ford may look for ways to optimize the production process and repurpose equipment.
"Cell production is very capital intensive. It's a very highly automated process with a lot of equipment," he said. "Anybody that's going to make that investment in cell production is going to want to know that they're going to be able to get as much long-term use out of it as they can."
Solid Power uses sulfide-based solid-state battery cells in its manufacturing process. In a news release, Ford said the startup's process "has been confirmed with the delivery of hundreds of production line-produced battery cells that were validated by the BMW Group and Ford late last year, formalizing Solid Power's commercialization plans with its two long-standing automotive partners."
The technology could help increase vehicle range, free up interior space and cargo volume, and result in lower costs, Ted Miller, Ford's manager of electrification subsystems and power supply research, said in a statement.
"We look forward to delivering these improvements and working with Solid Power to seamlessly and quickly integrate their sulfide-based all-solid-state battery cells into existing lithium-ion cell production processes more efficiently than oxide-based solid-state battery cell makers can," he said.
And Abuelsamid noted that the use of a sulfur compound instead of oxygen could make it easier to extinguish battery fires — an issue that has caused some concern among prospective EV owners.
Under the terms of the agreement, Ford is set to receive 100 ampere hour (Ah) cells for testing and integration into future vehicles, starting next year, the automaker said. Meanwhile, Ford noted that it has a separate joint development agreement with Solid Power to develop and test its battery cell design "and help streamline Ford's integration into future vehicles."
The investment news comes amid an acceleration of Ford's EV plans under CEO Jim Farley. So far this year, the automaker has launched its first fully battery-electric vehicle, the Mustang Mach-E; announced it would move to an all-electric lineup in Europe by 2030 and invest $1 billion in an EV manufacturing center in Germany; increased its EV development investment to $22 billion through 2025; and said it would establish a battery electric vehicle division that will sell EVs directly to consumers in China. And Ford plans to introduce electric versions of its Transit cargo van and best-selling F-150 pickup truck later this year and in mid-2022, respectively.