[Korean Startups] Start-up takes stab at lithium-ion industry

  • 2019-11-29

What do artificial intelligence (AI) and self-driving vehicles have in common? They’re both energy guzzling machines.

This reason alone makes battery and energy storage system (ESS) developers the determining factor for success in the age of the 4th Industrial Revolution, said Kim Bu-gi, CEO of Standard Energy, a company that produces large-scale secondary batteries for ESS.

“We’re aiming to become the ‘Tesla of Korea’ by tackling both efficiency and safety, something existing battery makers weren’t able to achieve,” said Kim.

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Developing next-generation ESS vanadium battery

Standard Energy is a start-up that built its business on vanadium. Along with Kim, who has a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), five doctoral-level researchers from KAIST and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) form a 20-person developing team.

ESS is a bowl that holds energy. Like saving water in a water tank, energy is produced overnight and saved for use when needed. ESS is a must in data centers and charging stations that require backup power.

The current mainstream player in the ESS market is lithium-ion battery, which became commercialized in 1991. With its small size and high-efficiency of using 90 percent of the capacity of its stored energy, lithium-ion batteries have dominated the market for nearly 30 years. The problem is safety. It has a tendency to explode when exposed to heat or impact.

One of select alternatives with improved safety is vanadium. It doesn’t risk explosion and its expected life tops 20 years. Even after a long period of use, it retains a stable energy storage capacity.

But its energy efficiency rate stops at 70 percent, which is short of the level of lithium-ion batteries. It also requires significant storage space, therefore making it difficult to downsize.

Standard Energy is developing a product that combines vanadium’s safety and lithium-ion’s efficiency. Built on vanadium, it has eliminated the risk of explosion while significantly ramping up its efficiency compared to existing products. The company simplified vanadium battery’s structure and reduced the volume with its own technology.

Standard Energy’s product is about the size of a standard desktop. Compared to existing products that are as big as a shipping container, this is less than 100th of the size. “Twenty of this product will be enough to supply energy for a typical household,” said Kim.


Aiming for mass production next year

The battery industry is singled out as the toughest to break in for a start-up. Not only does it involve complex technology, it also takes a significant amount of time to verify that technology. This is why major companies such as LG Chem, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation lead the market.

Kim describes Standard Energy as a “team made up of materials and parts experts.” Kim majored in robotics in undergrad and achieved his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. Of the six doctoral-level researchers, five are experts of machines and materials.

“Thoroughly understanding the materials that make up a battery is the secret behind developing an adequate combination and structure,” he said.

Standard Energy has completed the “concept verification” stage early on to ensure that any technological idea and process function properly before formal introduction. For security purposes, it is currently teaming up with large corporations to test the market before making direct sales.

It has recently garnered 7 billion won in investments from LB Investment, Dadam Investment, Hana Financial Investment and Magna Investment.

“We already have technology that is mature enough to produce a complete product,” Kim said, adding: “The latest investments will be used to install equipments as we aim to go into mass production starting next year.”

By Suyoung Jo

delinews@hankyung.com

<Edited by Jane Han>