SolidEnergy CEO sees breakthrough in technology of next-generation batteries
I’ve found the range of applications for batteries to be very broad. They’re the core of transport and clean energy, and you can use them for non-clean energy...
As a scientist-turned-CEO, Qichao Hu of SolidEnergy Systems is passionate about the application of one’s pursuits, whether it be in the sciences or the arts.
“People should do something that should actually improve things,” Hu said. “If the stuff that you do can impact the audience, that’s application-oriented.”
It’s the range of applications of next-generation batteries that led Hu, who has a doctorate in applied physics, to co-invent the semi-solid lithium-metal batteries that are now used in high-altitude drones and flying taxis in such cities as Dubai and Dallas.
“I’ve found the range of applications for batteries to be very broad. They’re the core of transport and clean energy, and you can use them for non-clean energy, cellphones and watch phones, VR (virtual reality) goggles and drones,” Hu said in an interview with The Korea Times held at the newspaper’s office in Seoul.
Founded in 2013, SolidEnergy Systems has been breaking ground in the industry with its light rechargeable batteries. That same year, Hu and his professor at MIT came up with the concept for the semi-solid lithium-metal battery, which has double the energy density of the standard lithium-ion battery.
“Basically from now, 2017, to 2018, 2019, and 2020, we will see the biggest breakthroughs in battery technology,” he said.
Hu travels to Asia and Europe frequently; he was recently in Seoul, where two of the largest battery manufacturers, including Samsung and LG, are based.
The company’s batteries, the world’s lightest rechargeable batteries, are currently applied in space satellites and high-altitude and commercial drones.
“High-altitude drones serve the goal of providing Wi-Fi and education to people around the world, where more than 60 percent still don’t have access (to Wi-Fi),” Hu said. “Also the drones are used to do aerial filming, such as for National Geographic content.” He added that there are drones used for emergency responses and fast delivery, like those used by Amazon. All these applications require new types of batteries, such as those of SolidEnergy Systems.
“With cellphones and watch phones, that (commercialization) will happen in 2018. With electric cars, it will happen in 2020,” Hu said.
Essentially, Hu explained, the SolidEnergy rechargeable batteries have two innovative material platforms — dual-layer electrolyte and ultra-thin lithium-metal anode — and consequently they have double the energy density.
The SolidEnergy technology achieves a gravimetric energy density of 450 Wh/kg and volumetric energy density of 1,200 Wh/l, compared to the standard lithium ion batteries currently used in cellphones, which is 250 Wh/kg and 600 Wh/l.
SolidEnergy Systems’ batteries can be integrated into existing lithium-ion manufacturing capabilities.
When Hu started SolidEnergy Systems, the U.S. battery industry was going through a tough phase, which ironically enabled the company to work with leading equipment from the Massachusetts company A123 Systems, which had just gone bankrupt.
“A123 was almost like an incubator for us,” Hu said. SolidEnergy Systems, which is venture backed with its main investors being automotive companies, has now built its headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts, leaving the process of scalable production to existing manufacturers.
“So it’s a new technology — existing manufacturing pipe, new product; that is the fastest way to get a new technology out to the market.”
Having started when the industry was going through a difficult situation, SolidEnergy Systems subscribes to the motto “It could be worse” when it faces challenges.
“The most difficult part for a tech- nology company is making the product work and then commercializing it. You think about why people have failed at it in the past, why should you succeed,” Hu said.
Where is SolidEnergy headed in the next five years?
“We want to become more mainstream, (so) the now-esoteric-sounding high-altitude drones and flying cars can become mainstream in the next five years. The people need it,” Hu said. “As a company, we will establish a presence in California, China, Korea and Europe in the next three years.”
He finds problem-solving to be a commonality between leading a company and being a scientist.
“Scientists and entrepreneurs, we have a problem, and we solve it. I have never seen a person solve a problem with physics skills or business skills only,” he said. He himself learned the business side through a special Energy Ventures Program, at MIT during his graduate years.
In these exciting times for science and engineering, should everyone study these fields?
“I don’t think everyone has to do science and engineering. There should be an application focus,” he said.
Qichao Hu, founder and CEO of SolidEnergy Systems, talks about next-generation batteries in an interview with The Korea Times.
The entrance to SolidEnery Systems, in Woburn, Massachussetts