Conventional batteries are used to power a wide array of electronic devices and vehicles, providing energy for their operation and functionality. However, they are predominantly made of materials such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt, which are finite in supply. This dependency raises questions about the future of green energy. A company working to address such concerns is Flint, led by co-founder and CEO Carlo Charles. Flint is aiming to usher in an era of sustainable energy usage and storage with its unique approach: paper batteries.
Pioneering a new vision for batteries
Flint’s journey began from a simple desire to create something tangible that could make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. Having previously collaborated with organizations like Google and the US embassy in the Philippines on various research projects, Charles has honed his research and innovation expertise for years. Yet, he yearned for a deeper sense of fulfillment—the kind that comes from seeing people use and appreciate a product that he developed.
To achieve this, he started Flint which, at its inception, was conceived as a company focused on producing modular power banks. However, this did not ignite the passion that Charles sought from his work. “Waking up every morning and thinking of myself as just the owner of a power bank company wasn’t cutting it for me,” Charles said.
It was at this juncture that Charles drew on his past research endeavors. Most of his previous work had a common thread: sustainability. These experiences helped him redefine Flint’s vision, to develop paper batteries that can store energy more sustainably
The science behind Flint’s paper battery
At its core, Flint’s paper battery follows the fundamental structure of traditional lithium-ion batteries, comprising the four usual components: the anode, cathode, electrolyte, and separator. However, what sets Flint’s paper batteries apart from the usual variety is the absence of materials like lithium, nickel, and cobalt in their design.
Instead, Flint utilizes zinc, manganese, hydrogel, and cellulose paper to create a battery with a revolutionary design. By combining hydrogel with cellulose paper, the company can create hydrogel-reinforced cellulose paper, which can fulfill the functions of both separator and electrolyte in Flint’s battery design. The anode and cathode are built from zinc and manganese.
The discovery of hydrogel-reinforced cellulose paper as a viable battery component required numerous permutations and combinations. To achieve a viable design, Flint needed to use materials that are non-toxic, derived from natural sources, and do not deplete scarce resources. But the company’s efforts paid off as its innovative approach can offer several advantages:
- Cost-effectiveness: Compared to traditional batteries, Flint’s paper batteries are expected to be ten times more affordable for manufacturers.
- Increased safety: By omitting reactive elements found in traditional batteries, Flint’s paper batteries are safer to use as they can be punctured, damaged, or cut without the risk of overheating or exploding.
- Compostability: At the end of their life cycle, Flint’s batteries can degrade in the natural environment, reducing their environmental impact.
Reshaping the outlook of battery-powered products
A cornerstone of Flint’s technology is its comparability with lithium-ion batteries. Since the same four essential components (anode, cathode, electrolyte, and separator) are utilized in its design, albeit with variations in materials, paper batteries are relatively easier to integrate into products like smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles, which mostly utilize lithium-ion batteries.
While alternatives such as saltwater batteries or graphite-ion batteries offer unique advantages, integrating them into current products can present significant challenges.
“For instance, if you were to consider water-based batteries in smartphones, it’s simply not feasible. Even hydrogen-based or sodium-based batteries, while they may exhibit impressive performance metrics, pose a significant challenge when it comes to integrating them into everyday products like laptops or cars. These batteries do not use the same four components as a lithium-ion battery, so we would need to adapt our product designs to accommodate these batteries,” Charles said.
If Flint’s paper batteries are effectively interchangeable with lithium-ion batteries, then that eliminates the need for manufacturers to conduct an extensive product redesign when they wish to integrate new battery technology.
Furthermore, traditional battery shapes have often dictated the form and function of electronic products. The flexible and adaptive design of Flint’s paper batteries could empower designers to break free from these constraints when designing products. Charles envisions the seamless adaptation of its battery design to fit the rounded corners of smartphones and the curvatures of EVs. “This represents pushing technology to its limits, exploring what batteries can truly achieve,” Charles said.
The key benefit is subtlety. By integrating Flint’s paper batteries, end customers need not be aware of the change as the products they use will remain virtually identical. However, beneath the surface, these products tap into the potential of the technology to become more affordable, lighter, and safer.
Despite making good progress, Charles acknowledges that they currently lag lithium-ion batteries in terms of capacity.
Flint’s paper batteries have surpassed lithium-ion battery standards in terms of areal density. However, they can currently operate only at 60% of the volumetric energy capacity offered by lithium-ion batteries. In addition, the typical duration of a paper battery’s lifespan, at its current stage of development, is approximately 60% that of a lithium-ion battery.
By acquiring the resources and infrastructure needed to scale up R&D and production, however, Charles believes that paper batteries can eventually surpass the performance of lithium-ion batteries.
“When you look at how batteries are typically manufactured, it involves clean rooms equipped with high-tech machinery and precision tools, all in a controlled environment. In contrast, we are working with the resources at hand, striving to maximize productivity and speed in our efforts to commercialize this technology,” Charles said. Any impurity introduced during battery fabrication can exponentially decrease the battery’s efficiency. Another challenge also exists: pushback from the battery industry.
“This situation has arisen multiple times for us, and it’s evident that some stakeholders are not in favor of our technology. This could be due to their prior investments in lithium-ion batteries or their apprehension about us potentially shaking up the entire market,” Charles said.
According to Charles, addressing this challenge will require effective communication of the benefits that Flint’s paper batteries can provide for consumers, manufacturers, and the environment.
Flint has recently partnered with Collinson Power, which provides power solutions for critical facilities including Singapore’s Changi Airport, hospitals, universities, and military camps. To operate, it relies on batteries that are both hazardous and take up a lot of space. Flint’s paper batteries may help resolve some of its challenges.
“We are advocating for a fundamental change in how batteries are produced, and we are fully prepared to face criticism and challenges along the way. Our passion drives us forward as we strive to transform the industry,” Charles said.