Startup Alsym Energy looks to bring batteries free of lithium, cobalt to the masses

Industry

Mukesh Chatter, CEO and co-founder of Alsym Energy, hopes to bring groundbreaking battery technology to the automotive market.

On Wednesday, he unveiled work related to the company’s progress on developing batteries that aim to be more cost effective and less flammable than traditional batteries. Alsym Energy is targeting electric vehicle use cases.

The Massachusetts company’s batteries differ from many now in the market in that they don’t use lithium and cobalt. Lithium is expensive and susceptible to fire and overheating incidents, and cobalt has supply chain limitations.

While the company has not released the entire list of materials used in its battery, it has confirmed the primary material on the cathode will be manganese oxide, and the system will be aqueous — meaning it will use saltwater instead of an organic solvent.

Alsym Energy’s business updates come at a time when a number of battery startups are pursuing novel chemistries and seeking collaborations with automakers as EV sales increase around the globe. The price tag of EVs was the main motivator for Chatter to found Alsym Energy in April 2015. But it came with a personal catalyst: He said he had a “realization” after his mother died he wanted to help with problems affecting billions of people.

He and his wife landed on some populations’ lack of electricity as theirs to solve. Chatter saw low-cost, nonflammable batteries as an alternative to the on-grid electricity many areas of the world lack. These batteries eventually led to him pursue applications in vehicles, maritime vessels and other uses.

Chatter has experience in startups. He founded and sold a number of them in the 1990s and 2000s.

“We honed in on a few problems, one of them being that about 2.2 billion people around the world don’t have electricity, or only get it part of the time,” Chatter said. “We wanted to do what cellphones did to [the] landline. We wanted to do that to power grid by making off-grid power economically competitive to on-grid.”

Seven years and $32 million later, the mission led to Chatter developing cost-effective batteries for EVs, stationary storage and marine applications. He developed the design with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kripa Varanasi and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Nikhil Koratkar.

Alsym Energy hopes to first go to market in India, but the company does not have a clear timeline on when that will happen. Chatter said it is the perfect place, as it is the global epicenter of many of the problems EVs face. The high costs of American- and European-made EVs have been prohibitive to many Indians interested in contributing to decarbonization.

Getting densely populated, lower-income countries such as India to buy into electric vehicles is the only way to make a real difference regarding emissions, Chatter said.

“Changing 5, 10 percent of the total vehicles around the world and making them EVs is not going to move the needle much,” Chatter said. “It has to be across the globe. What that means is batteries have to be affordable, and without being flammable. So that became the rallying cry for us.”

The company has already begun working with a “leading India-based automaker in a joint effort to develop Alsym’s batteries” for EVs, according to a release. Additionally, Chatter said the company is “in dialogue” with one European and one European-American auto manufacturer. He declined to elaborate.

Production of the batteries will most likely take place in the U.S., with Massachusetts being a possible location. For now, the product remains in the “eighth inning” of testing, said Chatter.

India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has been encouraging EV use in the country. Even with cost-effective batteries, problems such as the country’s lack of charging infrastructure still pose challenges.

When asked why he is taking on a seemingly difficult market in which to launch, Chatter responds with an analogy: India is his figurative Mount Everest.

“I mean, if I can climb Mount Everest, the question is: ‘Could I climb something else?’ ”

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