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Global tech giants bet on a Massachusetts battery startup

In 1914, Thomas Edison, next to a Detroit Electric touring car (Photo: Getty)

The U.K.'s Dyson and South Korean industrial giant Samsung — both bruised by setbacks in their efforts to master modern batteries — are members of unusually high-powered investment round in a little-known Massachusetts startup, Axios has learned.

What we're hearing: Some of the world's biggest industrial companies are part of the $65 million investment in Ionic Materials, attracted by the belief that it has solved one of the longest-unsettled problems in batteries: how to use solid state technology without fire hazards or astronomical production costs.

Other investors: China's A123, Japan's Hitachi, and a French-Japanese carmaking alliance of Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Why they are in: Ionic claims a breakthrough in solid state technology, a system sought for decades as a potential pathway to the commercialization of ultra-high-energy batteries. It asserts that its liquid crystal polymer — a brand-new material — solves most of the main problems that have vexed solid state researchers.

"That's why we humbly say this is pretty exciting," Mike Zimmerman, Ionic's founder and the inventor of the material, told Axios.

  • Dyson, having been snookered in its first big solid state investment — its 2015, $90 million buyout of Michigan startup Sakti3, which it essentially had to write off — will have been especially cautious examining Ionic's data.

Other top assertions by Ionic:

  • Lithium ions move as fast or faster through its polymer than they can through a liquid electrolyte system with a separator. That alone has boggled a lot of battery researchers, since, physically speaking, it should be harder for ions to move through a solid.
  • The polymer works at 5 volts — another surprising leap in energy performance — and can be manufactured like plastic wrap, unlike the expensive and absurdly complex methods that have hobbled other solid state efforts.
  • And all of this happens at room temperature, rather than 60 degrees centigrade, approximately the level at which everyone else's polymer functions.

Why it matters: If Ionic's claims are independently validated and its material can be improved to withstand a punishing regime of up to 1,000 cycles, it could usher in much more affordable electric cars and longer-running smart phones.

  • If that happens, the material's first commercial use would be in a device such as a smart phone, and not a car, battery researchers say.

How it works: Ionic's polymer is similar in structure to what's inside a big-screen, liquid crystal display television set. In the usual solid polymer electrolyte, lithium ions, while moving through the battery from one electrode to the other, collide with a jumble of molecules, slowing them down.

But in Ionic's material, they meet a clear path of organized crystals along which they "hop" to the other electrode. That's why they can move so quickly.

Be smart: Going back to Edison (pictured above), exaggeration and outright lying have been a core reality of battery invention. And some battery experts interviewed by Axios urge caution about Ionic's assertions given the steep and chronic challenges solid state especially has faced, along with the lack of complete public data from the company.

  • A key doubt among outside researchers is whether Ionic's polymer can work with lithium metal, which most of the field regards as the entire reason to go to the trouble of figuring out solid state. Pure lithium metal is highly energetic, and would add some 30% more capacity to today's state-of-the-art electric car batteries, but is also prone to explode or catch fire when in contact with moisture.
    • That is what, until now, has prevented its use in batteries using liquid electrolyte. Researchers see solid state, containing no liquid, as a way to capture the upside of pure lithium metal without risking fire.
  • A high-stakes global race is under way to create a solid state battery, and make it work with a pure lithium metal anode, pitting mainly the U.S. against the U.K., China, Japan and South Korea. The U.S. program is called Battery 500.
  • Zimmerman said his material works with lithium metal, and that it reduces the critical problem of dendrites, the formation of tree-like gunk on the metal. But he said putting it into action is up to battery-makers who use his product. He said that even without lithium metal, there is much benefit to his system's greater safety than current batteries, and its ability to operate at 5 volts.

Several investors have elected not to disclose their participation in the Series C round in what one Ionic adviser said was possibly worry of tipping off rivals to their plans.

  • Dyson and Samsung are unannounced investors. The companies did not respond to emails seeking comment, but two sources each confirmed their participation in the investment round. Samsung was also a participant in Ionic's Series B round, a company adviser said.
  • None of the investors appears to have bet a lot, and their smallish antes suggest that, while they are hopeful, they are spreading the risk, at least for now.
  • There is no known American company investor.