Just add water. This might be an instruction in a no-brainer baking mix or the subtitle of a show about mermaids. It’s also part of the solution tech startup AquaLith has for revolutionizing lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and other products.
Of course, the company’s approach is not that simple. In fact, AquaLith aims to make lithium batteries, as quoted by TechCrunch, “denser, cheaper, and safer” by systematically improving each of these batteries’ major parts.
The venture is a spinoff of research led by Chunsheng Wang at the University of Maryland, where the technology won a 2020 Invention of the Year Award.
Importantly, AquaLith’s technology avoids nickel and cobalt, two metals in short supply that are used in existing lithium-ion batteries. TechCrunch notes that side-stepping scarce metals puts AquaLith in a lucrative field.
The outlet cites McKinsey & Company, which predicts “the entire lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery chain … could grow by over 30% annually from 2022 to 2030, when it would reach a value of more than $400 billion,” with high revenues expected from producing batteries’ key components.
One component AquaLith is tweaking is the cathode. Per TechCrunch, 40% of the cost of battery materials are tied up in cathodes. AquaLith’s batteries replace nickel and cobalt with “materials that are much easier to access and process, while still providing high energy density.”
This means they store lots of energy per pound, which helps the range, or how far an EV can carry a battery before recharging.
AquaLith is also tackling the anode, where the company is using silicon microparticles instead of graphite, according to the journal Nature. This can shave anode costs more than 75% and increase energy density more than 40%, AquaLith CEO Greg Cooper told TechCrunch.
Finally, AquaLith is changing the electrolyte — the substance through which charge moves. This is where the water comes in: AquaLith uses a water-based electrolyte with salt, Nature reports. Using water can make a battery safer and less prone to rare but dangerous explosions.
Overall, if AquaLith succeeds, batteries could become cheaper to make, safer to use, and more able to store energy efficiently.
One advantage AquaLith’s approach has over other battery innovations is that it combines available technologies to build batteries better, Nature highlights. This “enables us to use the existing infrastructure for making lithium-ion batteries, which is very important,” Cooper said.
Packing more energy into batteries, making them safer, and making them cheaper could all help increase uptake of technologies such as EVs that can save consumers money, have no tailpipe pollution, and cause less planet-heating pollution in the long run.
Avoiding economically, socially, and environmentally costly mining and dependence on foreign countries for certain materials could yield added benefits.
AquaLith has begun raising funds and plans to explore battery-maker partnerships. Seeing the company’s anode material commercially could be about three years away, Nature reports, with its cathode about a year behind that. Combining all three technologies into one battery will probably take an additional two or three years, Cooper told Nature.