The cameras were rolling. The entrepreneurs were competing on “All-American Makers,” a reality game show broadcast on the Discovery Channel, hoping to land $250,000 in venture capital. Livingston flushed.
The duo recovered from the mishap, which they said was caused by the hosts monkeying with the product before the show, quickly fixing their prototype with parts from Home Depot. In their on-air do-over, the repaired battery system successfully powered a mini fridge while simultaneously jump-starting an SUV with a dead battery. There were high-fives all around.
While the failed initial demo was a relatively minor setback for the Idaho-based startup (they didn’t win any funding from the 2015 TV showdown), their experience inadvertently illustrated a bigger truth: building a better battery is a difficult technical challenge.
Batteries are widely recognized as a crucial, clean-energy player in the struggle to stave off catastrophic climate change. They’re needed to replace petroleum-fueled engines in cars, trucks, airplanes and ships. Batteries are essential to electrical grids increasingly run off of wind and solar power, ensuring that the electrons keep flowing when the winds calm and the sun sets.
“Batteries have been interesting to us because they’re the bottleneck” in the clean energy transition, Livingston said. “It’s about fuel replacement.”
Yet the world is still heavily dependent on dated battery science, including lithium-ion batteries — a technology that was first developed half a century ago and commercialized by Sony nearly 30 years ago — for much of its energy storage. That includes electric cars, cell phones, laptops and solar power backup. Three main inventors of the lithium battery, including a 97-year-old chemist from the University of Texas who is still active in research, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry this past fall.
But after years of incremental improvements, the battery scene is undergoing a major shift. Battery prices keep plummeting, dropping 87% over the past decade with expectations that the decline will continue, according to experts. There are major new U.S. initiatives and an influx of capital to push the sector towards higher-performing batteries, as well as a race for the development of post lithium-ion batteries.
The lithium-ion battery market alone is valued at somewhere around $30 billion today, with predictions that it could spike four-fold over the coming decade, according to a December report from BloombergNEF.
Recent battery-related initiatives include:
Batteries are tricky. They need to juggle the prioritization of multiple attributes, many of which conflict with each other. Depending on how they’re going to be used, batteries are a balancing act of size, weight, affordability, safety, power output, life before recharging, time required for recharge, and the “cycle life” or ability to recharge many times without a decrease in performance.
Add to that the troubling human and environmental costs of mining many of the elements used to make the batteries. That includes lithium from Australia, Argentina and Chile, cobalt from Congo, from China, nickel from Indonesia, and from Gabon. One of the main goals of the Energy Storage Grand Challenge is to develop a domestic supply chain of raw materials.
Better batteries from the Northwest
As nations jockey for dominance, the Pacific Northwest is likewise trying to position itself as a major player in the battery sector.
“The Northwest is, for a lot of reasons, the perfect place to be the center of excellence for battery technology in the world,” Luebbe said.
“Washington state is in a unique situation,” agreed Vince Sprenkle, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories’ technical group manager of the Electrochemical Materials and Systems Group.
In addition to research institutions including PNNL, the University of Washington and Washington State University, the region is a long-time hub of tech innovation with a robust startup ecosystem. It’s home to some of the world’s most valuable companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, that are hungry for new, clean energy options in order to meet their climate change goals.
Based in central Washington, PNNL is leading Battery500, a DOE-sponsored consortium that is developing higher energy lithium-metal batteries. The goal is to create a battery with a specific energy of 500 watt-hours per kilogram — about two-times more juice than today’s EV batteries. Three years into a five-year program, Battery500 has reached 350-400 watt-hours per kilogram and is working to improve the battery’s rechargeability, which is essentially its lifespan.
“The technology that we show in two years, hopefully, is ready at that point to start attracting commercial interest,” Sprenkle said. PNNL’s role is to develop and prove a technology that others license from them and take to market.
PNNL was also chosen by DOE last year for a new national grid energy research facility, called the Grid Storage Launch Pad. PNNL is additionally a partner in the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. About 70 PNNL researchers work on battery science.
On the west side of the Cascade Mountains, the UW is part of the Battery500 project and its Clean Energy Institute is home to the Clean Energy Testbeds that allow researchers and startups to fabricate and test batteries and simulate energy grids.
Joule Case begins to shine
Joule Case is among the enterprises with a co-working space at the UW facility. In the years since its inauspicious TV debut, the startup has put some shine on its product line and is catching the eye of investors.
The company has raised close to $1 million from angel investors and will soon launch a Series A funding round. In October, Joule Case was crowned Early-Stage Innovation of the Year from the Idaho Innovation Awards. Joule Case builds its battery stacks in Boise, Idaho, and has grown from three employees to 12 over the past year.
“We’ve got some good growth going and sales are up,” Livingston said.
Joule Case’s innovation is not to change battery chemistry (their products use lithium ion and lead acid batteries, which are the kind used in conventional cars).
Instead, they’ve created a stackable battery system that customers can add to and subtract from depending on how much power they need and for how long. It turns out that batteries don’t naturally play nicely with each other, so the startup has developed a technology that makes them work in concert, and gives users the ability to adjust the energy output.
The battery modules can replace gasoline generators that provide backup power when the electricity fails, or at campsites and tailgating events. Joule Case has been marketing to organizers of marathons, fundraising events and indoor trade shows, with a 2020 goal of signing up and powering a music festival.
Their vision for the future includes batteries that power food trucks, and energize everyday items such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed whackers, replacing gas engines that crank out exhaust.
The dropping price of batteries is a big help to Joule Case’s viability. Their products are price competitive against higher-end inverter generators from brands like Honda and Yamaha, the co-founders say.
“What we’re really hoping to do,” Livingston said, “is to become that transition from fossil fuels.”
Electrification takes to the sky and sea
While there is a lot of attention paid to batteries powering cars, trucks and clean energy grids, the Northwest has a unique focus on aviation and maritime battery applications.
In December, MagniX, an electric propulsion company in Redmond, Wash., teamed up with Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air to do a test flight of an all-electric seaplane over the Fraser River. The partnership is pitching their electric plane — a converted Havilland Beaver — as the “world’s first commercial all-electric airplane.” The companies plan to have the plane government-certified by the end of next year.
Despite the fact that another local electric aviation company, Zunum Aero, last summer slashed its workforce, the sector is still going strong.
“The region is at the cutting edge of what a flying electric aircraft needs from a battery,” said Dan Schwartz, director of the UW’s Clean Energy Institute.
In January, Washington launched its first maritime startup accelerator, which includes two companies working on batteries. Last year, the state announced plans to build the world’s largest hybrid-powered, auto-carrying ferries.
Other Northwest startups are tackling battery functions including boosting the performance of the negative, or anode side, of a battery cell, as well as working with new chemistries.
Group14 is using nanotechnology to create silicon-carbon anodes to improve battery power and longevity, with a focus on EV applications. Group14 spun out of EnerG2, which was itself a UW spinoff that Luebbe also co-founded. In November Group14 announced an $18 million funding round.
Here are some of the other local startups in the sector:
As the list keeps growing, those in the field hope to reach a critical mass of expertise to create a robust community of battery know-how and startups.
“It absolutely matters. There is an ecosystem in the Northwest, but most people in the ecosystem hopes it gets bigger and more integrated,” Luebbe said. He drew a comparison to the tech sector that evolved over decades in Silicon Valley.
“That is an example of how a critical mass can accelerate an industry,” he said. When it comes to batteries, “we have a long way to go to get to that scale.”
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