The new Whoop fitness tracker straps around the wrist, a lot like any other health monitor or smartwatch. But you can also buy a sports bra or leggings equipped with this tiny device, which can be a sliver of electronics stitched into the fabric of clothes.
While that may not sound earth-shattering, Sila’s battery is part of a wave of new battery technologies that could lead to novel designs in consumer electronics and help accelerate the electrification of cars and airplanes. They may even help store electricity on the power grid, lending a hand to efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
New kinds of batteries may not dazzle consumers like new apps or gadgets. But like tiny transistors, they are at the heart of technology advancement. If batteries don’t improve very much, neither do the devices they power.
Companies like Enovix, QuantumScape, Solid Power and Sila have been developing these batteries for more than a decade, and some hope to move into mass production around 2025. Sila’s chief executive and co-founder, Gene Berdichevsky, was an early Tesla employee who oversaw battery technology as the company built its first electric car. Introduced in 2008, the Tesla Roadster used a battery based on lithium-ion technology, the same battery technology that powers laptops, smartphones and other consumer devices.
The popularity of Tesla, coupled with the rapid growth of the consumer electronics market, sparked a new wave of battery companies. Mr. Berdichevsky left Tesla in 2008 to work on what eventually became Sila. Another entrepreneur, Jagdeep Singh, founded QuantumScape after buying one of the first Tesla Roadsters. Both saw how lithium-ion batteries could change the car market. They saw an even greater opportunity if they could build a more powerful type of battery.
“Lithium-ion batteries had just gotten good enough, but they plateaued,” Mr. Berdichevsky said. “We wanted to push the technology further.” Around the same time, Congress created ARPA-E, for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to promote research and development in new energy technologies. The agency nurtured the new battery companies with funding and other support. A decade later, those efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
After raising more than $925 million in funding, Sila employs about 250 people at its small research center and factory in Alameda, the small island city west of Oakland. When he and two other entrepreneurs founded the company in 2011, Mr. Berdichevsky thought they would need about five years to get a battery to market. It took them 10.
The fitness tracker, a device with a small market niche, may seem like a baby step. But it is indicative of Sila’s hopes to push the technology into electric cars and other markets.
“If this kind of thing gets into a smartphone or some other consumer device, it is a sign of real progress,” said Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Carnegie Mellon University who specialises in battery technologies. “That is not easy.”Cade Metz is a technology correspondent for NYT©2021
The New York Times