BTRY for Battery
Solid state batteries will soon replace lithium-ion batteries. They are much more environmentally friendly, they will run much longer on a single charge, and the charging time will drop to minutes. Now, that will accelerate the green transition.Open this issue (PDF)
It is time to rethink battery technology.
What is BTRY?
Today, I am going to bring a new technology, and a new company, to your attention – a company in control of a technology so powerful that lithium-ion batteries could soon become yesterday’s story. I should stress that nobody at Absolute Return Partners has any financial interest in this project – neither in the company, nor in the technology. This letter is merely the result of years of frustration on my behalf, coming from all the shortcomings of lithium-ion batteries – the type of battery used in almost all devices that require a rechargeable battery.
The company I want to introduce you to is called BTRY (pronounced “battery”) which is located in Dübendorf, Switzerland. It has spun off from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (aka Empa) with an ambition to develop the battery technology of the next generation.
The underlying technology
Three Empa researchers, Abdessalem Aribia, Yaroslav Romanyuk and Moritz Futscher, have brought the new technology with them to BTRY. The battery is a lithium-based, thin-film, solid-state battery. It is based on a technology first developed all the way back in the 1980s but, for many years, the battery didn’t attract much commercial interest, as only small amounts of energy could be stored in it.
The thin-film technology developed at Empa differs from the thin-film technology developed in the 1980s in one important aspect – the thin-film cells are now stacked on top of each other (Exhibit 1). That has dramatically improved the performance of the battery.
The thin-film cells are manufactured, using a procedure called vacuum coating. The materials are atomised in a vacuum chamber to form individual atoms, which are then deposited in a precisely controlled layer on the target substrate. According to Moritz Futscher, “such manufacturing methods are currently used on a large scale in the production of semiconductor chips and glass coatings. That’s an advantage for us, because the machines and know-how to manufacture our battery are largely in place already.” (source: empa.ch).
Thin-film vs. lithium-ion batteries
An obvious advantage of the new thin-film technology is its large energy storage capacity compared to the existing lithium-ion technology. The BTRY engineers estimate that the new battery can run about ten times longer than a typical lithium-ion battery is capable of.
Secondly, no toxic solvents are used in the production process. Although this means higher production costs, it also means that it is a much more environmentally friendly battery. As far as the higher cost is concerned, this implies that the battery will probably never conquer low-end consumer products but only high-end products like smartphones, tablets and laptops, where the cost of the battery only makes up a small proportion of the total cost.
Thirdly, according to the feedback I have had from Moritz Futscher, BTRY won’t aim for the car market either, as the cost of a car battery constitutes a significant proportion of the overall cost of the car. Having said that, this doesn’t imply that the new technology won’t be deployed in any transportation vehicles. As all EV users will be aware, in wintertime, the car battery doesn’t last as long as it does in the summer. BTRY’s new thin-film battery is less affected by temperature variations. This feature makes it possible to use the new battery technology in drones and aircraft – widely considered impossible for electrification because of the low temperatures at higher altitudes.
Fourthly, unlike lithium-ion batteries, thin-film batteries are non-flammable. As you may recall, over the years, many lithium-ion batteries have burst into flames with toxic gases developing, and the fire has often been nearly impossible to extinguish. None of those hazards are an issue, as far as the new battery is concerned. In contrast, cutting the new thin-film battery with a pair of scissors would simply result in two batteries with reduced performance.
Lastly, the new thin-film battery can be fully charged in minutes. In BTRY’s research laboratory, the test version has actually been fully charged in only one minute, but larger batteries (e.g. for aircraft) may take a bit longer.
Before going any further, I should point out that we have done no due diligence on BTRY and can therefore not express any opinions – positive or negative – on the company. Having said that, I am intrigued by the company’s new battery technology and can see how it could have a massive impact.
As regular readers of my work will be aware, I often argue that the projected ‘electrification of everything’ wave will be held back by the lithium-ion battery technology, but that could all change with the introduction of solid-state batteries, not to mention BTRY’s new thin-film, solid-state, battery. Your response to that argument will probably be that, if BTRY does not intend to develop a car battery, why shouldn’t the lithium-ion technology continue to prevail?
There is a twist in the tail, though. A couple of months ago, Toyota revealed its next generation car battery and guess what – it was also a solid-state (but not thin-film) battery. According to the company, no later than in 2027, it should be able to deliver the first car, driving on the new battery. As per the press release, Toyota’s battery can run for 745 miles (1,200 km) between charges and will only take 10 minutes to re-charge.
On the back of the research I have conducted in preparation for this letter, I have made three noteworthy observations:
(i) The commitment to solid-state batteries goes far beyond BTRY and Toyota. The world is not exactly short of companies, having committed themselves to this technology.
(ii) Although BTRY won’t target the car market, many others will, meaning that the lithium-ion technology will almost certainly be phased out in the foreseeable future.
(iii) The rollout of solid-state batteries is closer than many realise. Toyota will probably be the first to launch one, but other car manufacturers are not that far behind, and the engineers at BTRY are working 24/7 to bring their own version to the market as soon as possible. Precisely when that will happen is nearly impossible to say, though.
When I first heard about the new Toyota battery, I got quite impressed. I then heard about BTRY, and I started to worry. Could the solid-state technology damage our investments in lithium? I began to dig deeper, and my findings surprised me. Solid-state batteries use approx. 35% more lithium than lithium-ion batteries (source: Carbon Credits.com). Admittedly, solid-state batteries require less of certain other metals, e.g. cobalt, but lithium demand will most definitely increase, once the new technology has been embraced.
My attention then switched to green hydrogen. As you will be aware, for years, I have argued that converting green electricity to green, liquid hydrogen could be the solution for a transportation industry, keen to rid itself of the dependence on fossil fuels. A rollout of a battery of BTRY’s standards could mark the end of the green hydrogen revolution. It obviously depends on BTRY’s ability to produce a battery powerful enough and at a price affordable enough to attract the attention of transportation industry executives; however, given the fact that the battery cost constitutes a relatively small proportion of the overall price on heavy-duty vehicles like cargo ships and aircraft, such an outcome is definitely possible. In that context, I have also noticed that liquid hydrogen suppliers are struggling to bring the cost of green hydrogen down to competitive levels.
I think I will stop here, but I would encourage readers with an appetite for private market investments to contact BTRY. You can do that here.
Niels C. Jensen
2 October 2023
Our investment philosophy, and everything we do at ARP, is driven by the long-term Investment Megatrends which are identified and routinely debated by our investment team.
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