The Race to Reinvent Batteries

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

Action is heating up for batteries, for a long time arguably the least interesting yet crucial part of the tech world.

It’s not hard to identify the ignition points. Smartphones and laptops need better batteries to keep pace with exponential growth in microprocessors and screen tech. The development of electric car stutters in search of a battery breakthrough. Solar and wind farms are struggling with superior ways to store energy, too.

It’s no wonder, then, that researchers around the world are racing to create safer, stronger, cheaper, and longer-lasting battery technologies that will create new possibilities for energy storage.

Volta Energy, backed by lithium producer Albemarle and U.S. utility Exelon, is putting together a large pool of private investment to help entrepreneurs collaborate with national labs such as Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest and oldest labs. The goal is to develop the next generation of batteries that will dominate energy storage in everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles and solar farms.

The Cobalt Challenge

Cobalt is a critical component of lithium-ion batteries that power electronic devices from smartphones to smart cars. Yet until recently, the grey, lustrous brittle metal drew little attention.

Recent reports from Amnesty International have documented adults and children as young as seven working in hazardous conditions without any protective clothing or equipment to mine for cobalt. Jeff Chamberlain, CEO of Volta Energy, verified that cobalt is a serious problem from humanitarian perspective.

For Chamberlain, these humanitarian concerns are complicated by the economics surrounding the material. Cobalt exists on its own in very few parts of the world, mainly the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Amnesty International has reported flagrant mining abuse. Since cobalt is typically extracted as a by-product of nickel and copper mining, if demand for copper and nickel goes down, the cobalt supply gets reduced too. Rarer than lithium and graphite, cobalt is also more expensive due to its rarity and complex supply chain.

The global cry for electronics device companies and electric car makers to dissociate themselves from cobalt-related human rights violations has sparked new entrepreneurial development. Take Conamix, a little-known startup in rural Ithaca, New York. The company’s process to produce high-energy batteries that don’t rely on cobalt has secured at least $2.8 million in funding, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

And while the material’s implications are a big issue, it is not the only challenge facing battery makers.

Building a Safer Battery

Another challenge facing battery pioneers is how to power self-driving vehicles safely. Even as a myriad of battery breakthrough stories pop up, several industry veterans, such as Ionic Materials founder and CEO, Mike Zimmerman, are betting on solid state batteries.

Boston-based Ionic Materials has developed a polymer electrolyte that can replace the liquid electrolyte and conduct ions at room temperature like metal. One of the big reasons Zimmerman and other developers have high expectations for these solid state batteries is that they don’t explode under high temperature or stress.

In an interview for the TrailBlazers podcast, Zimmerman described the safety aspect of this battery type. “You’ll find it very compelling seeing that these liquid batteries explode, but ours — if you cut them in half or shoot a bullet through them — they don’t explode,” Zimmerman explained, “I think it’s a big deal.”

His sentiment concurs with researchers at MIT, who are exploring their own version of solid-state batteries. Current batteries, mostly lithium-ion, have two electrodes, both solid, with a liquid electrolyte that is highly flammable, between them. That makes the batteries extremely volatile and prone to explosions. Solid state batteries, on the other hand, replace liquid parts with glass, ceramics, or polymers to avoid leaks and fire.

“We, as a society, are enamored with the romantic idea that a single innovator, working alone in a garage or a lab, will invent something unique and change the world, but it rarely works that way.”

-Jeff Chamberlain, CEO of Volta Energy

A product like this has major implications for industries, such as auto, that formerly relied on liquid-electrolyte batteries. “I think about people trying to make batteries for electric cars — it could be very dangerous,” Zimmerman added. “I think we’re the only ones with a potential solution.”

Chamberlain, who has invested in Ionic Materials with a group of strategic and financial investors, including Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Bill Joy, and Kleiner Perkins, seemed equally excited about what this technology means for the future of energy storage. But safety, according to him, is not the only advantage.

Solid polymer electrolytes allow batteries to have higher voltage and thus higher energy density, without increasing the size and cost of batteries.

Beyond Batteries

When it comes time to crown a winner in the battery race, there might not be a single champion. And investors like Chamberlain recognize that. He insisted that his mission at Volta Emergy is much wider that batteries, and includes “ubiquitous adoption of electrical vehicles and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.”

The company’s plans, he added, go beyond exploring chemistry and materials used in battery systems. For one, they are trying to identify hardware, such as sensors and charging systems that could manage the entire energy system.

Additionally, Volta is looking for software that can monitor people’s behavior and move electricity around intelligently to integrate various devices into the smart energy system. He explained,”If I need to drive 200 miles in my electric vehicle tomorrow, [an integrated energy system] will move power from battery backup in my home to my vehicle.”

According to Chamberlain, the future of the energy storage ecosystem will rely on several successful battery technologies and solutions, each suited for a different applications.

“Battery technologies that work best for an electric vehicle might not be the same as those that work for a computer or a solar farm or power backup for a data center,” he concluded. “We, as a society, are enamored with the romantic idea that a single innovator, working alone in a garage or a lab, will invent something unique and change the world, but it rarely works that way.”

While we are not likely to find a one-size fits all solution, Chamberlain offers a consolation: “Better batteries are on their way.”