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.
“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.
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.
Since these batteries are not flammable (unlike lithium), the design also saves cost because it doesn’t need to be made with extra protection to prevent fires. It also means that the batteries can have other applications, including use in shipping, where the industry is especially cautious about fire risk. (While cargo ships couldn’t run solely on battery power, it could be used along with other technology like sails.) As the planet heats up, fire risk is even more of a challenge. Chatter points to recent electric scooter fires and explosions in India, caused by faulty batteries but likely exacerbated by record heat waves. The incidents threaten to derail EV growth in India, as many consumers there now say they’re afraid to own an electric vehicle.
Alsym plans to begin beta testing with its first customers, including the Indian automaker, in early 2023. High-volume production may begin by 2025. The battery design could be useful everywhere, but the company is focused on making it accessible in lower-income markets.
The startup also plans to produce batteries for energy storage, and particularly wants to reach the hundreds of millions of people around the world who still don’t have access to electricity. “You could connect it with a solar panel, for example, and store the energy to be able to run a fan, a couple of light bulbs, an internet connection, and a small refrigerator,” Chatter says. “That changes a life.”