Now the 47-person startup is striking deals with shipping companies and an automaker to prove its claims in the real world. The company is just one of many around the world striving to find practical alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. The winners will win billions and may well break China’s stranglehold on the global battery market.
“We wanted to make a big difference in the lives of one billion people around the world,” Chatter said.
Alsym has been in stealth mode since its inception in 2015. In some ways, it still is. The entrance door to the company’s offices displays the name of a dance academy. And Chatter is extremely secretive about the chemistry that powers its battery. He didn’t even try to patent it, because that would require revealing the formula. Instead, it’s a trade secret, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.
But Chatter offered some clues. The electrolyte – the material that carries energy between the two electrodes – is water mixed with solvents that Chatter will not identify. One of the electrodes is manganese oxide, but Chatter hasn’t said anything about the composition of the other – just that there’s no lithium or cobalt involved, and all materials are non-flammable and inexpensive.
The company has won the trust of investors, who have invested $32 million in the project, with Helios Climate Ventures in the lead.
Chatter, who previously founded two networking hardware companies, launched Alsym as a way to provide reliable electricity in developing countries.
“About 2 billion people around the world don’t have electricity or only have it part of the time,” Chatter said. “People are basically caught in the cycle of poverty and 19th century life.” Solar cells and wind turbines can help, but they must be backed up with batteries to provide constant power. Lithium batteries are too expensive and unstable; Chatter Claims his company’s batteries are much safer and cheaper.
Chatter says it landed $2 billion in pre-orders for Alsym batteries. A small factory at the Woburn headquarters began producing them in small batches. Alsym batteries can be manufactured using the same equipment found in any lithium-ion battery factory; only the materials inside the batteries are different. This means that existing battery factories could quickly switch if and when Alsym batteries will prove themselves.
The first buyers will be a cargo manager based in Singapore Marine Synergy and the Japanese shipowner Nissen Kaiun. The two companies plan to equip several of their ocean-going vessels with Alsym batteries as an auxiliary power source.
Alsym has also signed a deal with one of India’s biggest automakers to supply batteries for electric cars, although Chatter doesn’t say which company. This is a big test for Alsym, as the typical new car in India costs around $10,000. In American electric cars, the battery alone can cost more than that. So, to go around EVs in India, the manufacturer is counting on Alsym to deliver very cheap batteries.
“It’s the most price-sensitive market, so we decided to pick the bigger challenge,” Chatter said. “If you’re going to climb a mountain, climb Everest.”
Alsym is also in negotiations with a public service that wants to use batteries to store energy from solar and wind farms, then return the electricity needed to the local electricity grid.
But Shirley Meng, professor of materials science at the University of Chicago, is very dubious. She said labs around the world are trying to find alternatives to lithium batteries, so far without much success. “Lithium has such good performance,” Meng said. “You probably won’t be able to find another ion that will give you that kind of power and energy.”
Alternatives to lithium have been invented, Meng said. But so far, they’ve only worked reasonably well on a small scale. Additionally, any new battery chemistry would require the development of a new global supply chain for all the chemicals and components needed to operate it, and that could take years.
Meng said she would need to see a lot more data to convince her that Alsym is onto something. “Without knowing their chemistry, I think their claim is unfounded,” she said.
We should know that in a few years. Alsym plans to begin full-scale production of its batteries in 2025 and begin shipping them to Synergy Marine and Nissen Kaiun for three years of real-world testing.
Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.