An equipment company in Alameda, California, has been working for the past decade to increase the energy stored in lithium-ion batteries, an advance that could enable smaller gadgets and electric vehicles to a much larger range.
Sila has created silicon-based particles that can replace graphite at the anodes and retain the current-carrying lithium ions in the battery.
Now the company is bringing its products to market for the first time, offering a portion of the anode powder in the upcoming Hoop 0.0 battery, which is a wearable wearable. It’s a small device but a potentially big step in terms of batteries, where the lab’s promising results often fail to translate into commercial success.
“Think of the Hoop 0.0 as our Tesla Roadstar, which helped solve some of the most important battery challenges for the company’s first electric car as Tesla’s seventh employee,” said Jean Berdichevsky, CEO of Seeler. “It’s really the first device on the market that is proving this progress.”
The company’s equipment, with light support from other advances, has increased the power concentration in the fitness tracker’s battery by about 17%. This is a significant gain in a field that usually progresses by a few percentage points a year.
This is equivalent to almost four years of standard progress, but “but a big leap,” said Venkat Bishwanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Sila still faces some real technological challenges, but progress to help move the world away from fossil fuels as the threat of climate change accelerates is a promising sign for the potential for increasingly capable batteries. Increasing the amount of energy that batteries can store makes it easier for our buildings, vehicles, factories and businesses to generate more electricity.
For the transportation sector, a more power-dense battery could reduce costs or increase the range of electric vehicles, tackling two major problems that have discouraged consumers from abandoning their gas gazelles. It promises to supply grid batteries that can save more energy from solar and wind farms, or consumer gadgets that last longer in charge.
In 2017, Berdychevsky, an inventor under the age of 35, said energy concentration was “the key to electrifying everything.”
In terms of wearable new fitness, new battery components and other improvements have made it possible for the Boston-based hoop to shrink the device by 33% while maintaining a five-day battery life. The product is now smart enough to be erted in “smart apparel” as well as be worn like a watch. It’s going to go on sale on September 8th.
Silla, which announced $ 590 million in funding in January, has partnerships to develop battery components for car manufacturers, including BMW and Daimler. The company says its technology could eventually pack 40% more power into lithium-ion batteries.
Berdychevsky was interviewed for his job at Tesla the year before his senior at Stanford University, where he was working to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. He has played a key role in tackling potential survival risks for the company: that a fire in any one of the thousands of batteries packed in a car would ignite the entire packet.
He set up a program to systematically evaluate a battery pack design. After hundreds of tests, the company developed a combination of battery systems, heat transfer materials and cooling channels that essentially prevented fires from escaping.
After launching the Tesla Roadster, Berdychevsky felt he would have to spend another five years to see the company through the development of the next car, the Model S, or take the opportunity to do something new.
In the end, he decided he wanted to create something of his own.
Berdychevsky returned to Stanford to study materials, thermodynamics, and physics in the master’s program in hopes of finding ways to improve storage at the basic level. After graduating, he lived at Sutter Hill Ventures for a year as an entrepreneur, looking for ideas that could build the foundation of his own business.
During that time, he obtained a scientific paper identifying a method of making silicon-based particles for lithium-ion battery anodes.
Researchers have long viewed silicon as a promising way to increase power in batteries, as its atoms can bind 10 times more lithium ions than it does by weight. This means that they hold much more of the charged molecules that generate electric current in a battery. But silicon anodes tend to break down during charging, as they swell to shuttle the ions back into the electrodes.
Co-research paper by Professor Gleb Usin of the Georgia Institute of Technology highlights the possibility of making rigid silicone materials with a perforated core that can easily absorb and release lithium ions.
The following year, Berdychevsky founded Sila with Eugene and another former Tesla engineer, Alex Jacobs.
Obstacles and delays
The company has spent the next decade changing its methods and materials, working through more than 50,000 repetitions of chemistry while increasing its production capacity. At first, it decided to develop drop-in materials that could replace lithium-ion battery manufacturers without following a more expensive and risky path to full battery production.
Sila, however, is not as far away as it was initially expected.
After receiving several million dollars from the ARPA-E division of the U.S. Department of Energy, the company at one point told the research firm that its content could be in products by 2017 and in vehicles in 2020. It said its particles could help power German carmakers’ EVs by 2023.
Berdychevsky said the company now expects to be in the car “like 2025”. He says solving “last mile” problems was harder than they expected. Challenges include working with battery makers to get the best performance from novel materials.
“We were unequivocally optimistic about the challenges of scaling and bringing products to market,” he said in an email.
Hoop News hinted that Sila was able to engineer the particles in a way that was similar to the safety, lifecycle and other battery performance standards that were achieved in existing products.