Delivering the lifeblood of learning

Qichao Hu

"If we successfully launch an enabling technology to bring free access to education and Internet to children in developing countries…then to me, SolidEnergy was worth it".

Imagine a futuristic-looking drone. A giant solar panel with wings that floats above some of the poorest and most inhospitable places on earth delivering the ‘lifeblood of learning’ - free wi-fi - to thousands of children for the first time.

Qichao Hu

Qichao Hu no longer needs to imagine it, because he is about to make it a reality. As the inventor of the Gen 3 Li-Metal battery he and his team have doubled the life of the batteries used to stop these drones crashing to the ground at night  – thus turning a great concept into a life-changing opportunity.

His own journey has been one of curiosity, discovery and national acclaim… followed by crushing disappointment and depression. It has led him from the hallowed halls of MIT, to the deserted factory of a bankrupt Massachusetts battery factory.

But today the company he founded, SolidEnergy Systems, is dealing with 1,000 new business enquiries per month as it prepares to transform everything from drones, to phones, to cars. How?

SolidEnergy Systems

It all began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where Qichao and his colleagues were looking for answers. Was it possible to develop a next-generation battery using lithium metal, the lightest metal on the periodic table? SONY launched the first Li-ion battery back in 1991…but was it time to replace it with something new? As so often happens in science, the answer was already out there: It was just that no-one had connected the dots.

“We noticed that several new types of salts were being developed in applications like industrial lubricant; and we picked up on some new polymers being developed in areas like drug delivery systems, bulletproof vests and car paint; then we incorporated new ion-conducting ceramics materials and new manufacturing process for thin metal foils. We slowly began to ask ourselves: Could these obscure materials work together inside a battery?”

Qichao and his team made the smart move of recruiting the experts in these seemingly very different fields to solve this problem. Together they soon developed a new battery design and proof-of-concept that integrated these new materials and was safe at room temperature - previously a major hurdle - while effectively doubling the energy density compared to conventional Li-ion batteries: A monumental breakthrough.

Battery testing

The design attracted many of the world’s largest consumer electronics and automotive companies’ attention, and Qichao and his team decided to spin off a company to turn this design into a real product and launch it into the mass market. Qichao was suddenly in the spotlight, winning several prestigious national competitions with a future that seemed guaranteed. And then things started to go wrong.

The original team broke up, and then in 2012 the battery industry went into freefall after a series of high-profile Li-ion battery companies filed for bankruptcy in the US. “I was severely depressed,” he recalls. “It really hurt to be meeting potential investors and being turned down. We were told ‘don’t you see what’s happened to this other bankrupt Massachusetts-based battery company? Why would we invest in another Massachusetts based battery company?’.”

A final roll of the dice saw Qichao head to the factories of the A123 battery manufacturer in Massachusetts, which had just filed for bankruptcy. “The offices and factories were deserted. Yet, it was full of all the equipment needed to scale-up my prototype battery for commercial launch. So we scrambled the little resource that we had and built our batteries - and our company - on the ashes of A123.”

In the lab

Which brings us back to the high altitude drones. Due to launch in the spring of 2017, it’s just one application for the new battery. The other two are consumer electronics and electric cars – huge markets massively hampered by short battery life. “The consumer electronics and electric cars markets are great opportunities. But personally, if we successfully launch an enabling technology to bring free access to education and Internet to children in developing countries…then to me, SolidEnergy was worth it,” he says.

Much like the battery technology he has created, the future for Qichao and SolidEnergy Systems looks like being a long one…

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