A small startup in Woburn called Alsym Energy is working on one of the world’s biggest problems — the need for better, cheaper batteries for cars, electric utilities, and even seagoing ships.
Alsym’s founders, veteran entrepreneur Mukesh Chatter and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kripa Varanasi, say they’ve built a new kind of rechargeable battery that delivers the performance of lithium ion cells at half the cost.
That’s largely because the batteries don’t contain lithium or cobalt — scarce and expensive metals mostly controlled by China. And Alsym says they will never burst into flame like lithium batteries, because none of the ingredients are flammable.
Now, the 47-person startup is striking deals with shipping companies and an automaker to prove its claims in real-world use. The company is just one of many worldwide that are scrambling to find practical alternatives to lithium ion batteries. The victors stand to earn billions and could well break China’s stranglehold on the global battery market.
“We wanted to make a big difference in the lives of a billion people around the world,” said Chatter.
Alsym has been in stealth mode since its founding in 2015. In some ways, it still is. The front door of the company’s offices displays the name of a dance academy. And Chatter is extremely secretive about the chemistry that makes his battery work. He hasn’t even tried to patent it, because that would require revealing the formula. Instead, it’s a trade secret, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.
But Chatter did offer a few hints. The electrolyte — the material that carries energy between the two electrodes — is water mixed with some solvents that Chatter won’t identify. One of the electrodes is mostly made of manganese oxide, but Chatter wouldn’t say anything about the composition of the other — just that there’s no lithium or cobalt involved, and that all the materials are nonflammable, non-toxic and inexpensive.
The company has gained the trust of investors, who’ve poured $32 million into the project, with Helios Climate Ventures leading the way.
Chatter, who previously founded a pair of networking hardware companies, began Alsym as a way to provide reliable electricity in developing countries.
“About 2 billion people in the world either don’t have electricity or have it only part of the time,” said Chatter. “People are basically caught in the cycle of poverty and the life of the 19th century.” Solar cells and windmills can help, but they must be backed up with batteries to provide consistent power. Lithium cells are too expensive and unstable; Chatter claims his company’s batteries are much safer and cheaper.
Chatter says he’s landed $2 billion in pre-orders for Alsym batteries. A small factory at the Woburn headquarters has begun cranking out prototypes. Alsym batteries can be made using the same equipment found at any lithium ion battery plant; only the materials inside the batteries are different. That means existing battery plants could quickly switch over if and when the Alsym batteries prove their worth.
The first buyers will be Singapore-based cargo ship manager Synergy Marine and Japanese cargo ship owner Nissen Kaiun. The two companies plan to equip up to 100 of their seagoing ships with Alsym batteries as an auxiliary power source.
Alsym has also signed a deal with one of India’s biggest carmakers to provide electric car batteries, though Chatter won’t say which company. It’s a big test for Alsym, because the typical new car in India costs about $10,000. In US electric cars, the battery alone can cost more than that. So, to make a go of EVs in India, the manufacturer is counting on Alsym to deliver very inexpensive batteries.
“That’s the most price-sensitive market, so we decided to pick the biggest challenge,” said Chatter. “If you’re going to climb a mountain, climb Mount Everest.”
Alsym is also in negotiations with a utility that’s interested in using batteries to store power from solar and wind farms, and then release the electricity as needed to the local power grid.
But Shirley Meng, a materials science professor at the University of Chicago, is very dubious. She said that laboratories worldwide are trying to find alternatives to lithium batteries, so far without much success. “Lithium has such great performance,” Meng said. “Probably you won’t be able to find another ion that will give you that kind of power and energy.”
Alternatives to lithium have been invented, Meng said. But so far, they’ve only worked reasonably well on a small scale. In addition, any new battery chemistry would require the development of a new global supply chain for all the chemicals and components needed to make it work, and that could take years.
Meng said she’d need to see a lot more data to convince her that Alsym’s onto something. “Without knowing their chemistry, I think their claim is unsubstantiated,” she said.
We should find out in a few years. Synergy Marine and Nissen Kaiun plans to conduct three years of real-world testing starting in 2023. Meanwhile, Alsym plans to begin full-scale production of its batteries in 2025