“Everyone is kind of stuck.”
So says Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and former Kleiner Perkins partner, who thinks the pace of innovation in the battery industry is too slow.
Joy hopes a battery startup that he’s invested in over the years, Ionic Materials, can help speed up progress. “Innovation has stalled because it’s so hard. People need a solid electrolyte to make progress,” said Joy in an interview.
Ionic has developed a plastic-like polymer that serves as an electrolyte, and can work with various active battery substances like lithium, zinc and aluminum.
Most battery electrolytes are liquid. In many cases, like with lithium-ion batteries, they can be flammable if handled or manufactured improperly. In theory, a solid-state electrolyte is safer.
Many researchers and battery engineers are working on developing solid-state batteries. A couple years ago, British consumer electronics company Dyson bought startup Sakti3 in an attempt to commercialize its batteries. Last week, Toyota said it wants to scale the technology by the early 2020s.
Also last week, Ionic Materials claimed a breakthrough. According to the company, its technology can be used to make a solid-state rechargeable alkaline battery, which would be cheap enough to compete with lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars, the power grid and other consumer electronics.
Alkaline batteries -- all those cheap AAs or AAAs in our flashlights and shower radios -- make up a huge chunk of the battery industry today. But they’re generally not rechargeable, so haven’t been used in electric cars or cell phones.
Ionic Materials says its polymer tech can make a rechargeable alkaline battery that can be charged and discharged at least 400 times. Because ingredients in alkaline batteries are abundant and cheap, a rechargeable version of an alkaline battery could be cheaper than a lithium-ion battery.
It's still early days for Ionic Materials' technology. The 25-person company is more of a polymer and tech developer than a battery manufacturer.
The company doesn’t plan to build its own factory to make batteries, unlike some of its startup peers that have struggled and run out of money. Rather, Ionic plans to utilize the production lines of other battery manufacturing partners.
Joy said the company holds patents for battery manufacturing, which it would license for the production of Saran Wrap-style polymer sheets.
According to Joy, Ionic Materials is currently in discussions with lithium-ion battery companies, though the alkaline-focused application is a newer development.
Ionic Materials is taking up most of Joy's time these days. While a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Joy led the firm’s investments in cleantech companies like biochemical company Renmatix, as well as Siluria, which converts natural gas into an ingredient in plastic.
Joy left Kleiner as an investing partner a few years ago, as Kleiner reorganized and moved further away from cleantech.
Joy met Ionic Materials CEO and founder Mike Zimmerman while at Kleiner, when the firm had written out a series of “grand challenges” in cleantech. One of those was finding a better, cheaper battery.
If Joy hadn’t been looking for a solid electrolyte for batteries, he would have missed Zimmerman’s technology.
Zimmerman “made it in the basement of his house. It looked terrible, like an old pair of jeans,” recalled Joy.
But Zimmerman spent years at Bell Labs and over a decade developed a “cookbook” using the polymer. When the two men met, they had a “Vulcan mind meld,” as Joy described it.
Kleiner invested in Ionic Materials early on, and Joy made a personal investment as well. Now Ionic Materials is raising another round of funding, which explains why the company is talking more about the technology publicly.
Battery breakthroughs are notoriously difficult. When they happen, they take a long time to commercialize.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk often remarks on how battery breakthroughs are mostly hype -- although he and Tesla CTO JB Straubel remain cautiously optimistic that they’ll encounter one.
Joy is both a major shareholder and a big believer in Ionic and in Zimmerman. “We’re really lucky for finding this. It’s like a new form of microstructure and a new form of matter that he’s invented,” said Joy.
He added: “If you knew how hard this was and [were] sufficiently trained in the art, you’d be skeptical.”