Finally, better battery technology is hot — but not too hot
SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Zimmerman likes to shock his guests by using a hammer to drive a nail through a solid polymer lithium metal battery.
Nothing happens — and that’s a good thing.
Zimmerman’s battery is a new spin on lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in products from smartphones to cars. Today’s lithium-ion batteries, as anyone who has followed Samsung’s problems with flammable smartphones may know, can be ticking time bombs. The liquids in them can burst into flames if there is a short circuit of some sort. And driving a nail into one of them is definitely not recommended.
With that in mind, Zimmerman’s demonstration commands attention.
His startup, Ionic Materials, is at the cutting edge of an effort to design safer batteries. The Woburn, Mass., company is working on “solid” lithium polymer batteries that greatly reduce their combustible nature.
A solid lithium polymer metal battery — when it arrives commercially — will also allow electronics designers to be more creative, because they will be able to use a plasticlike material (the polymer) that allows smaller and more flexible packaging and requires fewer complex safety mechanisms.
“My dream is to create the holy grail of solid batteries,” Zimmerman said.
After four years of development, he believes he is nearly there and hopes to begin production within the next two years. Ionic Materials is one of a new wave of academic and commercial research efforts in the United States, Europe and Asia to find safer battery technologies as consumers demand more performance from phones and cars.
In the last year, Seeo and Sakti, rival U.S. solid polymer battery makers, have been acquired by German industrial firm Bosch and British vacuum maker Dyson.
The interest in solid batteries was highlighted in September when the U.S. Department of Energy’s agency for supporting research in next-generation energy technology announced 16 awards aimed at accelerating development of solid battery technologies, including a $3 million contract to Ionic Materials.
There is growing evidence that after decades of excruciatingly slow development, batteries are on the verge of yielding to a new generation of material science.
Historically, batteries have been a glaring exception to the exponential progress of computer processing and storage. In the last 150 years, in fact, only a handful of rechargeable-battery chemistries have reached mass adoption.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Ilan Gur, director of Cyclotron Road, a project for funding energy-related startups at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. “The improvements in batteries happen very slowly, and the improvement of battery chemistry is very hard.”
He points to disappointments with batteries going back more than a century.
Thomas Edison voiced his frustration at the technology in an interview in 1883: “The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeal to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing.”