What If You Could Charge an Electric Car as Fast as Filling the Tank?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a battery revolution could be upon us.
For as long as he can remember, Tim Sherstyuk has been tinkering away in his parents’ basement. He built his first computer at age 11, his first software program at 13 and filed his first patent application at 19. Two years later, he dropped out of school to build a company that has the potential to significantly improve the lifespan and charging speed of batteries — with huge consequences for the planet.
GBatteries is on the verge of enabling electric vehicles to charge as fast as it takes to fill a tank of gas, a benchmark Sherstyuk says could retire the internal combustion engine once and for all. It’s a lofty goal, but given what he and his team have accomplished in recent years, it would be unwise to bet against them.
Sherstyuk, 26, started tinkering as a child thanks to his father, Nick, an electrical engineer who built a makeshift laboratory in the family’s Ottawa, Ontario, basement. There, the father and son would pose technical challenges to each other — such as building a computer or lighting up Tim’s bedroom with a network of LEDs — and work together on building a solution.
My mother was extremely happy when we raised money, because we were able to move out of the basement.
“You know how in California everyone starts in the garage?” asks longtime family friend and GBatteries CEO Kostyantyn Khomutov. “Well, in Canada we start in the basement; it’s too cold in the garage.” It looked like “any other mad scientists’ laboratory,” Khomutov says. Wires, batteries and other pieces of technology covered every flat surface, the thick smell of soldering metal and human perspiration in the air.
One technical challenge, posed by Tim in 2012, has occupied much of their time since: improving the lifespan and charging speed of cellphone batteries. Tim and his father would spend countless hours experimenting with various solutions until their first breakthrough a year later.
In theory, there’s almost no limit to how fast you can charge a battery, but the more energy you deliver at once, the less energy that battery is able to store over time. In order to prevent rapid degradation, manufacturers have to limit how much power chargers deliver to the battery. Sherstyuk likens it to sifting flour; if you just dump it onto the sifter all at once, most of the flour just sits until it’s shaken. “Our approach was to pulse that energy,” he says. “We are always shaking the mesh.”
Doing so allowed them to fully charge the batteries of a range of everyday consumer devices — such as power tools, drones and vacuum cleaners — in just 10 minutes, without sacrificing their longevity. So Sherstyuk filed a patent, applied to the prestigious Silicon Valley-based incubator, Y Combinator, and dropped out of college. At Y Combinator, he and his father turned the idea into GBatteries and raised their first round of venture capital (they have not disclosed amounts or the company’s valuation). “My mother was extremely happy when we raised money because we were able to move out of the basement,” he says.
The financing allowed the father-son duo to add two more founders to the team — Tim’s brother-in-law, longtime adviser and now chief engineer, Alex Tkachenko; and Tkachenko’s close friend Khomutov, who had similarly provided informal assistance before being named CEO. It also solved the biggest challenge most battery startups face: operating capital.
“It’s a very tough business for a startup to be in,” said Jim Greenberger, executive director of NAATBatt International, a trade association for advanced battery manufacturers and supply chain partners in North America. “You’ve got to build something real that costs a lot of money upfront, and it’s very challenging to get returns that a venture capitalist would consider attractive for investment,” he says.
The other big challenge that makes life more difficult for battery startups, Greenberger says, is timelines. Battery lifespan takes a long time to test, requiring months of charging and draining, and each potential client wants to run their own experiments. Furthermore, the development cycles for large battery-using devices can take years — for electric vehicles, nearly a decade. It means that a deal with an auto manufacturer today won’t be on the road for five to 10 years. While consumers will notice a significant difference in charging speed and battery lifespan, they wouldn’t actually know who was behind it, as GBatteries’ software uses its patented solution to regulate charging behind the scenes.
After refining their concept at Y Combinator, Sherstyuk approached major smartphone makers but didn’t get the reception he expected. Manufacturers told him longer-lasting batteries wouldn’t drive more sales — and might, in fact, decrease them. “Well, but, this is like, revolutionary, what do you mean? It’s so important,” Sherstyuk recalls pleading. The response? “Nobody really cared.”
In order to prove the concept, GBatteries released BatteryBox, a portable battery capable of extending the life of a MacBook Air by 13 hours or fully charging an iPhone nine times. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company pivoted toward mid-sized battery powered electronics and appliances like vacuum cleaners and power tools. They’ve signed licensing agreements with “brand-name companies everyone has heard of,” though Sherstyuk can’t disclose specifics just yet.
An avid nonfiction reader who says he’s learning more about “culinary arts,” Sherstyuk is a bit of a workaholic: “I don’t believe in work-life balance; it’s more about work-life integration.”
He has filed for 45 patents, 10 of which have been approved, but the real holy grail is electric vehicles. His goal is to achieve 10-minute charging speed in electric vehicles before the end of 2019. By comparison, Tesla’s fast charge stations take half an hour to reach 80 percent capacity.
A recent Morning Consult poll found that for 38 percent of Americans, “duration of recharging” would make them less likely to buy an electric vehicle. (The top drawback: “unavailability or distance of charging stations,” at 62 percent.) Meanwhile, plug-in electric vehicles make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. market share — similar to the worldwide rate — with China closer to 4 percent.
In other words, there’s a long road ahead for plug-ins to go mainstream. This Canadian tinkerer just might hit the accelerator.
Read more: He’s creating a new fuel out of thin air — for 85 cents a gallon.