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Forget electric vehicles: why Bedrock Materials is targeting gasoline-powered cars for its first sodium-ion batteries

Spencer Gore has a battery start. But it doesn’t want its batteries to end up in electric vehicles, at least not yet.

“There are many interesting low-end segments of automotive that are underserved today and are faster to penetrate than, for example, the traction battery in electric vehicles,” he told TechCrunch. Take the traditional 12-volt lead-acid battery that sits under the hood of every fossil fuel vehicle on the road today. This is still a huge market, surpassed only a few years ago by lithium-ion production capacity.

“We’re still relying on 150-year-old technology there,” Gore said.

In contrast, Gore’s company, Bedrock Materials, uses chemistry invented about a decade ago. While he won’t divulge details, he says it’s similar to what’s found in most electric vehicles today, with one major difference: There’s no lithium.

Instead, Bedrock Materials is developing a sodium-ion battery, which promises to be considerably cheaper than lithium-ion. The expected savings come from the abundance of sodium: the Earth contains approximately 1,000 times more sodium than lithium.

However, challenges remain. Sodium-ion batteries don’t hold as much power as lithium-ion, and even though they’re priced lower than lithium-ion, the differential hasn’t been enough to attract hesitant automakers. Formulations that store enough energy to challenge lithium-ion have proven fragile, although Gore said his company’s chemistry solves that problem.

Ultimately, Gore would like to see Bedrock Materials land a contract for EV batteries. But he believes it makes more sense to first launch a product in a more stagnant market, such as starting batteries for fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks. “It’s a classic ‘disruption from below’. Start with something that’s honestly worse, but costs less, and work your way up from there as the technology improves.

To prove that its sodium-ion chemistry can replace lead-acid in starting batteries, Bedrock Materials produces materials for third-party testing. To fund this effort, it recently raised a $9 million seed round, the company told TechCrunch exclusively. The round was led by Trucks Venture Capital, Refactor Capital and Version One Ventures.

The startup also recently opened an R&D center in Chicago, a city that hasn’t been home to many battery startups. But Gore, who worked at Tesla and battery materials startup Enovix, steered the company to Illinois in part because the cost of living is significantly cheaper than in Silicon Valley.

At Enovix, he noticed a trend among recruits that stuck with him: “We basically had a bimodal distribution of talent: new grads who were okay with having five roommates, then VPs who didn’t even live here – they were just flying to come. for the week and go home,” he said.

In contrast, battery scientists are typically mid-career. They usually have a doctorate and postdoc under their belt, and when they get a job in industry, “they’re 31 years old,” Gore said. “In the Bay Area, the math just wouldn’t work for them.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the Chicago suburbs are home to Argonne National Labs, where years of research have significantly advanced sodium-ion batteries. Gore now believes it is ready for commercialization.

Other battery makers agree that sodium-ion’s time has come. Chinese battery maker CATL has been producing sodium-ion batteries for a few years, and China’s BYD and Sweden’s Northvolt have announced their own plans to add sodium-ion production lines. By the end of the decade, 150 gigawatt hours of production capacity, most of it in China, is expected to come online.

China’s interest in sodium-ion should be a wake-up call to other producers, Gore said. “We saw Chinese cell manufacturers move very quickly to commercialize sodium ion technology, and we saw how they left non-Chinese cell manufacturers in the dust when it came to lithium iron phosphate. The obvious question is: will this happen again with the sodium ion? he said. He said companies like Panasonic and LG had learned their lesson. “They don’t want to be left in the dust anymore. »

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