This company is reinventing lithium-ion batteries

This company is reinventing lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are key to accompanying the energy transition, but they need to improve. Sila Nanotechnologies is trying

Photo by Ralph Hutter on Unsplash In 2003, Gene Berdichevski learned of a group of entrepreneurs who were planning to make electric sports cars for the US market. He was a student at Stanford University and was fascinated by the energy industry: he built lightweight solar-powered cars that ran on lithium-ion batteries and took them around the country.

Berdichevski had calculated that the energy density of lithium-ion batteries made it possible to build real cars that could travel at least 500 kilometers on a single charge, and had developed a business plan based on this idea. Six months later, he quit Stanford to join those entrepreneurs and become Tesla's seventh employee.

However, the more time he spent in society, the more frustrated he became with the conditions in the battery industry. “Today the whole world should be electric,” he said. But performance was barely improving, prices were slowly dropping, and new battery technologies that promised to replace lithium-ion batteries were still decades away.

Berdichevski left Tesla and returned to Stanford to study and obtain a master's degree in materials science, with the aim of exploring potential solutions. However, he realized that any new technology would need to fit into existing industrial processes to make its way: the solar energy sector provided an example to be avoided, as progressive improvements and falling prices in established energy silicon-based solar had pushed the innovators out of the market. The answer, he decided, was not to replace lithium ions but to improve them.

In 2011, he founded Sila Nanotechnologies together with Georgia Tech engineering professor Gleb Yushin and Tesla colleague Alex Jacobs. The company aims to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries by 50 percent by replacing the anode, one of the four key components of the batteries, which also have a cathode, a separator and an electrolyte. (Lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte when the battery is used and in the opposite direction when it is recharged.)

Usually the anode is made of graphite, but Sila created some a compound of nano-engineered silicon, which can contain 24 times more lithium without swelling and degrading, so a battery of the same size is able to be more powerful. This innovation will be decisive for decarbonising cargo and aviation. "The 50 percent improvement we are about to make available will allow long-haul trucking and electric flights," Berdichevski says (although he specifies that electric flights will likely only be available on short regional routes.)

Sila is working with BMW and Daimler on electric vehicles, and with other partners on consumer electric devices that are expected to be made public later in the year. When the products hit the market ("within six months," according to Berdichevski), they will represent the biggest challenge in battery technology since the early 1990s, when lithium and cobalt-based batteries reached consumers with Walkman's. Sony.

One of the concerns about lithium ions is the negative impact of lithium and cobalt mining on communities and the environment in South America, Asia and Africa. This, together with the growth in the price of lithium, is one of the reasons behind the race for new energy storage technologies, such as supercapacitators based on lithium sulphide, aluminum ions and carbon.

But lithium is one of the smallest and lightest elements. “Those chemical bonds are among the strongest that can be achieved per unit of weight and volume,” explains Berdichevski. "From a scientific point of view, it is difficult to imagine how it can be replaced". And, Berdichevski always maintains, it is not fundamentally scarce. If necessary, it can be extracted from sea water.

Sila's strategy, which aims to improve current technology, certainly pays off on the investment front: the company recently raised $ 600 million to finance a new production line, and although the company does not plans to manufacture its own batteries, in the next few years it will build a plant capable of supplying materials for the anodes of the batteries of one million vehicles, or one billion consumer electronics devices.

By focusing only on one part of the technology, rather than trying to reinvent the entire battery, Sila has already been able to bring improved energy storage products to the market today, and has managed to do so in so that these can be integrated into existing production lines, while other technologies are still years behind. Further improvements to other battery components could in the future help harness even more the potential of lithium ions and get us where we should be to tackle climate change. “It is a serial revolution,” observes Berdichevski.

This article was originally published on Wired Uk

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