MIT Spinoff to Market Breakthrough Batteries by 2017

August 21, 2016, 7:01 PM UTC
chart showing battery sizes

We’d all love our phones and tablets to have longer staying power, so announcements of new battery technology are often catnip for techheads. Unfortunately, actually bringing a new battery formulation to market is a uniquely complex manufacturing challenge, and plenty of laboratory breakthroughs never make it to the real world.

So take the latest such announcement with due sodium. The MIT-linked SolidEnergy Systems says it is very close to commercializing a new type of lithium metal battery that has about double the energy density of today’s standard lithum-ion battery. According to MIT News, the company demonstrated a working prototype in October 2015, will be powering drones by November of this year, and will begin offering units appropriate for smartphones and wearables in early 2017.

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The secret (again, reportedly) is the use of a thin lithium metal foil for the battery’s anode, one of the three main parts of any battery. This foil is substantially smaller and lighter than existing anode materials. The SolidEnergy battery formulation also relies on a solid electrolyte, the reactive catalyst in a battery—at least superficially similar to one of the core concepts behind exciting but thus far underperforming battery startup Sakti3.

The most important part of the story, though, seems to be the company’s early years spent prototyping with lithium-ion manufacturing equipment inherited from failed battery startup A123 Systems. That helped SolidEnergy avoid one of the main pitfalls of battery innovators, who sometimes cook up impractical manufacturing processes for their radical new materials, then can’t scale them up.

Sakti3’s batteries, for example, are produced using a novel, and so far wildly expensive, process similar to that used to make microchips. Enough of such batteries to power a car would by some estimates cost $90 million to produce.

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SolidEnergy, by contrast, can use existing lithium-ion manufacturing processes, to produce what founder and CEO Qichao Hu calls “real-world batteries.”

With the imprimatur of MIT (which has also awarded the company several grants and prizes), SolidEnergy certainly looks promising. They’ve already reportedly scaled up to a new and larger production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts. But we’ll have to wait and see if they can finally be the startup to break a growing curse of false promises in battery tech.