“Thinking Outside the Battery” to Dramatically Improve Battery Performance

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In a recent episode of CleanTech Talk, I interviewed Jeff Granato, President, CEO, & Co-Founder of Iontra, and Daniel Konopka, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer of Iontra, in order to step into the world of charge control optimization. We discussed how Iontra is delivering significant — one could even say dramatic — battery performance improvements without battery cell chemistry changes or battery pack redesign. Confused? Listen in to get the full story.

“We at Iontra are delivering dramatically better performance and safety from existing batteries that are in circulation today,” Granato summarizes. “And, really, what we’re delivering is peace of mind that we’re not plating on the anode under all conditions the battery may find itself in.” He adds that their technology also creates “new ways to improve range and other practical aspects of battery use and longer life batteries to take some of the pressure off of second-life applications and mineral use.”

“When we work with customers, we’ll tell them we have a twofold performance improvement,” Konopka says, “but when you look at all of our 3rd party validation, the numbers are far higher — so, 3 to 5 to 6 times improvement.” Naturally, improvement depends on the application, and the lab is not always the same as the real world. However, Granato adds, “What we find with customers is that — as Daniel was mentioning — we can generally do two times the charge speed, and we can do much greater lifetime cycling improvement if you have constraints on power availability, and we’ve been demonstrating upwards of 4× lifecycle improvement.” Even the Iontra team is sometimes blown away by the improvements. “Our team in the lab — we have meetings a couple times a week reviewing all the cycling that’s going on — and oftentimes they show up to the meetings like, ‘This thing’s still going!’ And so, they even wow themselves.”

And this underscores what makes Iontra interesting. The industry has long been accustomed to distinct tradeoffs between better battery lifetime and faster charging performance. Iontra is offering its customers the opportunity to have both in a calculated manner with what it calls a performance budget. After cycling batteries in its labs, Iontra determines the true potential of a battery cell or pack, and the ultimate performance of the battery is then based on the customer’s unique needs. It’s a balancing act of faster charging, longer cycle life, capacity utilization, and cold weather charging (Iontra tested its tech as low as -20°C for a power tool manufacturer), all while maintaining overall safety of the battery. A customer may choose to use its performance budget to push the envelope on cold weather charging and faster charging, while maintaining cycle life and capacity utilization, for example. It’s the customer’s call, and it’s from there the Iontra algorithm, or “recipe,” is developed.

However, with Iontra not being involved in battery chemistries or pack management, I do have to admit that I was a bit confused at first — how does Iontra help to dramatically improve battery performance without changing battery chemistry or design? What the company handles to improve these things is the charge controller — and that can make a big difference!

With software, and a little bit of hardware modification, it handles battery charging and management in a smarter way. It improves battery performance largely through an algorithm that deploys during battery pack charging. “Specifically, what we’re delivering is a charge control algorithm that Daniel will get into in more detail that’s really novel in its approach,” Granato says, “and the way that we’re making it possible for companies to adopt this new approach is to enable them to just replace the charge control chip that they’re using today with an Iontra charge control chip in the next couple of years when it becomes available.” In the meantime, the approach is “using off-the-shelf charge control MCUs today with our embedded C libraries to achieve the dramatic performance improvements that we’re able to deliver with the algorithm.”

Konopka steps back again to explain it in another way and help us wrap our minds around what’s going on, and then gets into further detail as well. “From afar, you would describe us as a battery charger, or a pack charger, but really, more technically, we are a technology that is based upon electrochemistry as well as electrodynamics, using those principles to stabilize the battery and the pack even under very challenging or stressing conditions. And what that allows us to do, with fundamentally stabilized components within a battery, is push the performance of that battery in a particular direction. That direction is going to be dependent on the application and the customer working with our technology, but often times that’s going to be charging the battery very fast without accruing the type of degradation and safety concerns that usually arise when you use a different type of method for controlling the battery.

“Alternatively, and very importantly for longevity and sustainability, is actually increasing the cycle life of the battery, and ensuring that that device that’s already been assembled with materials that have already been mined, already circulated, has the opportunity to serve in its capacity for the longest possible time.”

That just captures just the first 5½ minutes of the conversation. I asked more specifically about dendrite growth, battery degradation, fire risk, and safety, and that’s where Daniel Konopka really teased out some key differences between how it is helping to deal with those challenges compared with conventional approaches to those challenges. “Fundamentally, that really is the question, because it is most tied to safety. When a battery really has a safety malfunction that causes a large thermal event, it’s because a dendrite formed, and lithium-ion batteries provide us with our best-case scenario, our most stable system to prevent that from happening — as opposed to next-generation technologies like lithium-metal based anodes and lithium-metal batteries. But a truth in the market that we talk about sometimes is that no matter what technology we’re discussing, as soon as it’s introduced, no matter how much better it actually is, the market is going to push it to its maximum. They’re going to redline it. And that’s why it’s so important, particularly in the battery space, that new technologies are introduced with a prioritization around safety — because this type of abuse, which quickly becomes normal is, you know, going to be widespread, and that’s just a fact of the market and competition.

“So, when I say at Iontra that we’re stabilizing the battery, we should have said it up front, but really, safety is implicit. […] Fast charge is really where you’re going to exacerbate dendrite growth, and a large number of the material advancements — modification to the electrolyte or the barriers that are present between the anode and the cathode are meant to make it more difficult for dendrites to grow and to short-circuit the battery and cause these thermal events. but a challenge with an electrochemical solution in general is that you end up introducing fixes that inherently limit the performance. It’s by limiting the performance that a lot of chemical solutions actually prevent dendrite growth. Mechanical barriers can be very effective, but they’ll increase the resistance through the cell, and therefore slow the rates of charge and discharge that the cell can actually support. So, often times, solutions end up being at odds with some aspect of the required performance of the device. And that’s where we start introducing the idea of electrodynamics.” That’s where Iontra brings its software and electrodynamics to the table to prevent degradation, prevent dendrite growth, prevent thermal runaway, and improve safety without limiting performance.

While the theme here is improving the battery from outside the battery, there are actually times when Iontra’s technology is inside the battery pack, and other times when it’s not. Different applications require different solutions. Jeff Granato explains: “We’ve been working with a lot of consumer electronics brands and cell OEMs. We have been doing some early EV work to provide us with indications that we’ll be able to deliver similar performance, but insofar as the integration of the technology in the products, it really takes different forms in different environments. For example, one of our lead customers is a leading power tool OEM, and the way it works is, because it has a detachable battery, it winds up getting integrated into the charger that the battery gets plugged into. For a smartphone, it winds up going onto the battery pack itself. We’re working with the world’s largest battery supplier for that market, and they integrate the charge controller right into the battery pack that is integrated into the smartphone. And, in an EV, the way that it would get integrated would be to get into the onboard charger, and then to also have components on the pack so that the communication latency is gonna work well, and we have the ability to control the pack with those two integration points.”

Daniel then gets even more technical, if you want to really get into the nuts and bolts — or, I should say, the triangles and electrodynamics. For much more detail and background, listen to the whole episode!

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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