Your batteries are down

ALAMEDA, Calif .– The new Whoop fitness tracker clips around the wrist, much like any other health monitor or smartwatch. But you can a...


ALAMEDA, Calif .– The new Whoop fitness tracker clips around the wrist, much like any other health monitor or smartwatch. But you can also buy a sports bra or leggings equipped with this little device, which can be a shard of electronics sewn into the fabric of the clothes.

Squeezing a fitness tracker into such a svelte package was no easy task, said John Capodilupo, chief technology officer of Whoop. It required a whole new type of battery. The battery, built by California start-up Sila, provided the tiny fitness tracker with more power than older batteries while still maintaining the same range.

While it doesn’t sound overwhelming, Sila’s battery is part of a wave of new battery technologies that could lead to new designs in consumer electronics and help accelerate the electrification of cars and planes. They can even help store electricity on the electricity grid, lending a hand in efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

New types of batteries may not dazzle consumers like new apps or new gadgets. But like tiny transistors, they are at the heart of technological advances. If the batteries don’t improve 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 go into mass production around 2025.

Sila’s chief executive and co-founder Gene Berdichevsky was one of Tesla’s first employees 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.

Tesla’s popularity, coupled with the rapid growth of the consumer electronics market, has 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 purchasing one of the first Tesla Roadsters.

Both saw how lithium-ion batteries could change the automotive market. They saw an even greater opportunity if they could build a more powerful type of battery.

“Lithium-ion batteries were just getting pretty good, but they hit a plateau,” Berdichevsky said. “We wanted to push the technology further.

Around the same time, Congress created ARPA-E, standing for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to promote research and development in new energy technologies. The agency has supported new battery companies with funding and other support. A decade later, these efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

After raising more than $ 925 million in funding, Sila employs around 250 people at her small research center and factory in Alameda, the small island town west of Oakland. When he and two other entrepreneurs founded the company in 2011, Berdichevsky believed it would take them about five years to bring a battery to market. It took them 10.

The Whoop 4.0 fitness tracker, which goes on sale Wednesday with a monthly subscription of between $ 18 and $ 30, is a first indication of how Sila’s technology may work in the mass market.

The battery offers 17% higher power density than the battery used by Whoop’s previous fitness tracker. This means the device can be a third smaller while still offering a new line of body sensors and maintaining the same battery life.

Sila and Whoop, a Boston company founded by a former Harvard athlete (named after a favorite phrase he used before big games), said they have the manufacturing capacity to install the new battery. in millions of devices in the years to come.

The fitness tracker, a device with a small market niche, may seem like a small step. But it is indicative of Sila’s hopes of pushing the technology into electric cars and other markets.

“If that sort of thing gets into a smartphone or other consumer device, it’s a sign of real progress,” said Venkat Viswanathan, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Carnegie Mellon University. , specializing in battery technologies. “It is not easy.”

Sila is not exactly a battery company. It sells a new material – silicon powder – that can dramatically increase battery efficiency, and plans to build them using many of the same factories and other infrastructure that produce lithium-ion batteries.

Batteries today are based on the back and forth motion of lithium atoms. This generates energy because each atom is in a positively charged state, which means that it lacks a single electron. In this state, these lithium atoms are said to be ionized. This is why they are called lithium-ion batteries.

When you plug an electric car into a charging station, lithium-ion atoms collect on one side of the battery, called an anode. When you turn on the car and drive on the road, the battery supplies electrical power as the atoms move to its other side, the cathode. This is possible thanks to the chemical constitution of the anode, the cathode and the surrounding parts of the battery.

Typically, the anode is graphite. To improve battery efficiency, Sila replaces graphite with silicon, which can hold more lithium atoms in a smaller space. This means more efficient batteries.

Today, the company produces this silicon powder from its small factory in Alameda. Then he sells the powder to a battery maker – Sila wouldn’t identify the other company – who inserts the material into their existing process, producing the new battery for the Whoop fitness tracker.

“We are only modernizing the factories that are in use today,” Berdichevsky said.

While he said this approach gives Sila a significant advantage over its many competitors, Dr. Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, said other companies are taking different paths to refine the way lithium-ion batteries are built.

Companies like Sila and QuantumScape already have partnerships with automakers and expect their batteries to reach automobiles by the middle of the decade. They hope their technologies will significantly reduce the cost of electric cars and extend their range.

“If we want to bring electric cars into the mainstream, we need to reduce them to $ 30,000,” said Singh, CEO of QuantumScape. “You can’t do this with today’s batteries.”

They also hope their batteries will lead to new devices and vehicles. Smaller, more efficient batteries could spur the development of “smart glasses” – glasses built into tiny computers – by allowing designers to bundle a more agile set of technologies into smaller, lighter frames. The same battery technology could reinvigorate so-called flying cars, a new type of electric plane which could make it easier to travel to major cities later in the decade.

But those are only two possibilities because “all aspects of life will become more electrified,” said Dr Viswanathan.

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