Targeting gas-powered cars first: Bedrock Materials' strategy for sodium-ion batteries

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

“There are a lot of interesting downmarket segments of automotive that are underserved today that are faster to get into than, say, the traction battery in EVs,” 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. It’s still a massive market, having been surpassed by lithium-ion production capacity just a few years ago.

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

By contrast, Gore’s company, Bedrock Materials, is using a chemistry that was invented about a decade ago. Though he won’t disclose the specifics, he does say that it’s similar to what’s found in most EVs today with one major difference: There’s no lithium.

Instead, Bedrock Materials is developing a sodium-ion battery, which promises to be dramatically cheaper than lithium-ion. The anticipated cost savings stems from sodium’s abundance: Earth has about 1,000x more sodium than lithium.

Still, challenges remain. Sodium-ion batteries don’t hold as much energy as lithium-ion, and while they undercut lithium-ion in price, the differential hasn’t been enough to entice hesitant automakers. The formulations that store enough energy to challenge lithium-ion have proven to be brittle, though Gore said his company’s chemistry addresses that problem.

Eventually, Gore would like to see Bedrock Materials land a contract for EV batteries. But he argues that it makes more sense to first launch a product in a more stagnant market, like starter batteries for fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks. “It’s classic ‘disrupt from the bottom.’ Start with something that is honestly worse, but it’s cheaper, and work your way up from there as the technology gets better.”

To prove its sodium-ion chemistry can replace lead-acid in starter batteries, Bedrock Materials is producing materials for testing by third parties. To fund the endeavor, it recently raised a $9 million seed round, the company exclusively told TechCrunch. 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 a lot of battery startups. But Gore, who used to work 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 VPs who weren’t even living here — they were just flying in for the week and flying back home,” he said.

Battery scientists, on the other hand, tend to be mid-career. They usually have a doctorate and a postdoc under their belts, 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 Chicago suburbs are home to Argonne National Labs, where years of research have advanced sodium-ion batteries considerably. Now Gore thinks it’s ready to bring to market.

Other battery manufacturers agree that sodium-ion’s time has come. Chinese battery manufacturer 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, the bulk of it in China, are forecast to come online.

China’s interest in sodium-ion should be a wake-up call to other producers, Gore said. “We’ve seen the Chinese cell makers move very quickly to commercialize sodium ion technology, and we saw how they left non-Chinese cell makers in the dust when it came to lithium-iron-phosphate. The obvious question is, is that going to 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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