Since lithium-ion batteries were first sold 30 years ago, they’ve dropped in cost by 97%. But they’re still too expensive for making electric cars that can compete in cost with fossil-fueled cars without subsidies, or to economically store wind and solar power on the grid. That’s why one Boston-area startup is developing a different type of rechargeable battery that it says can cut costs in half—while avoiding some of the other flaws of current batteries, from the environmental impact of mining to the fact that lithium-ion batteries can catch on fire.
[Photo: Alsym Energy]
“Our motivation was to make it affordable, so that it could be widely deployed as opposed to niche,” says Mukesh Chatter, CEO and cofounder of the startup, Alsym Energy, which emerged from stealth today and has raised $32 million from investors, including Helios Climate Ventures. Right now, many automakers are following Tesla’s lead and making luxury EVs. But Alsym wants to enable manufacturers to make lower-cost vehicles, including its first partner, an automaker in India. Tackling climate change “requires everybody’s contribution,” Chatter says. “It cannot be 1% of the people buying expensive luxury EVs.” The batteries are also affordable enough that they could be used in developing countries to store off-grid solar power for people who don’t have electricity access now.
[Photo: Alsym Energy]
A mechanical engineering professor at MIT, Kripa Varanasi, has spent the past five years working with the startup to develop the design. Because he hadn’t focused on batteries in the past, he says, he looked at the technology from a new perspective. “We started exploring other chemistries,” he says. “If you learn about batteries, you’re automatically going in the lithium direction. But we were looking at different metrics: It has to be abundant. It has to be low cost. It has to be easily recyclable. It has to [avoid] the supply chain challenges.”
Because the company is in the process of getting patents, it declined to share all the details of how the technology works. But the battery is water-based and uses other cheap, readily available materials like manganese and metal oxide. It doesn’t use cobalt, a key material in lithium batteries that is both expensive and the cause of environmental and health problems in the supply chain. It doesn’t use lithium, which poses other challenges in mining and has been surging in cost, and is likely to push up the cost of other batteries. But the new design works well, the team says. “As the company started testing the new technology, “we started seeing lithium-like performance,” Varanasi says.