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Tech superstar Bill Joy and others have just invested $65 million into Ionic Materials, a company that says it has developed a new polymer that will make safe, stable, and low cost solid state batteries possible. What does Bill Joy know that others don't?


Bill Joy Has 65 Million Reasons Why Solid State Batteries Are The Next Big Thing

Tech superstar Bill Joy and others have just invested $65 million into Ionic Materials, a company that says it has developed a new polymer that will make safe, stable, and low cost solid state batteries possible. What does Bill Joy know that others don’t?

In the tech world, Bill Joy is a superstar. He is a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He also is a co-developer of Java and one of the early pioneers of the Internet of Things. Along the way, he became part of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Bloomberg reports that Joy, together with Alliance Ventures and others, has invested $65 million in Ionic Materials, founded by Mike Zimmerman.

solid state batteries for grid storage

Ionic is focused on manufacturing a polymer it says will replace the liquid electrolyte found in today’s lithium ion batteries. On its website, it proclaims, “Our solid polymer is the first of its kind to conduct ions at room temperature. This material enables new frontiers of safety, cost and energy density for batteries.” Zimmerman says, “We’re the key ingredient to make the new battery. We’re teaching others how to use our materials.” Ionic will use the money it just raised to create a polymer production facility at its headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts. Rather than making batteries itself, it will sell the polymer to battery manufacturers.

Bill Joy’s Interview With Wired

Last year, Bill Joy sat down for an interview with Steven Levy of Wired to talk about solid state battery technology and why he is backing Ionic Materials with his own money. His remarks are refreshingly jargon-free.

“In a normal battery, you have some ingredients, like lithium or alkaline, and a separator, like a piece of cloth that you put between them. Then you pour in a liquid so that the ions can move around. Bad things happen with liquids. Films form, things go into solution and run around and react with each other. You have safety issues like the battery catching fire. To be solid instead of liquid is something people have been striving for for 100 years.

“But in this battery, you have no liquid. You have just a plastic, a polymer, that replaces the liquid, so it’s solid. It’s a pretty big difference from a chemistry standpoint. It also turns out that this polymer just happens to be essentially a fire retardant material. So when you build batteries with this polymer, you don’t have a safety problem. Basically, all of a sudden, maybe a half dozen things that people have been trying to do with lithium batteries that weren’t possible are possible. You can make better lithium batteries.”

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

Joy is nothing if not a realist. He knows Rome wasn’t built in a day and that solid state batteries are not going to displace conventional lithium ion batteries overnight. The first thing he expects the polymer developed by Zimmerman and Ionic to do is lead the way to better, less expensive lithium ion products.

“You’re going to start by improving your lithium batteries, because that’s already your manufacturing process. But in the long run, advanced alkaline — the chemistry used in the ones you buy in the drug store — has a chance of upending the reign of lithium ion batteries because the materials are cheaper. You can potentially make alkaline batteries with aluminum. We’ve made some. We don’t have as many cycles as we need yet, but, you know, we’re working on it. We think that ultimately things like aluminum-alkaline batteries will meet the performance of lithium, but with abundant materials and way cheaper. And it’s also recyclable.”

Polymer Is The Key To Energy Storage

Joy sees the highest and best use of these new polymer-based batteries to be grid scale energy storage. Mark Jacobson of Stanford believes energy storage will be a critical component of his plan to allow renewable energy to replace virtually all fossil fuels by 2050. “These new models are efficient, so you can store and retrieve renewable energy, and it will cost a penny or less to put the energy in and out,” Joy says. “We finally can get the smart grid. I call it the energy internet. If I have a wind farm in Texas that’s generating electricity late at night, I can simply send a kilowatt-hour — a packet of energy — to someone in another place that’s going to use it later, and they can simply store it.”

Too Good To Be True?

Wired asks the question that every rational person would ask. How come nobody has done this before? Joy’s answer is, “You should say it’s too good to be true. But every once in a while, you do invent a new material that, like semiconductors, is amazing in what it can do. Here you have an industry that’s been totally bottlenecked, right? The reason we looked for this is because this technology was blocked for a single reason. You can look at [many of the advances over the years] and say, ‘Well, how can you do all these amazing things? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.’ But these amazing things were always possible. We just happened to unblock them.”

Two To Three Years Away

Joy expects Ionic’s polymer to begin appearing in batteries in commercial production in two to three years. And here’s an interesting tidbit. Alliance Ventures, the venture capital firm that just put a bunch of money into Ionic Materials along with Bill Joy, is a partnership between Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. If Ionic’s polymer batteries pan out, those companies could be the first automakers to have them in their cars.

Maybe, Maybe Not

Bill Joy is putting his money where his mouth is, but not everyone is convinced. Certainly our readers here at CleanTechnica have been exposed to many stories similar to this one in the past. Logan Goldie-Scot, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst in San Francisco offers this opinion: “There’s a huge amount of interest” in solid-state alkaline batteries. “But historically it’s proven impossible to transition from small-scale demonstrations to high volume manufacturing.”

That is certainly true. John Goodenough has been pursuing solid state battery research for many decades but hasn’t quite made the leap to commercial viability. What does Mike  Zimmerman know that John Goodenough doesn’t? Over the next few years, we should find out the answer to that question.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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