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QuantumScape pursues ‘breakthrough’ in lithium batteries — with tips from Bill Gates

QuantumScape pouch cell
QuantumScape’s single-layer pouch cell relies on lithium-metal technology. (QuantumScape Photo)

Bill Gates isn’t just investing in QuantumScape’s potentially revolutionary lithium-metal battery technology — he’s giving the venture advice as well.

“I didn’t honestly think he knew anything about chemistry, and we are all about chemistry,” Fortune quotes QuantumScape CEO Jagdeep Singh as saying.

But Singh found out that Microsoft’s billionaire co-founder is a quick learner. “When he thinks something is important he can dive really deep and become an expert in that area,” he told Fortune. “He has gotten very deep into this area.”

Today QuantumScape reported eye-opening progress in its campaign to produce a solid-state alternative to lithium-ion batteries, the current industry standard for energy storage applications ranging from smartphones and laptops to electric cars and airplanes.

The Silicon Valley company said its tests with prototype single-layer cells demonstrated the ability to recharge batteries up to 80% capacity in just 15 minutes. The data suggest that the technology could produce car batteries capable of lasting hundreds of thousands of miles and weathering temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius (22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit).

During a video presentation, the technology picked up a big endorsement from Stanley Whittingham, a chemist at Binghamton University / SUNY who won a Nobel Prize last year for his role in the development of lithium-ion batteries. He said QuantumScape’s lithium-metal technology could increase battery energy density by “50% if not 100%.”

“This will be a breakthrough for electric vehicles as well as other storage,” Whittingham said. “I have not seen data this good anywhere else. We just have to make the cells bigger and get them into cars.”

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment fund spearheaded by Gates, is among QuantumScape’s backers — along with Volkswagen, which is committing more than $300 million to the 10-year-old startup and has set up a joint venture to produce solid-state battery cells for its cars by 2025.

Last month, QuantumScape went public by virtue of a merger with Kensington Capital, a special-purpose acquisition company or SPAC. Its share price rose 31% today, thanks to the company’s technology update.

Traditional lithium-ion batteries use a flammable electrolyte that comes in the form of a liquid or gel. A thin layer of permeable plastic typically separates the battery’s cathode and anode. But if that separator is damaged, the battery can go up in flames, as some owners of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 found out in 2016.

QuantumScape’s batteries take advantage of a non-combustible, solid-state separator as well as an “anode-free” design that uses metallic lithium. The company says such an arrangement allows for higher energy density and longer battery life under safe conditions.

Volkswagen and other carmakers are counting on battery breakthroughs to increase the range of the electric vehicles they’re bringing to market. The same goes for electric-aviation ventures such as Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX.

Other companies, ranging from Toyota and Panasonic to a Colorado startup called Solid Power, are working on advances in solid-state battery technology. Tesla is taking a different path that may produce breakthroughs as well. But for now, at least, QuantumScape is having its turn in the energy-storage spotlight.

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