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Lazaro Gamio / Axios

In an unusual statement, Toyota says it is nearing a breakthrough in a type of lithium-ion battery system that has vexed researchers for decades, and that it will unveil a family of electric cars with a jump in currently available range in the early 2020s.

Why it matters: Given the high stakes and risk of embarrassment if something goes wrong, Japanese companies virtually never flag a big tech breakthrough before it is actually produced and delivered to the market. Hence, Toyota's comparatively specific announcement suggests it is reasonably confident that it really has mastered a new battery technology, said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Toyota says its battery is solid state, which is what has piqued the interest of the battery community:

  • If Toyota really has figured out solid state, that would allow the company sometime in the future to make a second big breakthrough — to swap in an anode made of ultra-energetic lithium metal, a substance that researchers have tried without success to get safely into lithium-ion batteries since the early 1990s.
  • The trouble with lithium metal is its volatility — it can catch fire on contact with liquid electrolyte or even the air.
  • But solid state eliminates that problem because it has no liquid.

In a statement to Axios, Toyota said it will commercialize "sulfide system all-solid batteries" that it hopes will have increased durability and improve the range of electric vehicles in which they are installed.

Toyota declined to say whether it's using a lithium metal anode. But solid state is extremely expensive to manufacture, costing hundreds of dollars per square meter, versus the $10 price needed if battery costs are to drop low enough for electric cars to challenge combustion head to head.

Hence, Viswanathan told Axios, even if Toyota's first-generation pure electrics do not start with lithium metal anodes, the company clearly is establishing a pathway to get there. "You need more energy density to bring down the cost," he said.

An electric car with a lithium metal anode would go about 20% further than current technology, or almost 300 miles on a charge, he said. As a comparison, the new Chevy Bolt goes 238 miles without recharging.

Go deeper

Updated 28 mins ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.