Forget electric vehicles: Why Bedrock Materials is targeting gas cars for its first sodium-ion batteries

Spencer Gore has a battery to boot. But he doesn’t want his batteries to end up in electric vehicles, at least not yet.

«There are a lot of interesting segments of the lower end of the automotive market that are underserved today that are faster to get into than, say, electric vehicle drive batteries,» he told TechCrunch. Take for example the traditional 12-volt lead-acid battery found under the hood of every fossil fuel vehicle on the road today. It’s still a huge market that has just been surpassed by lithium-ion production capacity Few years ago.

«Look, we’re still relying on 150-year-old technology,» Gore said.

In contrast, Gore’s company, Bedrock Materials, uses chemistry that was invented ten years ago. While he won’t reveal specifics, he says it’s similar to what’s found in most electric vehicles today with one big difference: no lithium.

Instead, Bedrock Materials is developing a sodium-ion battery, which promises to be dramatically cheaper than lithium-ion. The expected saving comes from the abundance of sodium: Earth has an eye 1000 more sodium than lithium.

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

Ultimately, Gore would like to see Bedrock Materials win the EV battery contract. But he argues that it makes more sense to first launch a product in a stagnant market, such as starter batteries for fossil-fueled cars and trucks. «It’s a classic ‘break from the bottom’. Start with something that’s frankly worse, but it’s cheaper, and work your way up from there as the technology gets better.”

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To prove that its sodium-ion chemistry can replace lead acid in starter batteries, Bedrock Materials produces materials for third-party testing. To fund the venture, it recently raised a seed round of $9 million, 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 facility in Chicago, a city that hasn’t hosted many battery startups. But Gore, who has 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 talent distribution of fresh new grads who were fine with having five roommates, and then vice presidents who didn’t even live here — just flying in for a week and a flight back home, » He said.

Battery scientists, on the other hand, tend to be mid-career. They usually have PhDs and postdocs behind them, and by the time 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 suburbs of Chicago are home to Argonne National Labs, where years of research have greatly advanced sodium-ion batteries. Now Gore thinks it’s ready to hit the market.

Other battery manufacturers agree that sodium ion’s time has come. Chinese battery maker CATL has been producing sodium-ion batteries for several years, and China’s BYD and Sweden’s Northvolt have announced their own plans to add sodium production lines. By the end of the decade, 150 gigawatt-hours production capacity, mostly in China, is predicted to be involved.

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

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