Last week on the Technical.ly Slack, we caught up with Matthew McNey, a UMBC grad who is running an energy tech company called Singularity. When we met McNey at a Startup Grind event before Baltimore Innovation Week, he told us the battery that Singularity is designing could last 56 years. So, we had to dig deeper.
The Laurel-based company is currently work to develop a prototype of the B-Volt (short for betavoltaic). The company is also raising money via Indiegogo with an eye toward the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program.
In addition to lasting longer than a half-century, it’s biodegradable. McNey said he initially wanted to develop a battery for an electric car, but the company is now working on technology that could also be applied to smartphones, household items and beyond.
“We already have orders for our batteries and not even a prototype yet,” McNey said.
Here are some of McNey’s thoughts from our conversation on Slack.
Can you describe betavoltaics? The technology has been around for a long time, right?
Yes, betavoltaics have been around since the 1950s and are similar to photovoltaics or solar panels like the ones Solar City uses, except instead of using the energy of the sun we use the energy of beta particles emitted from a benevolent nuclear waste like Strontium-90. The half life of 90Sr is about 28 years and the full life is about 56 years, therefore, that is how long the battery will last. We use carbon as shielding to keep it 100 percent safe to the consumer.
So why aren’t we already using this technology?
Great question! Any industry where there is a perceived high level of regulation there are few participants. I have been working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since last year and other regulators. I have discovered them to be far different from that perception. The other limitation has been a lack of sales/marketing prowess of those involved and finally technical.
Interesting, so with the NRC there are not as many regulations as you thought, or are they just easier to work with than it appears?
Both. I have read the NRC regulations myself and it’s all pretty standard stuff they look for in terms of providing an exempt status so you can sell to the public like smoke detectors, which, if you did not know, have a small amount of Americium-241 and emit low levels of gamma rays. There is no one who probably knows how to navigate these guidelines better than me except for the lawyers who work with them.
Where are they on the B-Volt battery? Do you think the NRC will give you the green light?
We need to petition them for exemption. They will stress-test the battery and make sure the battery does not leak any contamination when they do that.
Are you finding barriers to getting your product out there?
That’s a good question. There is a significant amount of pent-up demand for a battery that will have the properties we’re describing, however, after speaking with several VCs and angels I am discovering that finding capital for an enterprise like this could be a significant barrier.
Is that why you’re crowdfunding first?
Sure, we’re crowdfunding for two reasons. To avoid early stage equity dilution and we’re pursuing the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program, which will give us $90,000 but they require a $10,000 match. We’re pursuing grants to compensate but they have no guarantee.
Question from Ryan J. Smith: How do the characteristics of betavoltaic batteries compare with other traditional batteries? What is the primary use case?
Comparing our batteries to typical storage devices is like comparing the Sun to a AA battery. It’s constantly producing energy and can be scaled significantly in either direction. Stanford just did a study where they compared cost to energy density finding that fuel cells/superconductors are five times more costly than lithium-ion and alkaline-lead batteries and 10 times more costly with the almost nearly equivalent energy with our B-Volt batteries’ EverCell source.
By the way, you can fuse two atoms together and make a small Sun so technically you can scale the Sun in either direction. Wanted to clarify that point.
Obviously there is a demand for consumers wanting batteries that last longer, but energy innovation at our current moment is always also about addressing climate change. Does B-Volt also help the Earth?
Since we can make something so cheap and energy dense we can make electric transport affordable to everybody even to the poorest people and the phone batteries will be essential for those who live in rural areas and underdeveloped countries where a gird may not exist. I envision homes being powered by far stronger B-Volts. Something better than just a power wall. We could use them for ships and planes. I’d prefer using scaled down nuclear reactors for space rockets, though.
Since the larger scale EverCell I’m designing will actually generate energy and not just store the energy, you can sell the excess back to the gird.
How much excess are we talking about? What could it power?
That would be the 100 kW design. Imagine the battery is always producing that much energy all the time, non-stop, only going down in potential ever so slightly every year.