The material company in Alameda, California, has been working for the past decade to increase the energy stored in lithium-ion batteries, making it possible for small gadgets and electric vehicles with a much larger range.
Sila has developed silicon-based particles that can replace graphite in anodes and contain more lithium ions that carry current in the battery.
Now the company is supplying its products to the market for the first time, providing a portion of anode powder in the battery of the future Whoop 4.0 carrier. It’s a small device, but a potentially big step forward for the battery industry, where promising lab results often fail to bring commercial success.
“Think of Whoop 4.0 as our Tesla Roadster,” says Gene Berdychowski, CEO of Sila, who as Tesla’s seventh employee helped solve some of the most important battery issues for the company’s first electric car. “It’s really the first device on the market that confirms this breakthrough.”
The company’s materials with the help of other achievements have increased the energy density in the battery of the fitness tracker by about 17%. This is a significant advantage in the industry, which tends to be a few percent a year ahead.
This is equivalent to about four years of standard progress, “but one big leap,” says Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellan University.
The power still faces some real technical challenges, but this progress is a promising sign of the potential of increasingly capable batteries to help the world move away from fossil fuels as the threat of climate change accelerates. Increasing the amount of energy that batteries can store makes it easier for cleaner power sources to power more of our buildings, vehicles, factories and businesses.
For the transportation sector, a more energy-intensive battery can reduce costs or expand the range of electric vehicles by addressing two critical issues that prevent consumers from giving up gases. It also promises to supply grid batteries that save more energy from solar and wind power plants, or consumer gadgets that last longer between charges.
Energy density is the key to “electrifying everything,” says Berdychevsky, an innovator under the age of 35 in 2017.
In the case of the new fitness media, new battery materials and other improvements have allowed Boston Whoop to cut the device by 33% while maintaining five days of battery life. Now the product is thin enough that it can be inserted into “smart clothes” and also worn like a watch. It will go on sale on September 8.
Sila, which announced $ 590 million in funding in January, also has a partnership to develop battery materials for automakers, including BMW and Daimler. The company said its technology could end up packing 40% more energy into lithium-ion batteries.
Berdychevsky conducted an interview and got a job at Tesla before completing a course at Stanford University, where he worked on obtaining a degree in mechanical engineering. In the end, it played a key role in addressing a potentially existential risk to the company: that a fire in one of the thousands of batteries packed in the vehicle ignited the entire package.
He created a program to systematically evaluate a series of battery designs. After hundreds of tests, the company has developed a combination of battery components, heat transfer materials and cooling ducts that have largely prevented fires.
After Tesla launched the Roadster, Berdychivsky felt he would either have to commit to another five years to look at the company through the development of the next car, the Model S, or take the opportunity to try something new.
Eventually he decided he wanted to build something of his own.
Berdichevsky returned to Stanford for a master’s program in materials, thermodynamics and physics in hopes of finding ways to improve storage at a fundamental level. After graduation, he spent a year as an entrepreneur at the Sutter Hill Ventures residence in search of ideas that could form the basis of his own business.
During this time, he came across a scientific work that determines the method of obtaining silicon-based particles for the anodes of a lithium-ion battery.
Researchers have long considered silicon as a promising way to increase energy in batteries because its atoms can bind to a mass 10 times more lithium ions than graphite. This means that they contain much more charged molecules that produce electric current in the battery. But silicon anodes tended to crumble during charging because they swelled to accommodate ions that move back and forth between the electrodes.
The document, co-authored with Gleb Yushin, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, highlights the possibility of developing solid silicon rods with porous rods that could more easily accept and release lithium ions.
The following year, Berdichevsky was a co-founder of the Force along with Yushin and Alex Jacob, another former Tesla engineer.
Obstacles and delays
The company spent the next decade changing its methods and materials, working through more than 50,000 iterations of chemistry while increasing production capacity. Initially, it was decided to develop replacement materials that could be swapped by lithium-ion battery manufacturers, instead of following the more expensive and risky path of producing fully batteries.
However, the Force is not as far away as originally hoped.
After receiving several million dollars from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E division, the company at one point told a research agency that its materials could be in products by 2017 and in cars by 2020. In 2018, when Sila announced a deal with BMW , he said its particles could help power the German automaker’s electric vehicles by 2023.
Berdichevsky says the company expects to appear in vehicles “more than by 2025.” He says solving the “last mile” problem was just harder than they expected. Challenges include working with battery manufacturers to get the best performance from new materials.
“We were naively optimistic about the problems of scaling and bringing products to market,” he said in an email.
Whoop News signals that the Force has been able to create particles in a way to ensure safety, life cycle and other battery performance standards similar to those achieved in existing products.