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Is the savior battery nigh?

Tech visionary Bill Joy has been investing much of his time and a lot of money in Ionic Materials, a startup developing a solid-polymer-electrolyte battery. Is it the global game-changer everyone is waiting for?

There are plenty of battery technology startups out there promising the moon. But there are good reasons to pay special attention when Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, one of the most respected figures in Silicon Valley, says he has invested in a solution that really works.

Joy is invested in a five-year-old technology startup, Ionic Materials, that he says will radically improve humanity's future. He claims Ionic has designed cheaper, safer, more efficient batteries that within a few years could power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles, and provide large-scale electricity storage capacity that could enable an "Energy Internet" based on distributed production of renewable electricity.

Ionic has existed since 2011, but was in stealth mode until earlier this year, when Joy announced he is among Ionic's lead investors and spending much of his time working with the startup.

"You will see this technology widely adopted, in everything from consumer electronics, to transportation to energy storage for the grid," Joy told Bloomberg. "We've been pretty quiet about what we've got, but this can radically transform things."

William Nelson Joy amerikanischer Computerwissenschaftler (cc by SqueakBox 2.0)

Joy says the technology developed by Ionic Materials will radically improve humanity's future

Could it be that Ionic's battery design puts us less than five years away from a sudden shift toward sustainability in global energy systems?

Brilliant and thoughtful

Joy has done a lot in his 62 years of life. An electrical engineer and computer scientist from Michigan, Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982 in Stanford, California, along with three other very smart men: Andy Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla and Scott McNealy, all of whom became fabulously wealthy as a result.

Sun Microsystems' focus was on providing core technologies for networked computers. In his role as the company's chief scientist, Joy was associated with software initiatives of industry-wide importance, including development of the Java programming language and BSD Unix.

He left the company in 2003. Before then, in 1999, he had already founded a venture capital (VC) firm, HighBAR Ventures, together with colleagues Andy Bechtolsheim and Roy Thiele-Sardiña.

VC work has been his focus ever since. In 2005, Joy went on to become a partner in renowned Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where Vinod Khosla had worked since 1987. Joy's focus at Kleiner Perkins, where he stayed until 2014, was green technology.

Read more: How can a battery catch fire?

Joy and his colleagues made a list of "grand challenges" and went looking for scientists and engineers that could solve them. Developing better, safer, cheaper batteries was among the challenges. Joy's search led him to Tufts University engineering professor Michael Zimmerman, founder of Ionic Materials.

No fires

In an article published by Wired, a US media outlet, in August this year, Joy said of Ionic's battery technology: "I think this is a black swan," meaning a rare breakthrough.

The key advance is that the battery's electrolyte - i.e. the material through which electrons travel between negative and positive electrical poles - is solid rather than liquid. This means batteries built using this technology won't explode or catch fire. One consequence is that solid-polymer-electrolyte batteries can be recharged faster than liquid-electrolyte batteries.

Ionic Material's website shows off the safety advantage of the company's solid-polymer electrolyte by means of a video showing a prototype battery continuing to function even after a handgun has fired several bullets through it.

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Batteries with liquid electrolytes are vulnerable to short-circuiting if they're damaged, because the liquid can then diffuse between layers of insulation, as shown in this graphic. Sometimes they burn or explode as a result.

Cheaper as well as safer?

Solid-polymer electrolytes will allow rechargeable batteries to be made either with lithium electrodes or from cheaper materials.

Alkaline batteries made with electrodes composed of zinc and manganese dioxide - cheaper and more abundant materials than lithium - have been around since 1960, but haven't been available as rechargeable batteries. That's because the liquid electrolyte degrades in the presence of these materials after only a few dozen recharging cycles. 

Lithium's advantages compared to zinc or manganese for use in battery electrodes are that lithium is lighter-weight, and liquid electrolytes don't degrade in its presence nearly as quickly.

On its website, Ionic claims that its solid polymer material will last for thousands of cycles, regardless of which electrode materials are used, and "enables the use of simpler and lower-cost manufacturing methods... [the technology] could enable more compact and longer lasting consumer electronics, long-range and affordable electric vehicles… and cost-effective grid-scale storage."

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Projected cost comparison

Ionic reportedly has around 25 employees at present, and it's working on developing production processes. The startup's founder and lead scientist, Michael Zimmerman, spent 14 years at Bell Labs and has been an engineering professor at Tufts University for 20 years.

Ionic hopes to start early-stage manufacturing in two or three years, and has set a goal of driving the cost of its batteries down as low as $30 per kWh within five years.

For comparison, Bloomberg New Energy Finance published a report in June of this year saying that producing a current-technology lithium-ion battery pack in a new Korean factory in 2017 costs $162 per kWh, and projected that strong competitive pressures would lead to such batteries dropping to about $74 per kWh by 2030. The current "learning rate" - the price decrease for every doubling in the total amount of lithium-ion batteries produced to date - is an impressive 19 percent.

But if Ionic meets its time-frame and cost targets, it will generate a sudden leap forward in battery affordability and safety within a much shorter time-frame - and could speed up the transition to a low-carbon energy system by a crucial decade.

Founder Zimmerman has said that "the technical hurdles Ionic proposes to overcome are significant," which suggests Ionic's trajectory to success isn't yet fully nailed down, "but such challenges we choose to accept, as the world needs our solution."

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