Bill Joy, the Silicon Valley guru and Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder, sees the future of energy in a battery that can take a bullet.
The venture capitalist formerly with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC is now dedicating most of his time to Ionic Materials Inc., a Woburn, Massachusetts-based startup developing lithium batteries that won’t burst into flames. They’re strong enough to withstand being pierced by nails and even getting shot, as the company demonstrates in a promotional video.
The effort is part of a global race to devise better storage systems for hand-held devices, cars, trucks and electrical grids. The problem is conventional lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that wear out quickly and have a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting, sometimes aboard jetliners. Ionic Materials says it’s solved those problems by crafting batteries from a solid plastic-like material.
“If you can make the battery out of a solid, these problems essentially disappear,” Joy said in a phone interview, speaking from a boat in the South Pacific. “It’s really a breakthrough in cost, safety and performance.”
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That could fill a need, said Yayoi Sekine, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“Safer stationary storage batteries are definitely welcome in the industry,” she said by email.
Joy, who was chief scientist at Sun Microsystems until 2003, first toyed with the notion of a solid battery about 10 years ago when he and colleagues at Kleiner Perkins came up with a list of “grand challenges.”
The idea was to imagine the technological breakthroughs that could change the world. For example, what if concrete could be made without producing carbon dioxide? Could sugar be extracted from wood chips and other non-edible plant scraps and made into biofuel? And is it possible to develop a battery without volatile liquid electrolytes?
With a list of transformative ideas in hand, Joy and his colleagues scoured laboratories, universities and beyond looking for scientists on the cusp of solving any of these grand challenges. If everything penciled out, Kleiner Perkins would invest.
“That’s a different approach than most venture people,” Joy said. “They typically have people knock on their door and give them story pitches. We went out and looked.”
Joy and his partners came up with about 25 grand challenges and found about 15 projects to fund. About half of those have evolved into viable businesses. They include Renmatix Inc., a biofuel company that received $14 million in funding last year from investors led by Bill Gates and the French oil giant Total SA.
The answer to Joy’s solid-state battery questions came via Mike Zimmerman, a Tufts University professor and Bell Laboratories veteran who was already working on the technology and founded Ionic Materials in 2011. Joy sponsored an initial Kleiner Perkins investment that year. He has since invested personally in the company and sits on its board. “My major commitment right now is helping with Ionic,” Joy said.
It won’t be easy. The energy-storage market is crowded with companies and researchers pushing to come up with technology to dethrone conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Ionic Materials has about 25 employees, and it’s working to scale up production. Manufacturing may begin within two to three years, Zimmerman said. The company plans to bring the cost of its batteries down as low as $30 per kilowatt-hour within about five years — significantly below the current $273 volume weighted average cost of lithium-ion battery packs calculated by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“You will see this technology widely adopted, in everything from consumer electronics, to transportation to energy storage for the grid,” Joy said. “We’ve been pretty quiet about what we’ve got, but this can radically transform things.”