A battery that lasts longer, is safer, charges faster and is less expensive than a standard lithium ion battery: That’s the powerful idea behind a new type of battery under development by a young Japanese startup called Power Japan Plus, or PJP, which came out of stealth on Tuesday. The year-old company uses carbon for both the anode and the cathode portion of the battery and hopes to start producing it later this year.
A battery is made up of an anode on one side and a cathode on the other, with an electrolyte in between. In a lithium ion battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way.
While lithium ion batteries are the dominant batteries these days for laptops, cell phones and early electric cars, they have some shortfalls. For example, the batteries degrade pretty quickly over time (which explains why your laptop battery dies every couple of years), and they can catch on fire under extreme impact. They’re also relatively expensive if you need a bunch of them to power an electric car, which is why Tesla’s cars are only really attainable by the wealthy right now.
An all-carbon battery
A battery that uses carbon for both the anode and the cathode could be safer than a lithium ion battery because it removes the highly flammable lithium oxide. While battery fires have been rare for electric car companies, Tesla, GM and others have all seen a handful of cars with punctured batteries catch on fire, and have faced PR hiccups as a result. Thermal runaway — intense, long-lasting fires caused by lithium oxide catching on fire — has long been the Achilles’ heel of lithium ion batteries.
A carbon battery also doesn’t degrade as quickly as a lithium ion battery over time. While a standard lithium ion battery with a two-year lifetime could have around 500 cycles of charging and discharging, Power Japan Plus’ dual-carbon battery could last for 3,000 cycles, the company’s executives told me in a phone call. They also say that because of the carbon chemistry, their battery can charge 20 times faster than a standard lithium ion battery.
Because the battery only uses carbon for its main active material, it could cost less than standard lithium ion batteries, though executives declined to name its price. Lithium ion batteries have continued to drop in price and Tesla says it’s reducing the cost by 30 percent with its planned battery factory.
Finally, an all-carbon battery could be more easily recycled at the end of life than a lithium ion battery because it doesn’t contain rare earth materials and metals. Activated carbon can come from a variety of low cost, easily-available sources.
The idea for a dual carbon battery has been under development by Japanese researchers since the 1970s. Around six or seven years ago, scientists at Kyushu University started working on nanotechnology and material breakthroughs — in the laboratory of applied chemistry professor Tatsumi Ishihara — that could raise the capacity (how much electric charge can be delivered at a certain voltage) of those early dual carbon batteries.
Now Power Japan Plus — co-founded by Japanese tech entrepreneurs Dou Kani (the CEO and president) and Hiroaki Nishina (the COO) — is looking to commercialize the research done at Kyushu. While neither Kani or Nishina has a long background with battery chemistry (they hail from the telecom and software sectors), they’ve brought on Japanese battery cathode expert Kaname Takeya, who developed the cathode tech used today in the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Model S.
Takeya splits his time between San Francisco and Japan and is the company’s CTO and CEO of its U.S. operations. He just finished a project for Argonne National Labs, and previously also worked on some battery startups including Quallion and EnerDel.
Other companies are looking at ways to engineer carbon to make batteries better. EnerG2 is one of those startups, and the company has developed carbon materials for a variety of battery applications. Because Power Japan Plus’ innovation is in the development of the carbon material, the company is also looking into a side business of selling its carbon to third parties.
While the tech has been under development for several years, the founders incorporated just a year ago, and now employ only eight people. To date they’ve been bootstrapping the company, but are hoping to raise funding to help them begin moving into early production later this year.
Funding, particularly in Silicon Valley, could prove to be difficult for an early stage battery manufacturer, given all of the battery startups that have struggled over the years. It’s a difficult market because scaling up battery production can take a long time and, potentially, a lot of money. But big corporations that are interested in ultimately owning or licensing advanced battery tech might still be interested in providing early funding.
Power Japan Plus says it is less capital-intensive than other battery companies because its battery can be manufactured on existing battery production lines. Because the batteries don’t use rare materials and have only one active material, execs say the supply chain is extremely simple, which also reduces costs. Additionally, executives told me that while they want to do some early pilot line production themselves, they know they need a large manufacturing partner if they want to scale up production to offer batteries to electric cars.
Power Japan Plus intends to first launch batteries for the medical device and satellite industries, which are hyper-focused on safety. Later down the road, they could try to tackle electric cars. An electric car with a battery pack of dual-carbon batteries could charge much faster and last much longer on the road, giving it a higher resale value. Currently the team is supplying batteries for a Go-Cart in a transportation proof-of-concept partnership.
In the immediate future, electric cars — at least from dominant players Tesla and Nissan — are betting on lithium ion chemistry for batteries. But farther down the line, other types of chemistries will need to be investigated to provide power for the next generation of electric cars.