As technology tries to maintain its dizzying ascent, one dead weight has kept its altitude in check: the battery. Our chips keep getting faster and our data rates keep climbing, but at the end of the day—or worse, by mid-afternoon—those power meters on our screens inevitably turn to red. Every great device, gadget, electric car, and robot would be even greater if batteries didn’t suck so badly. Despite a steady flow of rumors that transformative breakthroughs are just around the corner, progress has moved at the pace of a tar flow.
Steven Levy is Backchannel's founder and Editor in Chief.
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But earlier this month came news of a potential game changer, from no less a tech luminary than Bill Joy. A long-time investor in clean tech—for years he was involved in venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins’ ill-fated foray into “green” funding—Joy is now serving on the board of Ionic Materials , a battery-tech company in which he has invested. (His personal investment comes on top of the KP funding he oversaw; he is no longer with the venture firm.) Because of Joy’s earlier history as a legendary computer scientist—a co-founder of Sun, a co-inventor of Java, and a visionary who was working on the Internet of Things two decades ago—his views have weight, separate and apart from his financial interest in the company.
As Joy explains it, Ionic’s innovations combine the advantages of the familiar alkaline batteries we buy at the drugstore (cheap, safe, and reliable) with those of the more expensive, fire-prone lithium batteries in our computers and phones (powerful, rechargeable, and more earth-friendly). He claims Ionic’s new approach is a big step to cheaper, safer, and more efficient batteries will not only power our devices and vehicles, but also enable an “energy internet” based on renewable sources.
Joy decoded the breakthrough to Backchannel, and also followed up on his famous WIRED essay about a future techno-apocalypse. The interview is edited for space and clarity.
Steven Levy: You’ve been investing in clean technology as long as anyone. Are you saying that after all of these years, you’ve found your black swan with this new Ionic battery technology?
Bill Joy: Yeah, that’s fair. I think this is a black swan.
What’s the simplest way to describe what’s different about this approach to batteries?
In a normal battery, you have some ingredients, like lithium or alkaline, and a separator, like a piece of cloth that you put between them. Then you pour in a liquid so that the ions can move around. Bad things happen with liquids. Films form, things go into [the] solution and run around and react with each other—you have safety issues like the battery catching fire. To be solid instead of liquid is something people have been striving for for 100 years. But in this battery, you have no liquid. You have just a plastic, a polymer, that replaces the liquid, so it’s solid. It’s a pretty big difference from a chemistry standpoint. It also turns out that this polymer just happens to be essentially a fire retardant material. So when you build batteries with this polymer, you don’t have a safety problem.
Besides safety, what are the other advantages?
Right now the most desirable battery materials are ones we can’t use. For example, there are very desirable materials for lithium batteries that would give them more capacity, but they’re not safe in a liquid. Basically, all of a sudden maybe a half dozen things that people have been trying to do with lithium batteries that weren’t possible are possible. You can make better lithium batteries.
You’re also saying this is going to be cheaper?
That’s another side effect of the fact that it’s not a liquid. We’ve had alkaline batteries since they were invented by Union Carbide about 1960. They use zinc and manganese dioxide. It’s always been cheap; it’s always been safe. The ingredients are abundant. It’s pretty high power, although it’s a little heavy. The only thing it hasn’t been is rechargeable. You could get 20 or 30 cycles and the thing would short out, and that’s just not going to do it for a phone or a car or most rechargeable applications. Everyone kind of gave up. To power mobile devices like camcorders, [the industry] went to lithium chemistry—to get rechargeable batteries, they gave up safety and cost, and that’s where we are now. But with the polymer, all of a sudden, the alkalines become rechargeable. Mechanisms that prevented the rechargeability don’t occur, because there’s no liquid anymore.
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How did you get connected with Ionic?
About a dozen years ago, David Wells and I at Kleiner Perkins made the list of 25 potential breakthroughs we thought would make a difference. Rather than waiting for people to show up with these innovations, we took our thesis and went looking. I’ll give you an example of one we didn’t find. We looked at water desalination, because fresh water’s a problem in lots of parts of the world, and decided that the only economic breakthrough would be something that was thermally driven. And so we went looking for a breakthrough in thermally driven water desalination and didn’t find one. In the case of batteries, we said, “We want something’s that’s a solid instead of a liquid inside the battery,” because that improvement would unlock innovation. But it wasn’t until about 2010 that we really found this entrepreneur.
That would be Michael Zimmerman, the founder of Ionic Materials. How come he figured it out when no one else could?
He was the expert on a certain class of polymers. He also had this kind of black book of things he could do with the polymer, how he could modify it and affect its other properties. Not many other people knew about it. He invented a new ionic conduction mechanism, in the same way that someone invented a way of making materials into semiconductors. That was a new kind of material that was rationally constructed. It did not exist in nature. Now we have a word for it: semiconductor. But I don’t have a word for this new breakthrough, a solid that conducts ions at room temperature. Maybe it should be called an ional. This is a scientific breakthrough that should receive awards.
If I’m Elon Musk and I’m looking at this, am I going to be switching to alkaline batteries or am I going to be using this to improve my lithium batteries?
You’re going to start by improving your lithium batteries, because that’s already your manufacturing process. But in the long run, advanced alkaline—the chemistry used in the ones you buy in the drug store [that have been] made rechargeable—has a chance of upending the reign of lithium ion batteries, because the materials are cheaper. You can potentially make alkaline batteries with aluminum. We’ve made some. We don’t have as many cycles as we need yet, but, you know, we’re working on it. We think that ultimately things like aluminum-alkaline batteries will meet the performance of lithium, but with abundant materials and way cheaper. And it’s also recyclable.
An Ionic Materials battery is pierced by bullets—and continues to power a mobile device.
You are also saying that this can enable a truly smart electric grid?
Yes. If this works out, energy becomes very fungible and we could more easily move energy from renewable sources like wind and hydroelectric. Imagine taking the same ingredients we have in the Duracells and the Energizers, and making very large-format rechargeable batteries—you’re going to make a container full of these things. You make big cells, you make them cheap, and you put them on the grid. Most of the technologies people use now on the grid are things like pumping water up the hill and down—those tend to lose 30 or 40 percent of the energy when you put them in and out of the battery. But these new models are efficient, so you can store and retrieve renewable energy, and it will cost a penny or less to put the energy in and out. We finally can get the smart grid. I call it the energy internet. If I have a wind farm in Texas that’s generating electricity, late at night, I can simply send a kilowatt-hour—a packet of energy—to someone in another place that’s going to use it later, and they can simply store it.
When will we start seeing this in production?
Two to three years for general availability.
Bill, this sounds amazing. But we’ve all heard big promises in the past, and none have panned out. How do we know this isn’t one of those too-good-to-be-true things?
You should say it’s too good to be true. But every once in a while, you do invent a new material that, like semiconductors, is amazing in what it can do. Here you have an industry that’s been totally bottlenecked, right? The reason we looked for this is because this technology was blocked for a single reason. You can look at [many of the advances over the years] and say, “Well, how can you do all these amazing things? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.” But these amazing things were always possible. We just happened to unblock them.
An Ionic battery doesn't smoke, flame, or explode, even after being impaled by a screwdriver and then cut in half with a paper cutter.
Let me shift the subject. In the 1990s you were promoting a technology called Jini that anticipated mobile tech and the Internet of Things. Does the current progress reflect what you were thinking all those years ago?
Exactly. I have some slides from 25 years ago where I said, “Everyone’s going to be carrying around mobile devices.” I said, “They’re all going to be interconnected. And there are 50 million cars and trucks a year, and those are going to be computerized.” Those are the big things on the internet, right?
We’re heading toward the kind of environment that David Gelernter talked about in his book, Mirror Worlds , when he said, “The city becomes a simulation of itself.” It’s not so interesting just to identify what’s out there statically. What you want to do is have some notion of how that affects things in the time domain. We need to put everything online, with all the sensors and other things providing information, so we can move from static granular models to real simulations. It’s one thing to look at a traffic map that shows where the traffic is green and red. But that’s actually backward-looking. A simulation would tell me where it’s going to be green and where it’s going to be red.
This is where AI fits in. If I’m looking at the world I have to have a model of what’s out there, whether it’s trained in a neural net or something else. Sure, I can image-recognize a child and a ball on this sidewalk. The important thing is to recognize that, in a given time domain, they may run into the street, right? We’re starting to get the computing power to do a great demo of this. Whether it all hangs together is a whole other thing.
Which one of the big companies will tie it together?
Google seems to be in the lead, because they’ve been hiring these kind of people for so long. And if there’s a difficult problem, Larry [Page, Google’s CEO] wants to solve it. Microsoft has also hired a lot of people, as well as Facebook and even Amazon. In these early days, this requires an enormous amount of computing power. Having a really, really big computer is kind of like a time warp, in that you can do things that aren’t economical now but will be economically [feasible] maybe a decade from now. Those large companies have the resources to give someone like Demis [Hassabis, head of Google’s DeepMind AI division] $100 million, or even $500 million a year, for computer time, to allow him to do things that maybe will be done by your cell phone 10 years later.
Where do you weigh in on the controversy about whether AI is a threat to humanity?
Funny, I wrote about that a long time ago.
Yes, in your essay “The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” But where are you now on that?
I think at this point the really dangerous nanotech is genetic, because it’s compatible with our biology and therefore it can be contagious. With CRISPR-Cas9 and variants thereof, we have a tool that’s almost shockingly powerful. But there are clearly ethical risks and danger in AI. I’m at a distance from this, working on the clean-tech stuff. I don’t know how to slow the thing down, so I decided to spend my time trying to create the things we need as opposed to preventing [what threatens us]. I’m not fundamentally a politician. I’m better at inventing stuff than lobbying.