SK Innovation to jointly develop key material for next-generation battery with U.S. firm
Photo courtesy of SK Innovation

SK Innovation to jointly develop key material for next-generation battery with U.S. firm

SK Innovation has entered into an agreement with PolyPlus, a U.S. battery technology developer, to develop lithium (Li) metal batteries.

The company plans to complete the development of conductive glass separators by 2021 with the aim of “accelerating the commercialization of Li metal batteries.”

The agreement marks the first case of open innovation, which reduces uncertainties through cooperation with outside experts. The technology was acquired through open innovation that SK Innovation is pursuing as a strategy to aggressively secure future core technologies.

Under this agreement, SK Innovation will invest in research and development of conductive glass separators owned by PolyPlus. The company said it is also considering options of making an equity investment in the U.S. company and licensing its technology in the future.

SK Innovation plans to complete research on conductive glass separators by the end of 2021 and apply it to developing Li metal batteries. A lithium metal battery uses a lithium anode with a capacity more than 10 times that of graphite, so its energy density is about 1000Wh/L, almost twice that of a conventional lithium-ion battery, making it one of the battery models for future electric vehicles.

However, there is also a limitation. When during the charging process, lithium dendrites (twig-shaped crystals that grow abnormally on the metal surface) are formed on the surface of anodes, which penetrate and damage the separator, eventually causing a fire.

The conductive glass separator is considered a key material for the commercialization of Li metal batteries because it can prevent dendrites from breaking through the separator, thereby stabilizing the batteries. Therefore, this technology is expected to expedite the commercialization of Li metal batteries.
The deal marked the first case of securing a new technology through the open innovation approach launched by the Institute of Technology Innovation at SK Innovation last year. Open innovation refers to a way of acquiring technologies through collaboration with external experts, such as forming consortiums with other companies, universities, or research institutes, which can effectively reduce uncertainties in investing in future technologies.

Open innovation is advantageous in that it can minimize risks through fast decision making and accelerate development through cooperation with technology-holding firms. As companies can secure technologies in a timely manner by reflecting rapidly evolving technology development trends, open innovation is mostly used in biopharmaceutical and environment-friendly materials industries.

SK Innovation has established a research and development cooperation ecosystem by networking with major research institutes and universities in the U.S. and Europe since 2017. The company plans to continuously expand it into a business cooperation ecosystem through collaborative projects like this investment agreement. In addition, SK Innovation is preparing other research and development cooperation projects for battery metal recycling and development of eco-friendly materials.

Lee Sung-joon, head of the Institute of Technology Innovation at SK Innovation, said, “In the fast-paced battery business for electric vehicles, the core next-generation competence is technological prowess. We will continue to expand cooperation with various outside organizations by utilizing open innovation.”

Meanwhile, SK Innovation decided to invest heavily in its battery business last year and is building battery production facilities in Changzhou in China, Komarom in Hungary, and Georgia in the U.S. as well as in Korea. The company aims to increase its total production to 60GWh by 2025 by securing additional orders.

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