A Michigan battery start-up has been garnering lots of attention lately for a breakthrough. It addresses a key question on many people's minds: why do computer chips in our phones improve exponentially – under what is called Moore's Law – but our batteries die by lunchtime?
"You know, there are actually very few technology areas whose key performance index follows Moore's law," says Ann Marie Sastry, founder of the battery start-up Sakti3. "Do your clothes follow Moore's law in terms of how they last? Does interior paint?"
Building the battery of tomorrow is hard. It's up against certain limits of chemistry.
Sastry quit her engineering professor job at the University of Michigan to take it on. The company produces what are called solid-state batteries. There are no liquids inside to hog valuable space and weight. Just the essentials.
"In a liquid system, the liquid in your battery, or the gel in your battery, is only a highway for the ions to move to the active material," Sastry says. "And that is actually penalizing your energy density."
Energy density is the key concept – how much oomph can you pack in a light, tiny battery package. Sakti3's big moment came when it announced it smashed a key technical barrier: packing 1,000 units of energy – or kilowatt hours -- into one liter of volume.
"We were pretty thrilled because today's battery technologies are hovering around 600," Sastry says.
The upshot: a power source that can last almost twice as long, for half the price or less. Or in car terms, it pushes toward the goal of an electric vehicle with no range issues, at a price of about $25,000.
Right now, it's all potential. Sakti3 has to figure out large-scale production, which could take two years to market. Or more.
"Scientific discovery does not respect your timeline," says clean energy investor Matt Nordan, co-founder and managing partner at MNL Partners in Boston.
Nordan has seen many exciting lab announcements end up in the technology graveyard.
"You can sit down and lay out 'I'm going to do these experiments in this order with this many people over this many months, and I'm going to get to this answer,'" says Nordan. "And you know what, you might get it tomorrow morning, you might get it five years from now. You might get it never."
The notion of tomorrow, as in almost there, has been a tease of electric vehicles for decades.
"The EV has been the car of tomorrow for 100 years," says business professor David Kirsch of the University of Maryland, author of "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History." "It's always been a day away. There have been predictions even in the modern era since the late 1960s about what the coming golden area of electric vehicles."
The key is a more competitive battery, but it's more than that. The incumbent liquid fuel – gasoline – is far more energy dense and some argue always will be. It's a liquid that's easy to transport down a pipeline and pour in your car. For all the carbon pollution minuses, gasoline has lots of everyday pluses.
Still, the challenge is not insurmountable, Sastry argues. She reads history more optimistically.
"When better technology becomes available, it can be adopted with breathtaking speed," Sastry says. "If you just look at the computing revolution, that's clear. Now we're in the cloud and that is revolutionary, and that's clear. Does portable high energy density power change everything? Yes. It changes everything."
She says her breakthrough battery may first show up in consumer electronics and wearable devices like smart watches.
But automaker GM has already invested in her ideas. And there are whispers Sakti3 is testing a "next-next-generation" product: a new material with even better properties than today's lithium.