Bosch’s acquisition of Seeo Inc. is followed within seven weeks by news that an innovator in another area has acquired a battery developer.
Electric-vehiclenews.com announced that “Dyson, the U.K. company famous for its bagless vacuum cleaners, has acquired Michigan-based solid-state battery startup Sakti3 for $90 million and announced plans to build an important $1 billion battery factory to mass produce the next generation battery technology.”
The report noted this was the second recent purchase of a promising start-up company by a larger, richer firm. Bosch acquired Seeo Inc. to benefit from its solid-state technology, which like most solid-state batteries would, among other benefits, reduce or eliminate fire hazards – something brought to the fore by recent FAA rulings on shipping of lithium batteries.
Sakti3 has announced a solid-state cell with 400 Watt-hours per kilogram energy density, roughly twice that of most competitors, including Tesla’s – reputed to be around 230 Wh/kg.
Although Sakti3 founder and CEO Ann Marie Sastry joins Dyson as an executive and will lead development of her battery technology for the company, the outcome will probably benefit Dyson’s vacuum cleaner and home appliance products first. Her original desire to create safe batteries for electric vehicles may take second place at this point to powering smaller machinery.
She will have a bigger budget to work with, however, and Dyson is open to licensing the technology, with eventual used in cars. Production, even for the cells destined to power Dyson vacuums, is still up to two years away. Dyson sees the battery as a good match for his firm’s digital motor, on which he’s invested $310 million in research and development.
USA Today had a slightly different perspective, reporting that Dyson “plans to use the startup’s solid-state lithium-ion technology to improve the battery life on its cordless vacuums, deliver new products and build a battery production plant.” This, according to USA Today, could put the UK company in direct competition with other battery manufacturers, including Tesla Motors, Panasonic and LG Chem.
Those who invested before in Sakti3, including General Motors and Khosla Ventures, profited from the Dyson purchase according to Quartz. Dyson is said not to rule out licensing the technology to other companies, making it a possibility that others might drive Sakti3’s concepts into vehicle use. No one involved in the transaction, including previous investors, offered a comment.
Solid-state batteries replace the liquid electrolyte of conventional batteries with a solid such as a polymer. Proponents think they can be made using machines currently used to make computer chips, and recent sales by Applied Materials to un-named battery makers suggests that possibility. Applied makes clean-room machines that coat and process multiple layers onto silicon wafers – layers that often go through a many-month series of steps to create a computer chip.
Skeptics suggest the problems may be too great to overcome for batteries, including the necessity to scale them to a size suitable for vehicle use. The original was created almost a decade ago by Fabio Albano, then one of Anne Marie Sastry’s doctoral students in her class at the University of Michigan. His 2008 dissertation about a solid-state microbattery for use in cochlear implants, intraocular sensors in eyes, or Parkinson’s monitors in the brain did not take into account cost factors, but the product was meant to be non-flammable for safe use in the human body.
According to one Quartz story, “Sastry asked other students to do some mathematical modeling of how such a battery would be engineered. There seemed to be no obstacle to scaling up a solid-state battery that would produce a significant increase in energy density over conventional lithium-ion.”
Quartz discusses the many obstacles that were claimed to be in store in making batteries large enough for electric vehicles. Because lithium ions don’t move easily though the solid materials compared to liquid electrolyte, the materials in the battery must be thin, the “width of a few dozen or even a single micron.” Similar to making solar cells, silicon wafers and even potato chip bags, thin films comprise not only the electrolyte, but the two electrodes.
The film is laid down in a vacuum chamber, deposited onto a substrate. Potato chip bags are easy, being 50 to 100 microns thick, and lines making such bags move at 1,000 meters a minute – or about 38 mph, according to Quartz.
By contrast, silicon chips are made with great precision and incredible cleanliness, and each layer can take 15 to 20 minutes to craft. Some processor chips have over 700 such layers, taking over 10 days to lay down. With intervening steps, chips sometimes take months to make it through a highly precise and deliberate series of steps.
Luckily, battery electrodes need to be thick to generate energy, but that requires multiple layers of one-micron thick depositions and adding to process time. Each layer can take an hour or longer to set in place, one criticism of the process that seems at odds with Dr. Sastry’s claims.
Steve Buckingham, an expert in the characterization of solid-state materials, was offered a position trying to scale up what were “champion cells,” the best of what Sakti3 had made in small sizes for medical devices to be able to power a car. “Ultimately, though, no manipulation of the vacuum deposition technology seemed to provide the needed energy density, capacity, and production speed. In one exercise of absurdist mathematics, Buckingham calculated that they could stack two thin-film battery layers atop one another in order to meet the capacity and energy density needed to propel, say, a Chevy Volt, but each would have to be a meter wide and 24 kilometers long.”
Despite this type of calculation, Ann Marie Sastry presented her battery to President Barack Obama at “White House Domo Day” on August 3. Although, like many silicon valley competitors, she has maintained secrecy about the company, she has managed to keep money coming in, culminating in the purchase by Dyson. At the White House, she claimed her company had built a cell with double the energy density of commercial lithium-ion batteries. Her statements in the videos are very much at odds with ideas presented by critics.
Fabio Albano, whose early work helped start Sakti3, now works with XALT, a Michigan battery maker with fairly open specifications on its products – but not near the claims for the Sakti3 cells. On one hand, Albano is skeptical of Sastry’s claims but Dyson seems willing to invest a billion dollars in testing the limits of her products. This high-rolling venture capitalism never ceases to astound, and we hope, delight.