Alsym wants to 'light up homes for a billion people' with its new battery

Lithium-ion batteries have transformed the global economy, making possible everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles, e-bikes, and more. But while costs have dropped precipitously in the last decade or so, they’re still too expensive to electrify all the ways humans need to store energy.

With the advent of cheap solar, making electricity has never been cheaper or easier. But solar panels are no good when the sun sets. For solar to live up to its potential, there has to be an affordable way to store that power.

A lack of affordable energy storage has been holding back development in many countries. Although more people than ever before have access to electricity, some 3.5 billion still can’t get power reliably, and about 760 million have no electricity at all.

“You’ve got a whole generation that cannot study, a whole generation with no industry support, not even a small scale or even micro enterprises,” Mukesh Chatter, co-founder and CEO of Alsym Energy, told TechCrunch.

That’s what spurred Chatter, a serial entrepreneur, and his co-founders to start Massachusetts-based Alsym. “The initial goal was to light up homes for a billion people around the world who don’t get access to electricity, who are forced to live the life of the 19th century and are condemned to poverty. We wanted to break that cycle.”

Chatter has spent the last nine years working with his technical co-founders Nikhil Koratkar, Rahul Mukherjee and Kripa Varanasi to develop a low-cost, nonflammable battery chemistry. Now they think they've got it.

He won’t disclose the details but says that one electrode is a manganese oxide, which is an abundant mineral that’s already produced in mass quantities. The electrolyte is water-based, a departure from the flammable organic solvents used in lithium-ion batteries. Plus, both electrode materials “inherently will not allow dendrite formation,” he said, referring to the spiky crystals that can form on lithium-ion electrodes and short-circuit a cell.

The result is a battery that is less energy dense on a cell level than leading lithium-ion chemistries, but competitive on a pack level. That’s because the cells can be packed more closely together and need less safety equipment since they are safer operating at higher temperatures, Chatter said.

Alsym also says its batteries will be cheaper than lithium-ion, thanks to the less exotic materials and simpler packs. The startup is targeting around $50 per kilowatt-hour for its cells, significantly undercutting lithium-ion cell costs, which are currently $89 per kilowatt-hour.

To be clear: Alsym has only produced samples at this point, and its insistence on keeping its technology secret, which is understandable from a business perspective, makes it impossible to vet its effectiveness. Alsym's first finished products should be available in 2025, Chatter says, at which point it will become obvious whether they work.

Alsym is chasing stationary storage as its initial market, and it plans to follow up a design that’s tailored for two-wheel EVs, which are popular in India, China, and Southeast Asia. After that, it’ll release another for plug-in hybrids. The company says it has already signed a deal with a large Indian automaker to provide batteries, though Chatter would not confirm which one.

On Wednesday, the company announced that it had raised a $78 million Series C round led by General Catalyst and Tata, the Indian conglomerate, with participation from Drads Capital, Thomvest and Thrive Capital.

Alsym plans to use the new funding to double the team from 50 to 100 and build two production lines, 1 megawatt-hour each in capacity, to provide samples to customers. Ultimately, it will partner with existing battery manufacturers, since Alsym’s batteries can be produced using existing equipment. Chatter said that the global wave of gigafactory construction is already resulting in excess capacity that his company hopes to take advantage of.

Chatter already has his sights set on other markets, including the steel industry. “Industrial applications are massive applications for stationary storage,” he said. “The world produces globally about 2 billion metric tons of steel, resulting in 4 billion metric tons of CO2. That’s more than all the passenger cars in the world combined.”