(Chris Devlin) #1
and kombucha flow freely and the
conference rooms are named for
grand projects of civil engineering
throughout history. Ramya Swami-
nathan, Malta’s chief executive,
tells me she hopes to have a prod-
uct on the market in about five
years. What most worries her is
that Malta is designing a complex
piece of machinery for a market
that doesn’t yet exist. “It’s the blind
man and the elephant,” she notes.
“We’re all feeling our way through.”

T


HERE’S A PALPABLE differ-
ence between the grid-
storage startups and
the lithium-ion-battery
companies I visit. The firms eyeing
the electric-car market seem even
more harried—because the market
wants a better lithium-ion battery
right now.
Back in Woburn, a handful of
other battery startups sit not far
from Vionx. One is Ionic Materials,
the brainchild of Michael Zimmer-
man, a laconic materials scientist
who, on the morning I visit, is
wrapped in an L.L. Bean fleece
jacket. He has spent his career—in-
cluding several years at Bell Labs,
the famed corporate-research out-
fit—burrowing away on plastics.
Zimmerman began tinkering
with how to make better polymers
for batteries nearly a decade ago.
He has come up with a polymer
that, at room temperature, allows
ions to flow freely. That raises the
possibility of affordably producing
a battery that doesn’t need a liquid
electrolyte—a “solid-state” battery,
which could be safer and, Zimmer-
man says, even more energy-dense.
Ionic Materials counts among its
investors a potent list of multi-
nationals, including the Renault-
Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance; Total,
the French oil company; and
Hyundai, the Korean automaker.
Other investors include Hitachi,
the Japanese conglomerate whose

products include batteries; and
Volta, the energy-storage fund.
Zimmerman’s team of about
50 people is struggling to make
the polymer thinner, stronger,
more uniform, and cheaper—all in
preparation, he hopes, for launch-
ing production over the next few
years. “This is really hard,” he says,
sitting under a wall clock whose
face reads, “In Science We Trust,”
and tapping the table with his
empty coffee cup. “It’s a headbang-
ing process.”
Less than a mile from Ionic Ma-
terials sits Solid Energy Systems,
which is taking an arguably more
daring approach. Qichao Hu, the
company’s founder, scoffs at the no-
tion of a solid-state battery, saying it
may be safer but won’t pack enough
energy. He considers a silicon an-
ode similarly ho-hum. Hu, just 33,
grew up in Wuhan, China, and got
his bachelor’s degree from MIT and
his Ph.D. from Harvard. He’s com-
mitted to commercializing what
among battery researchers has long
been seen as a Holy Grail: an anode
that will dwarf even silicon in its
lithium content because the anode
itself is made of lithium metal.
The problem, for years, has been
safety. Lithium-metal batteries
have a particular propensity, dur-
ing charging, for the buildup of
substances on the anode that can
pierce the separator, which can cre-
ate a short circuit and cause a fire.
Hu isn’t worried. He’s confident his
battery, which he calls “beyond lith-
ium-ion” and hopes to begin selling
for drones next year, will be no
more dangerous than those now on
the market. “You have cars catching
on fire, and still people buy them,”
he tells me. “So it’s acceptable.”
Hu talks and works fast. He’s in-
tent on taking his company public
as soon as possible, because time
is money. “Once the first beyond-
lithium company goes public, it’s
going to suck up all the invest-

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