Off-Campus: The Churchill Club on the Future of Batteries

Colvin Wang and a number of other SEC officers attended a panel last week on the future of batteries hosted by the Churchill Club, a technology and business forum based in Silicon Valley. This is his recap of the event.

On Wednesday evening, the Churchill Club gathered in Pullman Hotel in Redwood City for a panel of experts discussing the “Future of Batteries.” Delectable dinner was catered in the large conference hall, as professionals from a wide variety of industries sat down together at the dozens of dinner tables. At my table, there was one co-founder of a cleantech startup out of Berkeley, two professionals from Oracle, two producers from MotorTrend, and two more folks who I unfortunately did not get to talk to. Professionals in attendance were mostly in industries related to batteries, and some (~30%) worked directly in the energy storage industry.

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The panel, moderated by a director at Accenture, consisted of the founder & CEO of SolidEnergy Systems, a battery startup; a partner from the VC  firm DBL Partners; the CCO of Advanced Microgrid Solutions, an energy storage system company; and a cleantech industry journalist from Greentech Media. The panel started off with the moderator setting the stage by introducing the importance of batteries, and building the suspense for the BBB, or the Big Battery Breakthrough. The BBB was later discussed by the panel, and there seemed to be skepticism about the existence of such a phenomenon. There did not seem to be resounding evidence, from a technical perspective that batteries could improve as quickly as, say, semiconductor-based technology. The SolidEnergy Systems CEO also mentioned that news may often appear to show big breakthroughs for things that may not really be all that significant. News often reports on improvements of one parameter of a battery at the cost of other parameters, and also usually only at a lab scale. A real battery breakthrough would need to significantly improve all parameters of the battery (cycle life, energy density, power density, safety, and cost) and be at a commercial product level.

While academic research is often focused on drastically different ways of improving batteries, such as trying new advanced battery chemistries that have the potential to be “superbatteries” if their issues could be solved, industry tends to focus on the already working Li-ion batteries, which have already made significant manufacturing gains in the last decade. The SolidEnergy CEO believed that while 2008-09 might have been a good time for the introduction of wildly new chemistries, we are now at a point where we are far along enough with Li-ion batteries that we should just continue to focus on what’s working, and make incremental improvements at the cell, module, and manufacturing levels. He also mentioned that there are two battery concepts in the pipeline with the most hope of being implemented into commercial batteries today: solid state electrolyte and lithium metal batteries.

To summarize the event, the food was great, the event was well attended, and the panelists discussed a wide variety of topics on the “Future of Batteries.”