High-Energy Lithium Metal Battery Ready for Prime Time

August 8, 2019 | After several years quietly developing its metallic lithium anode technology to more than 500 watt-hours per kilogram to large format scale, Sion Power Corporation is ready to emerge from stealth mode with its unique story, says Executive Chairman Michael Fetcenko. Sion already has the “roadmap to 700 Wh/kg”—the kind of energy-enabling new aerospace applications ranging from vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to drones with higher payloads and longer range and time in the air.

On behalf of Battery Power Online, Craig Wohlers spoke with Fetcenko about what fueled the company’s shift in direction, the advantages of the new approach over other chemistries and how it plans to accelerate product commercialization.

Battery Power Online: Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk. Since you’re commonly associated with nickel-metal hydride chemistry, can you share how you came to be executive chairman at Sion Power?

Michael Fetcenko: Thanks Craig. It’s an interesting story. I’m very proud of what was accomplished during my years at Ovonic and BASF—we developed and commercialized the first new rechargeable battery technology in 100 years after lead acid and nickel cadmium. We have 14 million hybrid cars on the road with nickel-metal hydride batteries, including the iconic Toyota Prius and billions and billions of consumer size cells. I am proud to be associated with nickel-metal hydride batteries.

In 2012, after Ovonic was acquired by BASF, I became managing director of all battery business for North America which was very lithium- and EV-focused. BASF had also acquired a minority interest in Sion Power, and I became the BASF representative on the board of directors and the technical steering committee. That’s how I came to know the company and became enthusiastic about its prospects.

I retired from BASF at the end of 2018 and was planning to work on my golf game. Instead, to my surprise and honor, I was asked by the majority owner of Sion Power—Euclidean Capital—to stay with the company and help lead it to the next level. It was too good of an opportunity for me to pass up.

After a couple of months, I was elected chairman of the board and became executive chairman for the company. My involvement with Sion Power goes back about seven years. The company has an exceptionally strong technology and team, led by CEO Tracy Kelley, who has been in the industry for decades and previously served as CTO.

Sion Power has mainly been identified with lithium-sulfur technology. Why the change in focus?

The company is a leader in lithium-sulfur technology—we powered the Airbus Zephyr aircraft—and we retain that technology. Even though we were making excellent cycle life improvements and watt-hour per kilogram was terrific, it became evident that the cycle life just wasn’t going to be as good as what was needed for electric vehicles. Secondarily, watt-hours per liter wasn’t enough for automotive applications.

Sion’s metallic lithium anode technology is very compatible with high-energy NCM [nickel-manganese-cobalt] cathodes typically used in lithium-ion batteries. The cycle life became excellent and the volumetric energy in watt-hours per liter, which had been a problem with sulfur cathodes, was corrected. We now have 500 watt-hours per kilogram and 1000 watt-hours per liter along with 500 cycles under 100% depth of discharge, which is the highest energy for any rechargeable chemistry in the world. We’re very proud of what we have already accomplished.

How does that compare with other technologies you’re seeing?

Well, at lab scale, we’re at 700 watt-hours per kilogram and 1400 watt-hours per liter now. We have the highest energy of any advanced chemistry in the world already. We have successfully demonstrated 500 Wh/kg, 1000 Wh/L in 6 and 20 Ah large format cells. The team that’s been assembled at our Tucson, Arizona facility, where we’ve got our pilot manufacturing going on now, is an outstanding group of researchers and engineers.

This is my 39th year in the battery industry and I’ve seen a lot of technology startups fail. Sion is fortunate in that we have strong financial backers, such as Euclidean Capital and BASF. We didn’t have to engage in the hype that’s so common for companies that are scrambling for funding.

We’ve already scaled up our technology to large format cells suitable for commercial purposes, and we did that with no compromise in safety. We have third-party verification showing we meet all safety standards, comparable to lithium-ion, and our process and product development is mature. We’re not your normal startup; this is onset of commercialization.

That also makes us different from most of the other chemistries. We’re already producing more energy than any solid-state technology, which most people probably think of as what comes after lithium-ion. And instead of being five to 10 years away, we’re ready now. That’s probably quite surprising to most of the industry, and one of the primary reasons we’re wanting to publicize our story now.

It should be noted that some of the 700 watt-hour per kilogram energy designs for use in aerospace applications don’t necessarily require the exceptionally long cycle life that’s needed for electric vehicles. There are some applications where even a hundred or a couple hundred cycles might be enough. So, maybe these ultra-high energy designs could make market entry within a year or two.

Are there any other reasons why it makes sense for Sion Power to seek marketplace attention now?

Yes, there are a few reasons the timing is now. We’re taking a different approach to manufacturing than other startups because our technology can be retrofitted into an existing lithium-ion factory. Approximately 80% of an existing Li-Ion factory can be used to make Sion’s Licerion technology. The cathode doesn’t change. The graphite anode gets replaced by a lithium foil or a vapor deposited metallic lithium thin film. The separator and electrolytes are just slightly different. All the capital investment that goes into mechanical assembly is compatible. That’s an advantage because the chemistry doesn’t make obsolete all the manufacturing and huge investment that’s already in place.

For electric vehicles, we’ll take a licensing business model approach with major battery companies which already have that infrastructure in place. Even in aerospace, where the infrastructure is still lacking, we won’t do everything ourselves. This is also where so many previous startups failed; trying to do everything themselves. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. We want to form alliances with strategic partners who will help us accelerate commercialization of our technology. We’re looking for strategic alliances with organizations at various points in the value chain—battery companies of course, but also OEMs in the automotive and aerospace industries that can help us with market pull and help drive next generation product designs.

Another reason we’re coming out of stealth mode now is related to the success which came out of the BASF alliance formed in 2011. That wasn’t just an investment for BASF. It was also about joint development agreements around technical R&D and product and process development which helped us accelerate our commercialization. We want to duplicate that model with other strategic partners to address new markets.

We want to have partners that can help us with manufacturing expansion and bringing our technology to the marketplace. Our main financial backer, Euclidean Capital founder Jim Simons, is not only a noted inventor and investor but also a philanthropist. He wants Sion technology to transform the world. He wants us to make long-range electric cars affordable and enable all these emerging aerospace applications.

We’re not doing a spinoff and we’re not going public with an IPO. Now that we’ve completed scale-up to large format cells, completed safety testing and process development, we want our technology in the hands of real people. We appreciate this opportunity for a high-level overview of Sion Power, but we also have extensive data and test results to support our representations. At the conference, we will present overall performance for Sion technology, including energy, power, cycle life, temperature window, abuse testing, as well as showing our technology roadmap and our anode deposition process. We want to show people how our technology works, and we’re doing so under very strong patents and intellectual property protection. We are confident in a very strong business model.