Sedate Sunday: Battle of the Batteries

Tesla has been in the forefront of fully electric vehicles (EV) at a time when most of the major car manufacturers only fitfully dabbled with short-range plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). Now that Li-ion batteries Tesla builds into battery packs at their Gigafactory have become standard, the automotive industry has essentially abandoned the older BEV battery approaches and embraced Li-ion.

The pursuit of energy dense batteries to increase range may take a left turn, however, due to cost. You see, the batteries used by all the EV car manufacturers today use cobalt in the batteries (Tesla uses Li-NCA — most others use Li-NMC), and cobalt is costly. So Tesla is now considering a less energy dense LFP (lithium iron phosphate) battery manufactured by Contemporary Amperex Technology Company (CATC, Fujian Province, China) for their Chinese Tesla EVs that does not require cobalt. In addition, instead of the current module packaging strategy, the cells would be bundled tightly directly, which CATC claims will result in an energy-dense battery pack comparable to current module-based battery packs using cobalt. This will take the battle of the batteries to a whole new level.

Sedate Sunday: Cal is Quantum Blue, Slippery Ice, and Plasma Guns

Pantone, in it’s usual grandiose fashion, has decreed the new color of the year — classic blue — which looks just like a blue suitcase from the 1950s covered with a layer of dust. 

Quantum Blue was created by Greek artist Olga Alexopoulou in collaboration with UC Berkeley Lab chemists. (California Alumni Magazine, Winter 2019)

For those rightly unexcited by this dull selection, you need not fear. Berkeley has created a blue just for you: Quantum Blue, a “pure, radiant blue like one might see at dusk” using nanoparticles where “phosphor absorb UV light and convert it to a different wavelength (or fluoresce)”. The creation of this color was done as an attempt to capture the beauty of the natural world. Please enjoy it in like kind.

In a different mode, we now know why we slip on ice when it seemed fine to walk on. While the simple answer — a thin layer of water — might seem intuitively obvious, measuring the properties of the water layer is not. By literally “tuning” into the minute frictional forces of ice and the water layer using something akin to an old-fashioned tuning fork, researchers at Sorbonne and Ecole polytechnique were able to demonstrate that 1) friction does create a thin layer of water on ice, 2) it’s very thin (less than 200 nm to one micron), and 3) the water is viscous, a state between ice and liquid water. It’s definitely cool.

And for us folks who find plasma physics fascinating (and you know who you are), completion of the work assembling the Plasma Liner Experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected in early 2020. Testing of the plasma guns as they are installed can be used to validate and tune simulations. It should be interesting to see the final results when all 36 plasma jets are operational.

Married Founders: The Times they are a-Changin’

I was reading this article on how married co-founders are getting acceptance — and investment — and it’s not a bad thing. And it provoked a memory.

UC Berkeley Physics Department image used in video production.

When I worked with the University of California at Berkeley Physics Department, my alma mater, to enhance their fundraising efforts, I developed and field tested with them an instant video production system for alumni. The idea was to not just ask for money, but to ask for experiences, like what was their favorite experiment in 111 Laboratory. These experiences in video were then emailed to a server array which instantly provided correction (sound, video, format, etc) and encased the video into a custom designed template with music and background reflecting the Cal Physics environment. The completed video was then emailed to the Director for approval. All she had to do was say yes, no, or maybe something else. If she liked it, it was automatically posted to a website dedicated to Berkeley Physics. It was cool. I even wrote a paper on the results for the ACM.

At the same time, the Haas Business School launched a business plan competition for Berkeley students, faculty and alumni. So I decided to enter it. This wasn’t my first BBQ, so to speak — I had gotten funding for InterProphet some years earlier, and that was a harder sell given how VCs gave up on hardware investments in the early 2000s and moved to Internet companies. But this *was* an Internet company — a fully developed video production system and mechanism where no one had to learn editing software to make a production-quality video.

Yes, folks said I was ahead of my time. Yes, investors quibbled over why was I doing this with software and not, say, with Chinese or Indian workers manually handling production — they had a massive obsession with using folks instead of using automation then. They questioned whether video would ever become popular on the Internet given latency issues (I was an expert on this BTW, since InterProphet was all about low-latency). This was before YouTube, so it was hard for old-style VCs to get their heads around video on the web.

But the most insulting response I received was not from VCs or angels, but from the Haas Business School at Berkeley. For a university known for progressive insight, the worst response to my business plan was not about TAM or competitive advantage or technology or experience — it was about how the anonymous reviewer would “NEVER” invest in a husband-wife company, as they had been burned once before. It was bigoted. It was unfair. It was vile. And he killed any prospects of working with Berkeley.

Relevant part of the review by the Haas Business School business plan competition of ExecProducer and my work with the UC Berkeley physics Department. Apparently, having “Relevant domain experience, industry experience, business track record, education, network, etc” was tainted by the stain of married co-founders. Yes folks, that killed it. (Photo: R Jolitz)

Needless to say, this was also offensive to the Berkeley physics Department as well. I was one of their alumni and they worked with me. It was a validated concept. But that Haas Business School reviewer poisoned the waters in the larger investment community, and the company I had labored to move from Zero to One was dead in the water. Silicon Valley is a small community — or at least was small back in 2004.

I’m pleased to see the times they are a-changin’. I hope my struggles paved the way for a new generation of young people to be considered for investment based on their ideas, creativity, perseverance, and character — instead of their gender or race or friendships or “comfort level” (a catch-all for “I don’t like you because your different”). Meritocracy is a lie when it demands you look exactly like the person who backs you. And the last thing we need right now is more lies.