A new design from UCLA aims to revolutionize electric batteries

Faster charging, longer life, cooler temperatures.

For batteries, this is usually a “choose one of the above scenarios”.

But Battery Streak, a fledgling startup based in an unassuming business park in Camarillo, Calif., says it has all three, and it has it today.

“Our technology, in its current state, is something we’re bringing to market today,” says Dan Alpern, vice president of marketing at Battery Streak. “We’re out of the lab and ready to go now.”

Given these claims, it’s no surprise that Battery Streak claims to have caught the attention of major multinational brands, the US military, and electric vehicle manufacturers. Their batteries offer ultra-fast charging: up to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. That alone would make the technology attractive for a variety of applications, but the company says it can hit those numbers while maintaining temperatures below those of the human body, while maintaining higher capacity over more cycles than batteries. traditional lithium-ions. provide. Battery Streak’s test results show that their product retains 80% capacity after 3,000 charge/discharge cycles. Today’s best lithium-ion batteries typically drop to 80% in about 1,000 cycles.

EV’s New Hope: Niobium

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The secret sauce behind Battery Streak’s impressive stats is a rare metal called niobium. Element number 41 on the periodic table, niobium naturally reacts with oxygen to form a porous crystal structure called niobium oxide or niobium. The shape of the molecule gives it an incredible surface area, which makes it so useful in battery design.

Lithium ions move from the metallic lithium anode to the cathode as the battery discharges in traditional lithium-ion cells. The cathode is typically graphite, a crystalline carbon structure that traps and retains ions in a process known as intercalation. This works quite well, but it requires the lithium ions to penetrate deep into the graphite lattice and undergo a chemical phase transition, releasing heat. The process can also get bogged down if the metal ions do not penetrate deep enough into the carbon matrix and clump together to form a metallic coating. It’s lithium plating, and it’s a huge problem facing the batteries of the future and today.

Replacing the graphite in the cathode with niobium solves – or at least improves – both of these problems. Due to the larger surface area of ​​niobium oxide molecules, lithium ions do not need to penetrate deep into the crystal lattice or undergo phase transitions to stay in place. Instead, the lithium ions nestle on the surface of the niobium lattice. Easy to put on, easy to take off, so to speak.

Most of the world’s natural niobium is found in Canada and Brazil and the mines and supply chains are robust thanks to the metal’s long history as a component of steel alloys. CBMM, a Brazilian niobium mining company, has invested $5 million in Battery Streak and supplies all the niobium for its batteries. Additional funding comes from a grant from the National Science Foundation and a pre-seed round from Act One Ventures, bringing the total to $6.5 million.

The battery design was first conceived at UCLA by a team of researchers including Bruce Dunn and Sarah Tolbert.

“These professors came to the licensing group and basically said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this awesome new technology, find someone to develop it,'” Battery Streak President David Grant said.

Grant, who has already founded several successful startups, is UCLA’s entrepreneur-in-residence.

“They looked around and said, ‘Well, David’s not doing anything, let’s call him,'” he jokes. The company tapped UCLA’s Chun-Han “Matt” Lai as a technology development manager and began working on the commercialization process. Five years later, the company is ready to enter the market.

Create a request for a new battery type

Image courtesy of Battery Streak!

Battery Streak’s ultimate goal isn’t to become a battery manufacturing giant…at least not yet. Their current business model is to manufacture and supply the niobium nanostructures to battery manufacturers or license the production technique to larger companies. In order to get those contacts, they have to convince the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) selling the downstream products to give this new battery formulation a chance. A battery giant like Samsung won’t change its battery chemistry unless there’s a demand for the new technology. So part of Battery Streak’s current strategy is to get their batteries into the hands of OEMs. They target power tools, warehouse robots, drones, medical devices to begin with – all sectors where battery performance is critical and where there is access to fast charging infrastructure.

When I visited the Battery Streak manufacturing and design facility in June, the company was sort of on hold. A standard COVID supply chain hiccup had them waiting for the delivery of a 100 liter reactor that would allow them to scale up from producing a few grams of niobium per day to several kilograms. The reactor arrived a few days ago, and on July 19, the company was drying its third batch of full-scale products and sending sample batteries to equipment manufacturers for demonstration.

Luckily for Battery Streak, Dan Alpern says battery manufacturers can make niobium batteries using any lithium-ion equipment out there. There is no need to buy new machines, parts or packaging.

Impressive as some Battery Streaks numbers may seem, there are two important caveats. The first is that to realize their full fast charging potential, you need fast chargers. No standard household outlet can provide enough power to charge your electric vehicle to 80% in 10 minutes.

Charge and discharge rates are described on a C scale, where 1C means the battery charges or discharges in 1 hour. 2C indicates the battery charges and discharges in 30 minutes, 3C indicates 20 minutes, etc. Battery Streak technology allows them to charge and discharge in the 6C range. It’s incredibly fast. To deliver that much power to the battery, you need more voltage (or current) than a standard wall outlet (120 volts in the US) can supply. That’s why the company is focusing its initial efforts on applications with easy access to higher voltage/current supplies: automotive workshops, hospitals, warehouses, etc. Yet consumer electronics isn’t completely out of the picture: With a new type of charger, Grant says his company’s batteries could offer improved charge times for phones or laptops, even with the current power grid.

A fast charging revolution?

As electric vehicles become more common, access to faster charging infrastructure will likely become more widespread. Many EV owners and owners install Level 2 charging (240 volts) in their homes or properties. Battery Streak hopes to ride this wave in the future, but the electrical infrastructure needed to harness the full potential of their technology is not yet so widespread.

Battery Streak takes a more conservative approach in the electric vehicle sector. They are in conversation with several automotive customers, but the second caveat of their technology is that the niobium formulation reduces the total battery capacity by approximately 20% compared to a lithium-ion battery of the same size. The tradeoff is faster charging for less battery life. Some shortfall may be offset by the reduced need for cooling equipment, which also costs weight and space, but with so much consumer concern over range, other next-generation battery technologies, especially solid-state, could ultimately win the race. Scooters, bikes and other micro-mobility use cases are also definitely on the table.

In terms of customer base, Battery Streak can’t say much because they are bound by NDAs with “almost everyone”, according to Grant. Their only major public contract is with the US Navy. Their low temperature and high discharge rate have made Battery Streak batteries an attractive target for drone use. Quadcopter type drones require considerable energy for takeoff, but use much less to maintain flight. The military was looking for a battery that could meet this dynamic power profile and recharge quickly in arctic environments, says Alpern, who served in the active-duty navy from 1984 to 1990 and worked as a civilian employee from 2009 to 2021. .

New grants, new opportunities

Image courtesy of Battery Streak!

The next phase of Battery Streak is unclear. With its giant new reactor finally online, the company is clinging to a precipice: if the test cells it sends out are well received by OEMs and the company can convince the biggest battery makers to add a niobium formulation to their offerings, Batter Streak could potentially become interesting. billion, if only as a supplier of niobium powder.

It is also possible that Battery Streak will become a manufacturer. It wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the company’s plans until a few months ago, but according to Alpern, the winds are changing. It is possible to create a plant in Kentucky using $50 million in state and federal funds allocated for clean energy initiatives to help replace coal jobs in the region. There are also rumors about grants from the Department of Energy.

“We’re looking at Nevada, we’re looking at Texas, we’re looking at Arizona, we’ve spoken with North Carolina,” Alpern said.

Such an investment would also not be unheard of for a niobium battery startup. Earlier this month, UK-based Nyobolt secured $59 million in Series B funding to begin construction of a manufacturing facility that could come online as early as 2023. Another UK-based competitor , Echion Technologies, also made headlines.

With space clearly heating up, the race to market is on. Battery Streak says it hopes to have its first production batteries commercially available within a year.

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