They say bad things come in threes, so this might not be the last word, but for the second time in just a few days, we’ve gotten wind of an overlooked startup company that aims to give the much-publicized Tesla battery a run for the money. This time it’s the “stealth” company 24M Technologies, which just yesterday announced a new lithium-ion battery that it’s calling a semisolid lithium-ion cell.
Solving The Grand Challenge Of Energy Storage
When we see “revolutionary” in a press release we have to put stoppers under our eyeballs to keep them from rolling, but 24M developed its “revolutionary technology” with the support of the Energy Department’s cutting-edge funding agency, ARPA-E, so there’s that.
The new 24M semisolid lithium-ion cell tackles a major challenge to the mass adoption of electric vehicles, which is the high cost of lithium-ion batteries. 24M claims that its new battery can be produced for half the cost of a conventional battery.
To get there, 24M ran a soup-to-nuts overhaul of the battery cell design, in combination with a new approach to manufacturing.
The result, the company claims, is better performance as well as significantly lower cost.
To be specific, the company is aiming for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour once the process is fully ramped up, by 2020.
Not for nothing, but 24M couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the Tesla Motors much-publicized Gigafactory in its press materials, along with flow battery technology, too:
Until now, the energy storage field has had two options to try to drive down costs – build massive and complex factories to produce lithium-ion batteries in high volumes or pursue entirely new chemistries that may never move from the lab to the commercial floor.
Just yesterday we noticed that the flow battery startup UET had also taken a poke at Tesla, and it seems that 24M is ready to take on both of them.
Secret Sauce For A New Lithium-Ion Battery
The key to the whole thing is something 24M calls a semisolid thick electrode. It increases the thickness of the “active” layer in a lithium-ion by about five times.
That thicker layer improves storage capacity, while eliminating about 80% of the supporting structure that stabilizes multiple layers within a conventional lithium-ion cell.
To put the whole thing together, 24M came up with a new approach to manufacturing that takes a matter of hours, compared to days for conventional lithium-ion batteries. The new process eliminates a number of conventional steps including binding, drying, and solvent recovery.
24M, Meet Local Motors
One electric vehicle trend we’ve been following over the past year or so is the emergence of small-scale, localized manufacturing facilities.
That trend is being encouraged by the Obama Administration through the Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing office. It dovetails with the 3-D printing trend, as epitomized by another company supported by ARPA-E, the 3-D printed EV specialists Local Motors.
That brings us back around to 24M, which claims that a factory to produce the new battery would cost about one-tenth the cost of a conventional factory.
According to 24M, the modular, flexible process enables cost-effectiveness even at low volumes, and the absence of solvents makes it “the most easily recycled lithium-ion cell ever made.”
Group Hug For US Taxpayers
Yes, we built this. 24M is not shy about touting its support from the Energy Department, through ARPA-E (that stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, btw).
This is where the fuel cell and flow battery come in. The nut of the new technology goes back to 2010, when ARPA-E provided a grant of almost $6 million to 24M for a project titled “Semi-Solid Flowable Battery Electrodes,” aimed at both electric vehicle batteries and grid energy storage.
At the time, according to ARPA-E, the typical lithium-ion battery for EVs was pretty much the same technology as that used in small mobile devices like phones and laptops, with a financially practical driving range limited to about 100 miles.
As for expense, a typical lithium-ion battery for EVs generally accounted for more than half the overall cost of the vehicle.
ARPA-E was looking for companies that could double the energy storage at 30% of the cost, and they tapped 24M to do the job.
As described by ARPA-E, the 24M project consists of a lithium-ion battery crossed with a fuel cell, incorporating the basic structure of a flow battery:
This system relies on some of the same basic chemistry as a standard Li-Ion battery, but in a flow battery the energy storage material is held in external tanks, so storage capacity is not limited by the size of the battery itself. The design makes it easier to add storage capacity by simply increasing the size of the tanks and adding more paste. In addition, 24M’s design also is able to extract more energy from the semi-solid paste than conventional Li-Ion batteries.
This would be a good time to mention that 24M is a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here’s how MIT described the new lithium-ion battery in a 2011 article:
The new battery relies on an innovative architecture called a semi-solid flow cell, in which solid particles are suspended in a carrier liquid and pumped through the system. In this design, the battery’s active components — the positive and negative electrodes, or cathodes and anodes — are composed of particles suspended in a liquid electrolyte. These two different suspensions are pumped through systems separated by a filter, such as a thin porous membrane…
Now might also be a good time to point out that in addition to funding from ARPA-E, 24M has also been supported by the agency that inspired ARPA-E. That would be DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Image (screenshot) courtesy of 24-M.