Ionic video screen grab
Researchers have spent billions of dollars over decades trying to build a better battery, one that can store lots of energy and recharge thousands of times without breaking down or bursting into flames.
Now, one Woburn startup believes it has a product that can do all that — and take a bullet, to boot. Ionic Materials makes a solid polymer material used in the guts of a battery that it says is safer and longer-lasting than current technology, while durable enough to keep working even after being damaged by something as extreme as gunshots or a hammer.
Batteries today have key shortfalls: Alkaline batteries are relatively safe but can’t be recharged repeatedly; lithium-ion batteries — the ones that power cellphones and other devices — can take many recharges. But they are dangerous when damaged or defective, as Samsung was forced to recall millions of its Galaxy Note 7 phones after batteries in some of them burst into flames.
Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and an early investor in Ionic Materials, can’t believe we’re still carrying volatile power sources around in our pockets.
“We’re tolerating it because we’re basically dependent on the technology and it’s too convenient to be safe,” Joy said in an interview.
Ionic Materials is coming up with a third way, one that combines the reliability and low cost of alkaline batteries with the power and recharging of lithium-ion, but without the safety risks. If successful on a mass scale, the technology could fundamentally reshape the way power is stored and consumed.
Other big names in the industry are betting that Ionic Materials has the juice to revolutionize batteries.
The company Wednesday said it had raised $65 million in new investment, and it counts among its backers the automaker Renault Nissan Mitsubishi and Silicon Valley venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, where Joy was once a partner.
Ionic Materials doesn’t make batteries but the material inside that allows ions to move between the two poles. The company was founded by Mike Zimmerman, a longtime mechanical engineering professor at Tufts University who invented a plastic through which ions can pass at room temperature, allowing the battery to release stored energy.
This eliminates the need for more unstable liquids in lithium-ion batteries, which are flammable and toxic; moreover, unlike alkaline batteries, those made with Ionic Material’s polymers can be recharged.
Joy said the innovation could be as significant as the development of solid-state electronics, which rendered large, cumbersome tubes obsolete. And Zimmerman predicted batteries made with his products will be safer, longer-lasting, and better for the environment.
“I think our approach is really the only approach that can affect all of the important things about batteries,” he said.
Ionic Materials hopes to sell directly to battery makers and other manufacturers, who are running up against the limits of technology as they try to squeeze more power into smaller packages; build cheaper, longer-running electric cars; and develop energy storage packs that can release electricity when it’s most needed.
But Ionic Materials is competing in a crowded market with companies big and small working on safer, solid-state batteries, from major carmakers such as Toyota to other well-funded startups. And the search for the Holy Grail in batteries is expensive and full of failure and false starts.
Two years after acquiring a solid-state battery maker in Michigan in 2015 for $90 million, the high-tech vacuum company Dyson walked away from the startup’s primary battery patents. Still, James Dyson has committed to spending more than $2 billion developing a battery-powered electric car.
Zimmerman said Ionic Materials, which now employs about 30 people, plans to hire more with the new money as it speeds up the development of its technology. He said the company now has clients testing ways to use its products.
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