May 30, 2017

Sun's Bill Joy is on a quest for a better battery


Photos: Bill Joy, Ionic Materials; Illustration: Rebecca Zisser

If you were to draw up a list of the most-needed technologies, a better battery would likely be near the top. Well, several years ago, then a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Bill Joy drew up just such a list and came to a similar conclusion.

Joy, the co-founder of legendary Sun Microsystems, set about trying to find a breakthrough technology and landed on Ionic Materials, a 25-person Massachusetts-based company that aims to make batteries safer and cheaper by removing liquids from the equation. Instead, Ionic's approach uses a solid plastic-like polymer instead of the liquid electrolyte.

The benefits: "It's better, it's simpler. It's cleaner. It costs less," Joy said. Most importantly, the polymer won't easily ignite, unlike lithium-ion batteries. (A company video even shows an Ionic battery being pierced by bullets.)

The downsides: According to Joy, there really aren't any. That said, the one thing Ionic's technology isn't, is commercially available. And availability could still be years off. it's one thing to get something working in small batches, and quite another to manufacture it in the hundreds of millions.

Ionic has been working on this for several years. How long will it take to reach the market?

"I think the first batteries you will see containing the polymer will be a couple years from now."

Where will we see such batteries first, in cars, or in phones?

"While the impact is probably even greater in transportation, I think you will see it used in consumer first."

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