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[Image above] Credit: Gillie Rhodes; Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

It’s a telling sign of what’s to come when one of the world’s largest makers of a particular product announces that it’s abandoning its namesake and instead focusing on other technologies.

NGK Spark Plugs, the Japanese company that leads the global spark plug market, is turning its focus away from spark plugs and instead concentrating its efforts to develop solid-state batteries for electric vehicles, according to a recent Reuters article.

I guess you could say that, to NGK, spark plugs have just lost some of their spark.

Bad jokes aside, spark plugs, along with many other automobile components, are made possible with ceramic and glass materials. In fact, we wrote an in-depth feature article in the December 2017 ACerS Bulletin all about the role of ceramics and glass in the $4 trillion auto industry. (If you haven’t read it, click on that link for the free download!)

The massive automotive industry is undergoing some major shifts as electric vehicles are gaining technological and societal momentum that poises battery-based vehicles to completely surmount the internal combustion engine.

That shift will have reverberating effects on the entire automotive industry because cars that don’t have an internal combustion engine don’t need spark plugs, along with many other components standard on the vehicles most of the world still drives today. Tomorrow, that may all change—while electric vehicles account for just 1.1% of new vehicle production currently, that figure is predicted to rise to 81% by 2050.

In the case of NGK Spark Plugs, however, the company isn’t ditching its decades of materials expertise—it’s translating its ceramic materials know-how to develop oxide-based solid-state batteries that are lighter, more powerful, and safer than existing batteries for electric vehicles.

That’s one of the things that still need to happen before electric vehicles take over the world, along with decreased cost of electric powertrains, secured supply of affordable battery materials, and a more developed infrastructure of charging stations.

Within NGK, this change is not new—according to the Reuters story, the shift away from spark plugs has been coming since 2010, when the company reportedly had a “realization that its main business faced obsolescence.”

“We realized that it was inevitable that the industry would at some point shift from the internal combustion engine to battery electric vehicles, and that ultimately this could make our spark plug and oxygen sensor businesses obsolete,” Takio Kojima, senior general manager of engineering and R&D at NGK Spark Plug, says in the Reuters story. “Our expertise is in advanced ceramics, and so we have decided to pursue all solid-state batteries.”

NGK says it’s working on a solid oxide-based ceramic electrolyte battery technology that can be scaled up into larger formats that would support electric vehicles.

“It’s relatively easy to work in smaller sizes, but when you get to larger sizes it gets very difficult to assemble each layer because it’s difficult to make each layer the same thickness,” Hideaki Hikosaka, a member of NGK Spark Plug’s solid state battery R&D team, says in the article.

So NGK has engineered an additional material into the battery to offset those problems. The undisclosed material “makes the electrolyte easier to process into larger, thin layers which are compressed, making them easier to stack with anodes and cathodes.”

“It’s because of the addition of that material that we’re able to process layers using compression (rather than sintering) to make a bigger, oxide-based battery cell,” Hikosaka explains in the story.

So far, NGK says it’s made a battery cell that’s 10 cm x 10 cm, but the company is still developing ways to boost the battery’s energy density to sufficiently enhance performance, with a target of having a more powerful, lighter, competitively price battery within the next few years.

With this shifted focus toward developing next-gen battery technologies, NGK joins a long list of other major companies that are investing in a future driven by battery-powered electric vehicles. German automobile corporation Daimler AG just announced last year that it’s heavily investing (some 500 million euros) in its second lithium-ion battery factory.

And vacuum maker Dyson is also heavily investing in its own development of an electric vehicle, an endeavor that will literally be powered by its acquisition of solid-state battery startup Sakti3.

All these changes mean that the automobiles of the near future are likely to look very different than those we drive today. And, in addition to battery power replacing fossil fuels, changes like wireless charging and other future car technologies may well be showing up sooner than expected.

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