Ex-Sun Microsystems Tech Guru Backs Startup to Solve Next-Gen Battery Needs

Notable ex-Silicon Valley tech guru Bill Joy is backing the design of new battery technology that is aimed at solving the problem of next-generation energy storage once and for all with a polymer electrolyte material.

A notable ex-Silicon Valley tech guru is backing the design of new battery technology that is aimed at solving the problem of next-generation energy storage once and for all.

Ionic Materials, based in Woburn, Mass., is an emerging start boasting a solid polymer electrolyte material that founders claim is the key to developing a “truly soli- state battery” that could replace lithium-ion batteries, according to the company’s website.

“The Ionic Materials’ solution replaces the liquid electrolyte used in current lithium-ion batteries with a polymer that can conduct ions,” Mike Zimmerman, founder and CEO of the company, explained to Design News. “This makes batteries safe [and] lower cost, and enables higher energy density.”

Indeed, energy and materials scientists have been seeking an alternative to lithium-ion battery chemistries for some time due to issues with manufacturing cost, degradation, flammability, and energy density that come with repeated and extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, especially in heavy-duty applications. However, they’ve yet to find one alternative that can fit every application.

“Current lithium-ion batteries are susceptible to shorts and notorious battery explosions, are low energy, and expensive to manufacture,” Zimmerman said. “Because of this, researchers have been trying to develop a material that removes these harmful liquid electrolytes to improve battery safety, increase overall energy capacity and lower manufacturing costs.”


ionic materials

A chart shows the relationship between the conductivity and temperature range of a new polymer electrolyte material developed by startup Ionic Materials. The company—backed by tech guru Bill Joy, formerly of Sun Microsystems—believes its material is the key to developing a solid-state batteries that can suit a range of next-generation battery needs. (Source: Ionic Materials)


Zimmerman and his team at Ionic Materials think they have the answer--not with one battery chemistry, but with a unique polymer material that’s compatible with multiple battery chemistries and has higher potential for energy capacities than current state-of- the-art batteries, he said.

“The company’s platform technology enables a wide range of next-generation chemistries, including lithium metal anodes, sulfur cathodes, and more--leading to higher energy density and overall performance,” Zimmerman said.

What’s unique about the material is that it’s the first polymer that can transport lithium ions at room temperature in a wide temperature range, he said. This differs from a conventional lithium-ion battery, in which you have a liquid electrolyte that allows for flow in the liquid to move ions from the anode to the cathode, and vice versa.

“Our polymer benefits promise to speed the electrification of transportation, enable safer and longer-lasting consumer electronics devices, and accelerate the transition to clean and renewable sources of energy that require grid storage,” Zimmerman said.

The company’s technology has caught the attention of notable engineering visionary Bill Joy, who has a history of solving major engineering problems and creating solutions that have transformed the direction of global technology. During his time as chief scientist at Sun--now part of Oracle Corp.--he became well-known for driving the adoption of Unix and the creation of the Java programming language.

Joy took an interest in Ionic Materials while serving as partner at venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, where he and others at the firm listed the design of a completely solid-state battery as one of the “grand challenges” that could transform the world, Zimmerman said. Joy believes that the key to solving this challenge is in Ionic Materials’ technology, he said.

“Joy has personally invested in the company and is working closely with us to help facilitate partnerships that will speed the adoption of the material in consumer devices, electric vehicles, and the energy grid,” Zimmerman said.

Ionic Materials expects to commercialize its technology over the next two to three years, he said. The company will take a page out of the former Sun Microsystems playbook for how it initially distributed its groundbreaking Java technology to bring the polymer electrolyte material to market.

“We will be using a business model to provide [the] polymer material to the manufacturers of battery cells, so we will go to market via these customers rather than by developing a complete battery ourselves,” Zimmerman said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.




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