No lithium? No problem, says Woburn Battery Startup – The Boston Globe | CarTailz

Now the 47-person startup is signing deals with shipping companies and a carmaker to prove its claims in real-world use. The company is just one of many around the world scrambling to find practical alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. Winners will earn billions and could break China’s stranglehold on the global battery market.

“We wanted to make a big difference in the lives of a billion people around the world,” Chatter said.

Alsom has been in stealth mode since its inception in 2015. In a way it still is. The name of a dance academy is emblazoned on the front door of the company premises. And Chatter is extremely secretive about the chemistry that makes his battery work. He didn’t even try to patent it because that would require revealing the formula. Instead, it’s a trade secret, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

A small format cell is assembled at Alsom Energy.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

But Chatter offered a few clues. The electrolyte – the material that transports energy between the two electrodes – is water mixed with some solvents that Chatter cannot identify. One of the electrodes is made of manganese oxide, but Chatter wouldn’t comment on the composition of the others—just that there’s no lithium or cobalt involved, and that all of the materials are nonflammable and inexpensive.

The company has won the trust of investors who have put $32 million into the project, most notably Helios Climate Ventures.

Chatter, who had previously founded two networking hardware companies, started Alsym to provide reliable power in developing countries.

“Approximately 2 billion people in the world have little or no electricity,” Chatter said. “People are basically caught in the cycle of poverty and 19th-century life.” Solar panels and windmills can help, but they need to be backed up with batteries to provide constant power. Lithium cells are too expensive and unstable; Chatter Claims His company’s batteries are much safer and cheaper.

Chatter says he’s received $2 billion in pre-orders for Alsom batteries. A small factory at Woburn headquarters has started making them in small batches. Alsym batteries can be made using the same equipment found in any lithium-ion battery factory; only the materials inside the batteries are different. This would allow existing battery systems to be converted quickly if and when the Alsym batteries will prove themselves.

The first buyers will be Singapore-based cargo ship manager Synergy Marine and Japanese cargo ship owner Nissen Kaiun. The two companies plan to equip several of their seagoing vessels with Alsym batteries as an auxiliary power source.

Alssym has also signed a deal with one of India’s largest automakers to supply batteries for electric cars, though Chatter won’t say which company. It’s a big test for Alsy, as a typical new car costs around $10,000 in India. In US electric cars, the battery alone can cost more. So to bring EVs to market in India, the manufacturer relies on Alsym to supply very cheap batteries.

Mukesh Chatter, President, CEO and co-founder of Alsom Energy holds completed large and small scale commercial size cells. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“It’s the most price-sensitive market, so we decided to choose the most challenging,” Chatter said. “If you want to climb a mountain, climb Mount Everest.”

Alsom is also in negotiations with a utility interested in using batteries to store electricity from solar and wind farms and then supplying the electricity to the local grid as needed.

But Shirley Meng, a professor of materials science at the University of Chicago, is very skeptical. She said labs around the world are trying to find alternatives to lithium batteries, so far without much success. “Lithium has such great performance,” Meng said. “You probably won’t be able to find another ion that gives you that kind of power and energy.”

Alternatives to lithium have been invented, Meng said. But so far they have only worked reasonably well on a small scale. Additionally, any new battery chemistry would require the development of a new global supply chain for all the chemicals and components needed to make it work, and that could take years.

Meng said she would need to see a lot more data to convince her Alsym is onto something. “Without knowing their chemistry, I think their claim is unfounded,” she said.

We should find out in a few years. Alsom plans to start serial production of its batteries in 2025 and supply them to Synergy Marine and Nissen Kaiun for three years of real-world testing.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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