Alameda, Calif. – The new Whoop fitness tracker has a strap around the wrist, just like any other fitness tracker or smartwatch. But you can also buy a sports bra or leggings fitted with this tiny device, which can be a piece of electronics sewn into the fabric of the garment.
John Capodilupo, Whoop’s CTO, squeezing a fitness tracker into such a small package is no small feat. It requires a brand new battery. The battery, made by a California startup, Sila, powers this tiny fitness tracker with more power than older batteries while maintaining the same battery life.
While that doesn’t sound horrifying, Sila’s batteries are part of a new wave of battery technology that could lead to new designs in consumer electronics and help accelerate the electrification of cars. cars and planes. They can even help store electricity on the grid, contributing to efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
New batteries may not fascinate consumers as much as new apps or gadgets. But like small transistors, they are at the heart of technological advancement. If the battery doesn’t improve much, the devices they don’t power on either.
Companies like Enovix, QuantumScape, Solid Power, and Sila have been developing these batteries for more than a decade, and some hope to move into mass production around 2025.
Sila’s CEO and co-founder, Gene Berdichevsky, was an early Tesla employee who oversaw battery technology when the company built its first electric car. Introduced in 2008, the Tesla Roadster uses batteries based on lithium-ion technology, the same battery technology that powers laptops, smartphones, and other consumer devices.
Tesla’s popularity, coupled with the rapid growth of the consumer electronics market, has sparked a new wave of battery companies. Mr. Berdichevsky left Tesla in 2008 to work on what eventually became Sila. Another entrepreneur, Jagdeep Singh, founded QuantumScape after buying one of the first Tesla Roadsters.
Both see how lithium-ion batteries can change the car market. They saw a bigger opportunity if they could build a more powerful battery.
“Lithium-ion batteries have become good enough, but they continue to exist,” Mr. Berdichevsky said. “We want to push this technology further.”
The transition to electric cars
At the same time, Congress established ARPA-E, for the Advanced Research Projects-Energy Agency, to promote research and development of new energy technologies. The agency has nurtured new battery companies with capital and other support. A decade later, those efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
After raising more than $925 million in funding, Sila employs about 250 people at its small research center and factory in Alameda, a small island city west of Oakland. When he and two other entrepreneurs founded the company in 2011, Berdichevsky thought it would take them about five years to bring a battery to market. They lost 10 people.
The Whoop 4.0 fitness tracker, which goes on sale Wednesday for a monthly subscription fee of $18 to $30, is an early indication of how Sila’s technology could work in the mass market.
The battery offers 17 percent greater power density than the battery used by Whoop’s previous fitness tracker. That means the device can be a third smaller while offering a host of new body sensors and maintaining the same battery life.
Sila and Whoop, a Boston company founded by a former Harvard athlete (named for the pet phrase he uses before big games), says it has the necessary manufacturing capacity. to install new batteries for millions of devices in the years to come.
Fitness trackers, a device with a small market, can seem like a small step. But it shows Sila’s hope to push the technology into electric cars and other markets.
“If this kind of thing gets into a smartphone or some other consumer device, it’s the same,” said Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in battery technology. That’s a sign of real progress. “It’s not easy.”
Sila isn’t exactly a battery company. It sells a new material – silicon powder – that could dramatically increase the efficiency of batteries, and it plans to build them using many of the same factories and infrastructure that produce the same lithium-ion batteries.
Today’s batteries are based on the reciprocal movement of lithium atoms. This generates energy because each atom is positively charged, which means it lacks a single electron. In that state, these lithium atoms are said to be ionized. That is why they are called lithium-ion batteries.
When you plug an electric car into a charging station, lithium ion atoms gather on one side of the battery, called the anode. When you turn on the car and drive down the road, the battery provides electrical energy as the atoms move to its other side, the cathode. This is made possible by the chemistry of the anode, cathode and surrounding components of the battery.
Usually, the anode is made of graphite. To improve battery performance, Sila replaces graphite with silicon, which can pack more lithium atoms into a smaller space. That means more efficient batteries.
Today, the company manufactures this silicone powder from its small facility in Alameda. It then sold the powder to a battery maker — Sila wouldn’t identify the other — which incorporated the material into its existing process, producing new batteries for the Whoop fitness tracker.
“We are just upgrading the plants that are being used today,” Mr. Berdichevsky said.
While he said this approach has given Sila a significant advantage over many of its competitors, Dr. Viswanathan, a Carnegie Mellon professor, said other companies are working on roadmaps different to fine-tune how lithium-ion batteries are made.
Companies like Sila and QuantumScape already have partnerships with automakers and expect their batteries to come to cars sometime in the middle of the decade. They hope their technology will significantly reduce the cost of electric cars and expand driving range.
“If we want to make electric cars mainstream, we have to bring them down to the $30,000 price point,” said Mr. Singh, CEO of QuantumScape. “You can’t do that with batteries these days.”
They also hope their batteries lead to new devices and vehicles. Smaller, more efficient batteries could accelerate the growth of “smart glasses” – eyeglasses attached to small computers – by allowing designers to pack a more nimble set of technologies into Smaller and lighter frame. Similar battery technology could power so-called flying cars, a new type of electric plane that could easily travel across major cities by the end of the decade.
But those are just two possibilities as “all aspects of life will become more electrified,” Dr. Viswanathan said.