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Lithium-ion batteries just made a big leap in a tiny product

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Lithium-ion batteries just made a big leap in a tiny product


A materials company in Alameda, California, has spent the last decade working to boost the energy stored in lithium-ion batteries, an advance that could enable smaller gadgets and electric vehicles with far greater range.

Sila has developed silicon-based particles that can replace the graphite in anodes and hold more of the lithium ions that carry the current in a battery.

Now the company is delivering its product to the market for the first time, providing a portion of the anode powder in the battery of the forthcoming Whoop 4.0, a fitness wearable. It’s a small device but potentially a big step forward for the battery field, where promising lab results often fail to translate to commercial success.

“Think of the Whoop 4.0 as our Tesla Roadster,” says Gene Berdichevsky, Sila’s CEO, who as Tesla’s seventh employee helped solve some of the critical battery challenges for the company’s first electric vehicle. “It’s really the first device on the market that’s proving this breakthrough.”

Battery cells produced with Sila’s silicon-based particles.

SILA

The company’s materials, with a light assist from other advances, increased the energy density in the fitness tracker’s battery by around 17%. That’s a significant gain in a field that generally inches forward by a few percentage points a year.

It’s equivalent to about four years of standard progress, “but in one big jump,” says Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Sila still faces some real technical challenges, but the advance is a promising sign for the potential of increasingly capable batteries to help the world shift away from fossil fuels as the dangers of climate change accelerate. Boosting the amount of energy that batteries can store makes it easier for increasingly clean electricity sources to power more of our buildings, vehicles, factories, and businesses.  

For the transportation sector, a more energy-dense battery can reduce the costs or extend the range of electric vehicles, addressing two of the biggest issues that have discouraged consumers from giving up their gas guzzlers. It also promises to deliver grid batteries that can save up more energy from solar and wind farms, or consumer gadgets that last longer between charges.

Energy density is the key to the “electrification of everything,” says Berdichevsky, an Innovator Under 35 in 2017.

In the case of the new fitness wearable, the novel battery materials and other improvements made it possible for Boston-based Whoop to shrink the device by 33% while maintaining five days of battery life. The product is now thin enough to be inserted into “smart apparel” as well as being worn like a watch. It goes on sale September 8.

Sila, which announced $590 million in funding in January, also has partnerships in place to develop battery materials for automakers including BMW and Daimler. The company has said its technology could eventually pack as much as 40% more energy into lithium-ion batteries.

Preventing fires

Berdichevsky interviewed for and landed his job at Tesla before his senior year at Stanford University, where he was working toward a degree in mechanical engineering. He ended up playing a key role in addressing a potentially existential risk for the company: that a fire in any one of the thousands of batteries packed into a vehicle would ignite the whole pack.

He set up a program to systematically evaluate a series of battery pack designs. After hundreds of tests, the company developed a combination of battery arrangements, heat transfer materials, and cooling channels that largely prevented runaway fires.

After Tesla launched the Roadster, Berdichevsky felt he had to either commit to another five years to see the company through development of the next vehicle, the Model S—or take the opportunity to try something new.

In the end, he decided he wanted to build something of his own.

Gene Berdichevsky, chief executive officer and cofounder of Sila.

DAVID PAUL MORRIS/SILA

Berdichevsky went back to Stanford for a master’s program studying materials, thermodynamics, and physics, in the hope of finding ways to improve storage at the fundamental level. After graduating, he spent a year as an entrepreneur in residence at Sutter Hill Ventures, looking for ideas that could form the basis of his own business.

During that time, he came across a scientific paper identifying a method to produce silicon-based particles for lithium-ion battery anodes.

Researchers have long seen silicon as a promising way to increase the energy in batteries, because its atoms can bond with 10 times more lithium ions by weight than graphite can. That means they hold far more of the charged molecules that produce the electric current in a battery. But silicon anodes tended to crumble during charging, as they swelled to accommodate the ions that shuttle back and forth between the electrodes.

The paper, coauthored by Georgia Institute of Technology professor Gleb Yushin, highlighted the possibility of developing rigid silicon materials with a porous core that could more easily accept and release the lithium ions.

The next year, Berdichevsky cofounded Sila with Yushin and Alex Jacobs, another former Tesla engineer.

Hurdles and delays

The company spent the next decade tweaking its methods and materials, working through more than 50,000 iterations of the chemistry while scaling up its manufacturing capacity. Early on, it decided to develop drop-in materials that manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries could swap in, rather than pursuing the more expensive and riskier route of producing complete batteries itself.

Sila is not as far along as it had initially hoped to be, however.

After securing several million dollars from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E division, the company at one point told the research agency its materials could be in products by 2017 and in vehicles by 2020. In 2018, when Sila announced its deal with BMW, it said its particles could help power the German automaker’s EVs by 2023.

Berdichevsky says the company now expects to be in vehicles by “more like 2025.” He says that solving the “last mile” problems was simply harder than they expected. Challenges included working with battery manufacturers to get the best performance out of the novel materials.

“We were naïvely optimistic about the challenges of scaling and bringing products to market,” he said in an email.

The Whoop news signals that Sila was able to engineer the particles in a way that offers safety, life cycles, and other battery performance benchmarks similar to those achieved in existing products.

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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