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電池競賽,誰是最終贏家?

Jeffrey Ball 2019年06月20日

可再生能源或許會重塑全球經濟,但前提在于儲能方式的成本和安全性。不妨看看以下正在埋頭苦干的電池公司。

電池廠:在中國無錫的安普瑞斯工廠,工人們正在操作機器,連接陽極和陰極,制作電池。圖片來源:Photograph by Stephen Chow for Fortune

乍一看,在這個春季的清晨,SK Innovation研發園區的一切都是那么的安靜祥和。該園區位于大田。這是一個整潔、整齊劃一的城市,亦是由韓國政府打造的科技中心,在首爾乘坐高鐵南行一小時即可到達。在SK綿延不斷的園區內,遍布著雅致的現代玻璃鋼鐵建筑,哪怕是登上高大上的建筑雜志也毫無問題。其中的一棟建筑是圖書館,里面的桌子上堆滿了一卷卷的厚紙和啟發創意的報事貼。另一棟建筑中設有咖啡吧,工程師們正在排隊等待咖啡飲品。涼風習習,鳥兒歡唱,粉紅的櫻花正在怒放。

SK研發業務的商業策略負責人黃在尹(音譯)駕駛著起亞電動汽車,載著我在園區轉了轉,然后停在了山頂上的一個站點。在我們身前是一座七層的立方體建筑K-8,整個建筑覆蓋著啞光銀壁板,沒有任何可見的窗戶。其唯一可見的標志位于一面墻的頂部角落,它以非寫實的方式勾勒出了一個橙色的熟悉物體:一塊電池。K-8的外觀看起來十分古怪,近乎華而不實。黃在尹解釋說,園區內的其他四棟建筑,外加正在修建的一座,都是用于開展電池研究的。為此,SK聘請了數百人,而且還在不斷招兵買馬。當我要求進入K-8參觀時,遭到了黃在尹的拒絕。我在拿起照相機拍照時也被他攔了下來。他說:“在這個區域,對建筑拍照也是不允許的。”

SK的研發園區一直在不斷擴張,因為公司有著悠久的技術傳承,它是韓國歷史最早的煉油商。如今,這家石化公司已經選擇在未來發展與電動汽車相關的產業,并與全球最大的汽車制造商簽署了電池生產合約,例如大眾。在簽署這一合約之前,大眾因為再三故意違反柴油車排放標準的丑聞而遭遇了毀滅性打擊。隨后,公司下定決心要以綠色企業的身份回歸市場,并將很大一部分車型從燒油改為用電。SK與大眾和其他汽車制造商簽署了巨額訂單,其中包括聲稱要在2022年推出10款純電動車型的戴姆勒,以及中國最大的純電動汽車制造商北京汽車集團。SK正加速在中國、歐洲和美國建造大型電池廠,包括一家距離亞特蘭大一個小時車程的工廠。到2025年,SK的電池生產將得到大幅擴張,公司目前在認真考慮在這一期間為該業務注資約100億美元。這筆投資對于一家如此龐大的集團來說也是一個不小的數目。盡管SK的業務面十分廣泛,但它在過去的50多年中一直都致力于開采來自于地下的黑金。黃在尹在評論SK的電池業務時表示:“如今,訂單量實在是太大了。”

At first glance, all seems serene on a spring morning at the research-and-development campus of SK Innovation, one of Korea’s biggest industrial conglomerates. The campus sits in Daejeon, a tidy, planned city an hour’s high-speed-train ride south of Seoul that the national government has built up as a technology hub. Dotting SK’s rolling acres are tastefully modern glass-and-steel buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in a glossy architecture magazine. One contains a library, its tables stocked with rolls of butcher paper and Post-it notes to spur creativity. Another houses an espresso bar where engineers queue for caffeination. A cool breeze blows. Birds chirp. Pink cherry blossoms bloom.

Then Jaeyoun Hwang, who directs business strategy for SK’s R&D operation, steers the Kia electric car in which he is driving me around the campus to a stop at the top of a hill. In front of us looms K-8, a seven-story-tall cube of a building sheathed in matte silver siding and devoid of any visible windows. Its only discernible marking is, at the top corner of one wall, a stylized orange outline of a familiar object: a battery. K-8 appears whimsical, almost a bauble, until Hwang explains that four other buildings on the campus, plus another one under construction, also are for battery research—an activity at SK that employs several hundred people and counting. When I ask to go inside K-8 for a look, Hwang says it’s out of the question. When I raise my camera to take a picture, he stops me. “In this area,” he says, “photographs of the buildings are prohibited.”

SK has a sprawling R&D campus because it has a storied technological pedigree—as Korea’s oldest oil refiner. Now the petrochemical company is hitching its future to electric cars. It has inked deals to make batteries for some of the world’s largest automakers, notably Volkswagen AG, which, following a crippling scandal in which it was found to have deliberately and repeatedly violated pollution rules in producing its diesel vehicles, has pledged a green corporate rebirth, shifting much of its lineup to cars that run on electricity rather than oil. SK has made huge deals with VW and other automakers, including Daimler AG, which says it will sell 10 pure-electric car models by 2022, and Beijing Automotive Group, or BAIC Group, China’s largest maker of pure-electric cars. SK is racing to build massive battery plants in China, Europe, and the United States, including one an hour’s drive from Atlanta. It is moving by 2025 to balloon its battery production, mulling investing some $10 billion in the effort over that span. That’s a serious number even for a behemoth that in its various corporate incarnations, has spent more than a half-century processing black gold sucked from the ground. “These days,” Hwang says of SK’s battery business, “the order volume is huge.”

國際玩家:首席執行官孫康幫助安普瑞斯獲得了來自于美國和中國投資方的資金。圖片來源:Photograph by Stephen Chow for Fortune

多年以來,電池升級競賽僅限于消費電子。這是一個不斷增長的業務,但無需為其再次配置資本。如今,面對道路上電動汽車以及電網中可再生電力的攻勢,這場競賽演變成了一場企業和地緣政治的死斗。一夜之間,眾多頂級跨國公司開始異常嚴肅地對待這件事情,尤其是汽車巨頭、原油大拿以及發電公司。此前,它們認為經濟的儲能方式是一個白日夢,如今,它們將其視為一種現存的威脅。如果不加以利用,它們可能會因此而被邊緣化。它還會拉開全球主要經濟體之間的距離,這些國家將21世紀自身在儲能領域的主導地位等同于19世紀對煤的控制以及20世紀對石油的控制。這里存在一個明顯的信號:電池技術競賽已經深深融入當前正在進行的美中貿易摩擦中。

即便是電池怪才杰弗瑞·張伯倫也覺得這一轉變著實令人吃驚。多年來,他曾經供職于阿爾貢國家實驗室,負責美國政府的一個頂級電池研究項目。如今,他主導著芝加哥風投基金Volta Energy Technologies,從緊張的電力、石油和其他公司那里獲取資金,然后投資儲能技術初創企業。張伯倫說,這些企業認為自己必須為其賭約購買多重保險,因為“可再生能源對于這些公司來說具有大規模的破壞性。”與此同時,中國已經宣布把打造世界級的電池產業作為一項國家級戰略,并且為此公布了相關優惠政策。張伯倫問:“這意味著什么?它們是否會成為電池行業的新沙特?”

For years, the race to build a better battery was contained to consumer electronics. It was a growing business, but it wasn’t going to reorder capitalism. Now, amid an onslaught of electric cars on the road and renewable electricity on the power grid, the race is gearing up into a corporate and geopolitical death match. It suddenly has the dead-serious attention of many of the planet’s biggest multinationals, particularly auto giants, oil majors, and power producers. Having historically dismissed affordable energy storage as a pipe dream, they now view it as an existential threat—one that, if they don’t harness it, could disintermediate them. It also divides the world’s major economic powers, which see dominance of energy storage in the 21st century as akin to control of coal in the 19th century and of oil in the 20th. One clear sign: Battery-technology competition is deeply woven into the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China.

Even Jeffrey Chamberlain, a battery geek, finds today’s shift breathtaking. For years he worked at Argonne National Laboratory, heading one of the U.S. government’s top battery-research efforts. Now he leads a Chicago-based venture-capital fund, Volta Energy Technologies, that takes money from nervous power, oil, and other companies and invests it in energy-storage-technology startups. The corporations have concluded they have to hedge their bets, Chamberlain says, because “what renewable energy represents to these companies is massive destruction.” China, meanwhile, has declared a world-leading battery industry a strategic national priority, doling out incentives to get the job done. “What does that imply?” Chamberlain asks. “Are they the new Saudi Arabia of batteries?”

****

數十億美元的資金進入了電池研發領域,也讓如今的電池行業成為了科技行業的香餑餑,一如10年前的半導體行業。初創企業的吸金速度尤為迅猛,每一家公司都瘋狂地許諾在能源儲存難題上有了重大突破。這些資金來自于尋求技術解決方案的跨國公司、尋求新盈利目標的風投公司以及各式各樣打著拯救地球旗號的億萬富翁,而且太平洋兩岸均有所貢獻。

有些初創企業將大獲全勝,但失敗的更多。不管怎么樣,它們代表著電池競賽的最前沿,但那里的沖撞也最為致命。出名的大多都是勇者,而經得起時間考驗的突破獲得發展的可能性最大。對比那些大公司,初創企業更加善于推銷自身的業務。這一點是合情合理的,因為它們渴望獲得資本。

當今的全球電池競賽有兩大熱潮。第一個熱潮是電動車電池,它已經十分成熟。能源數據公司Wood Mackenzie預測,電動車電池的市值將從2017年的130億美元大幅增至2024年的410億美元。正是基于這個原因,埃隆·馬斯克的特斯拉公司才建造了一家大型電池廠,也就是特斯拉所稱的“巨型工廠”(gigafactory),位于內華達州。也正是考慮到這個市場規模,全球幾乎所有的汽車制造商(因特斯拉在電動車市場的表現而羞愧不已,但已下定決心要迎頭趕上)向SK和其他主要電池制造商拋出了巨額訂單,這些電池制造商的總部基本上都位于亞洲。此外,這一市場前景也在吸引它們投資那些承諾能夠帶來突破性技術的初創企業。

另一大熱潮才剛剛起步,屬于電網用電池:其設備大小跟廠房差不多,旨在儲存大量電量,有可能一次儲存數天或數周的用量。這類技術能夠帶來重大的轉型,也就是從煤和天然氣這類化石燃料向太陽能和風能轉變。雖然煤和天然氣對氣候有不利影響,但可以隨時啟用或關閉,而風能和太陽能則并不是全天候的存在。電網用電池市場依然處于初期,基本上依靠政府補貼,也就是說風險較大,而且是否能夠取得成功還不好說。一群侃侃而談的技術專家正在摩拳擦掌,率先向市場推出其長時間供電儲能設備,這些專家的背后都是財大氣粗的投資者,從比爾·蓋茨支持的基金一直到沙特阿美。

在這兩大熱潮中,面臨風險的不僅僅是一些企業家及其帶有投機目的的投資者,全球經濟的未來亦是如此。自從本杰明·富蘭克林在閃電風暴中放飛帶鑰匙的風箏之后,事實證明,人們很難大批量地儲存電量。這也是為什么汽車仍然在燒油的原因,因為油箱可輕易地儲存燃油;這也是為什么人們仍然需要架設數千英里的傳輸線纜,把電從發電端傳到使用端的原因;而且這也是為什么大多數發電廠依然采用燃燒化石燃料發電的原因,雖然它對環境存在不利影響,但卻異常的可靠。拉一下開關,整個系統開始運轉,然后電燈就亮了。

如果人們可以以低成本儲存大量的電量,行業將發生巨大的變化。電動車的零部件比燃油車少,因此從規模化來講,其制造成本要更低,也就比內燃機引擎更加優越。白天,人們可以將太陽能轉化為電能,夜間則儲存風能,而且如果成本合適的話,可再生能源能夠成為一種持續而不是間歇性的能源來源。鑒于交通運輸和發電的溫室氣體排放量占到全球總量的約40%,人類的碳產出量實際上可能會因此而大幅下降。科學家警告說,如果要避免尤為危險的氣候變化,人們必須在本世紀中葉基本上實現零排放。

經濟贏家和輸家的大范圍重新洗牌可能會導致知名企業尋求新的業務模式。汽車制造商將不得不更換裝備,否則就會出局。原油公司至少不得不在很大程度上將自己重新塑造為可再生能源提供商,否則將逐漸淡出人們的視野。公用事業則不得不轉而采用新的去中心化業務,其中,它們曾經運營著大量的太陽能電板、風力渦輪機和電池。換句話說,尋找低成本電力儲存方式會讓全球經濟短路,然后重新洗牌。

這一點能實現嗎?今年春天,我為了找到這個答案燒了不少燃油。我開車到訪了北加州的不同地區,并乘坐飛機前往世界各地。在硅谷、波士頓、中國和韓國,我發現初創企業正在蓬勃發展,而大公司則為了生存而努力奮斗。所有企業都十分緊張,不過一些企業在這一方面更具前瞻性。如今,儲能是所有泡沫市場的幕后推手。

Unprecedented billions of dollars are pouring into battery research and development, rendering batteries today the sort of technological target that semiconductors were a generation ago. A particularly fast stream is flowing into startups, each promising more brashly than the next to have cracked the code on the energy-storing black box. That money is coming from multinationals scrambling for technological fixes, from venture-capital firms looking for the next big home run, and from sundry billionaires who say they want to save the planet. And it’s coming from both sides of the Pacific.

Some startups will win big; many more will implode. Either way, they are the leading edge of the battery race—the pack in which the jostling is most cutthroat, the daring is most on display, and the long-term breakthroughs are most likely to develop. They’re also more talkative than the big players about what they’re doing; that stands to reason because they’re hungrier for investment.

Today’s global battery race has two main heats. One, already well underway, is for batteries for electric cars, whose market value the energy-data firm Wood Mackenzie projects will jump to $41 billion in 2024, from $13 billion in 2017. This is the market that has prompted Elon Musk’s Tesla to build a massive battery plant—what Tesla calls a “gigafactory”—in Nevada. This is the market that’s pushing essentially every global automaker—embarrassed by Tesla in the electric-car market and adamant not to be embarrassed anymore—to lob massive orders at SK and other major battery producers, almost all headquartered in Asia. It’s also inducing them to invest in startups promising technological leaps.

The other heat, just beginning, is for batteries for the electric grid: factory-size devices designed to store massive amounts of energy, potentially for days or weeks at a time. Such technology could enable an epic transition from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, which are altering the climate but can be fired on or off at will, to the sun and the wind, which are clean but don’t always shine or blow. The market for them remains nascent and largely dependent on government subsidies—which is to say that it’s risky and anyone’s to win. A swashbuckling band of technologists, bankrolled by deep-pocketed investors from a Bill Gates–backed fund to Saudi Aramco, are gunning to get their long-term energy-storage devices to market first.

At stake in both heats is more than the fate of some entrepreneurs and their speculative backers. At stake is the future of the global economy. Ever since Benjamin Franklin flew a key on a kite in a lightning storm, electricity has proved difficult to store in large quantities. That’s why cars still run on oil, which can be stored easily in tanks. It’s why transmission lines still are required to transport electricity hundreds or thousands of miles from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. And it’s why the vast majority of electricity still is produced by burning fossil fuels, which, for all their environmental downsides, are ruthlessly reliable. Flick a switch, the system springs to life, and the lights go on.

If electricity could be stored in large amounts at low cost, radical changes could follow. The electric car, which has fewer parts than a petroleum-powered vehicle and thus, at scale, should be cheaper to manufacture, could eclipse the internal-combustion engine. Sunlight could be stored as electricity during the day, and wind power at night, and renewable energy could, at acceptable cost, be made to behave like a constant, rather than as an intermittent, energy source. Given that transportation and electricity together account for about 40% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, humanity’s carbon output—which scientists warn will have to crater essentially to zero by mid-century to avoid particularly dangerous climate change—actually might start plummeting.

A grand reordering of economic winners and losers likely would result, with established players scrambling for new business models. Automakers would have to retool or die. Oil companies would have to reinvent themselves at least in significant part as renewable-energy providers or shrivel into oblivion. Utilities would have to pivot to a new and decentralized business in which they operated huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines and batteries. Figuring out how to store electricity economically, in other words, could short-circuit the global economy and then rewire it.

Can it be done? I burned a lot of fossil fuel this spring trying to find out. I drove around Northern California and flew around the world. In Silicon Valley, Boston, China, and Korea, I found startups clawing their way up and corporations struggling not to fall down. All were nervous, though some were more forthcoming about that than others. Energy storage today is the mother of all frothy markets.

****

然而,從基礎構架來說,電池是一個較為簡單的設備。它包含四個部分:帶正電的電極,又稱為陽極;帶負電的電極,又稱為陰極;連接兩極的物質,又稱為電解質,通常是液體;薄膜,又稱為隔板,用于在“短路”時防止某些分子從一個電極游向另一個電極,而“短路”會導致起火。過薄的隔板被看作是2016年某些三星手機一連串火災的罪魁禍首。

當電池為設備提供電量時,內部的化學反應將原子分解為稱為離子的帶正電分子,以及稱為電子的帶負電分子。離子和電子會同時從陽極流向陰極,但會形成不同的流。離子會穿過電池;電子會在設備中形成回路,為其提供電力。

在傳統的電池中,當所有的離子和電子從陽極流向陰極后,電池的電量也就用盡了。可充電電池在通電后可以吸收新電力,讓離子和電子流向正極,從而再次為設備供電。

The battery is, in its basic architecture, a simple device. It contains four main parts: a positively charged electrode, called a cathode; a negatively charged electrode, called an anode; a substance that connects them, called an electrolyte, which typically is a liquid; and a membrane, known as a separator, that prevents certain particles from traveling from one electrode to the other in a “short circuit,” which could spark a fire. A too-thin separator was implicated in a rash of fires in 2016 in some Samsung phones.

When a battery is powering a device, chemical reactions inside it break atoms into positively charged particles, called ions, and negatively charged particles, called electrons. The ions and electrons move simultaneously from the anode to the cathode, but they move in different streams. The ions move through the battery; the electrons create a circuit through the device, powering it.

In a conventional battery, when all its ions and electrons have moved from the anode to the cathode, the battery is dead. A rechargeable battery can be plugged in to receive new electricity, positioning ions and electrons in the anode to power the device again.

納米世界:一臺安普瑞斯的機器能夠將氣體附著在金屬上,以制造“硅納米線”陽極。圖片來源:Photograph by Christie Hemm Klok for Fortune

電池研發的一個主要目標就是實現“能量密度”的最大化:也就是單位體積或質量的電池中能夠塞進的能量值。它基本上取決于陽極能夠容納的離子數量;有了更多的離子,電池就會有更多可用的電子為設備供電。離子數和陽極至上的理論確立了如今電池研發的兩項重要事實。

第一,基本上現今所有電池的離子都來自于同一種物質:鋰。鋰是一種重量特別輕的元素,這也就意味著其離子非常小,因此,陽極也就可以塞入更多的離子。正是因為這個原因,大多數電子設備,從iPhone到特斯拉,都是采用的“鋰離子”電池。

另一個現實在于,如今電池研發的一個重要方向就是打造更好的陽極:也就是容納海量的鋰離子。

安普瑞斯便是非常有希望在超級陽極方面有所突破的公司之一。該公司的總部位于硅谷,是一家長達十年的初創企業,其大多數業務都位于中國,而且兩國的投資者共同為這家公司傾注了1.4億美元的資金。這些公司包括硅谷風投公司Trident Capital 和Kleiner Perkins、中國私募股權公司軟銀賽富,以及無錫政府旗下的投資公司無錫工業發展集團。安普瑞斯在無錫設有一家很大的電池工廠。與眾多初創企業不同的是,安普瑞斯已經在生產電池,而且面向知名客戶銷售。安普瑞斯的首席執行官孫康稱,公司去年的營收約為5000萬美元。但其技術依然存在很多問題,其未來也是也存在諸多不確定因素。他說,“我們還沒有脫離險境。”

孫康是科技行業專業人士。他十分注重發型,穿著筆挺的襯衣,說話開門見山。他在中國長大,在布朗大學獲得博士學位,并一步步做上了霍尼韋爾的副總裁,隨后回到了中國,幫助組建了JA Solar,后者目前已經是全球最大的太陽能電板制造商。目前,他在舊金山附近居住,開著特斯拉,而且似乎經常在全球各地之間穿梭。

他說,自己當前擔任這家泛太平洋電池初創企業的負責人是“職業生涯中最困難的一項工作。”在與他共度的數個小時中,他嘴里一直會提到一個詞,幾乎是下意識的自語,就像是口頭禪一樣:“不容易。”也就是:“電池科技并不是一件容易的事情。”

讓孫康感到痛苦的來源是:超級陽極令人抓狂的不穩定性。

大多數鋰離子電池的陽極都采用石墨制作,這種材料很便宜,而且廣泛存在。與其他眾多初創企業一樣,安普瑞斯正在試圖采用硅來做陽極,單位克重的硅所能夠容納的鋰離子數量從理論上來講是石墨的10倍。“從理論上來講”是一個巨大的警告。硅作為鋰離子儲存者的優勢也存在著一個重大的缺陷:當硅被塞滿大量的鋰離子之后,它會膨脹。這種膨脹會破壞陽極材料,大幅降低超級電池理應擁有的壽命。

10多年前,斯坦福大學的材料科學教授崔屹開發了一種新的技術來解決硅在陽極的膨脹問題。該技術使用的硅結構在納米級別像是翻轉毛刷上的單根鬃毛。實驗室的實驗證明,在每個單元塞入鋰離子之后仍然有大量的空間進行膨脹,而不會碰到其他的鬃毛,或導致陽極破裂。將這一理念商業化的正是安普瑞斯,該技術又稱為“硅納米線”。

孫康隨即擔任了該公司的首席執行官,他認為自己在經營數年之后就可以將其賣掉或上市,并借此大賺一筆。10年后,他依然是如坐針氈。他說:“公司現在的規模是之前的30倍,否則,我們無錢可賺。”

A major goal in battery research is maximizing “energy density”: the amount of energy that can be shoved into a battery of a given volume or weight. That depends largely on the number of ions its anode can hold; the more ions, the more electrons the battery will have available to keep the device running. This primacy of ions and anode frames two crucial realities of today’s battery quest.

One is that virtually all batteries today get their ions from the same element: lithium. Lithium is a particularly “light” element, which means its ions are particularly small, which means a particularly large number of them can be stuffed into an anode. So most electric devices today, from iPhones to Teslas, are powered by “lithium-ion” batteries.

The other reality is that a crucial part of today’s battery quest is the bid to build a better anode: one that can accommodate especially massive quantities of lithium ions.

Among the many hopefuls trying to perfect a super-anode is Amprius, a decade-old startup with headquarters in Silicon Valley, most of its operations in China, and investors in both countries that collectively have pumped about $140 million into the company. They include Trident Capital and Kleiner Perkins, two Silicon Valley venture capital firms; SAIF Partners, a Chinese private-equity firm; and the Wuxi Industry Development Group, a government-owned investment company in Wuxi, the Chinese city in which Amprius has a sizable battery factory. Unlike many startups, Amprius is already producing batteries and selling them to prominent customers. Amprius had about $50 million in revenue last year, says Kang Sun, the company’s chief executive. But its technology remains buggy, and its future is hardly assured. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says.

Sun is a tech-industry lifer. He favors coiffed hair, pressed shirts, and straight talk. He grew up in China, earned a Ph.D. at Brown, worked his way up to vice president at Honeywell, and then went back to China to help build JA Solar, now one of the world’s largest solar-panel makers. Today he lives near San Francisco, drives a Tesla, and flies seemingly constantly around the world.

His current gig as head of a transpacific battery startup is, he says, “the most difficult job I’ve had in my life.” Over the hours I spent with him, one phrase kept popping out of his mouth, muttered almost subconsciously, as if a mantra: “not easy.” As in: “Battery technology is not easy.”

The source of his lament: the maddening elusiveness of the super-anode.

The anodes in most lithium-ion batteries are made of graphite, a substance that’s cheap and plentiful. Amprius, like many other startups, is trying to make anodes from silicon, which, gram for gram, theoretically can hold 10 times as many lithium ions as graphite can. “Theoretically” is a colossal caveat. Silicon’s upside as a lithium-ion hoarder has a major downside too: When silicon is stuffed with lots of lithium ions, it swells. That swelling can crack the anode material, dramatically shortening a supposed super-battery’s life.

More than a decade ago, a Stanford materials-science professor, Yi Cui, developed a new technique to avert silicon swelling in an anode. It uses a structure of silicon that, at nanoscale, resembles a single bristle of an upturned brush. Lab experiments proved that, as each is stuffed with lithium ions, it has plenty of space to swell without knocking into another bristle and cracking the anode. Amprius is the company created to commercialize the concept, known as “silicon nanowire.”

Sun soon signed on as CEO, figuring he’d spend a few years building Amprius and then flip it or take it public at a handsome profit. A decade later, he’s still on the hot seat. “We have to scale up 30 times bigger,” he says. “Otherwise, we cannot make money.”

****

安普瑞斯位于硅谷心臟加州桑尼維爾的人才中心是一個像碉堡一樣的套房,坐落于一個不起眼的工業園區。墻面十分破舊,家具看起來像是租的,雖然實際上并非如此。我有一天過去參觀的時候看到,男廁所尿池下方的地板上鋪著滿是污點的硬紙板。今年夏天,安普瑞斯將搬到另一個辦公地點,原因在于公司沒有續簽租約,而且新地點的租金更低。安普瑞斯并未將資金用于打造舒適的員工環境,而是用于科研和制造。

在桑尼維爾辦公室的一個實驗室中,裝著安普瑞斯的核心產品:一個房間大小的機器,由安普瑞斯設計,并按照具體規格在歐洲制造,它能夠將硅烷氣體和其他氣體噴在金屬基質上;接下來的化學反應便能夠打造出硅納米線。人們可以通過機器上的美國銀幣大小的窺視孔觀察這一過程,氣體在輸送過程中是一團紫色的霧靄。整個過程中的所有環節都十分復雜和講究,包括氣體成分、進入時的壓力和溫度,基質在機器內部運輸帶上的傳輸速度。

機器生產的陽極材料為軍艦灰雙面卷狀物。該材料每一面的一平方厘米封裝了約20萬根硅納米線。這些材料在分割后被送到多個小實驗室房間,身穿白外套、戴著藍手術面罩的員工將通過手工來組裝電池。安普瑞斯表示,其中最好的電池的能量密度要比傳統的鋰電池高60%。但它的一個缺陷在于,其充放電次數不如傳統的鋰電池,這也是安普瑞斯正在努力改善的問題。

安普瑞斯最先進的電池技術引起了美國軍方的注意,后者正在測試其在服裝上的使用情況,士兵可能會穿著這些服裝在野外為其設備充電。到目前為止,該電池的最大買家是空客。作為Zephyr項目的一部分,空客正在名為高海拔假衛星(HAPS)的無人機上測試這些電池。去年12月,這兩家公司宣布,其中一架由安普瑞斯電池供電的空客無人機飛行時長超過了25天,“創下了平流層飛行的新耐力和高度記錄。”

對于孫康來說,空客合約既是其救生索,也是一張警示牌。他說,對于這些電池,“我們向空客開出了天價”。“這種價格是不可持續的”。換句話說,在桑尼維爾打造的這些電池類似于在薩維爾街(世界最頂級西服手工縫制圣地——譯者注)縫制的西服:量身定做、昂貴,因此具有風險。孫康在談到加州業務時表示:“如果這項業務無法規模化,那么將難以生存。”

Amprius’s intellectual hub, in Sunnyvale, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, is a bunker-like suite in an unremarkable industrial park. The walls are scuffed, the furniture looks rented even though it isn’t, and one day when I visit, the floor under the men’s-room urinals is lined with cardboard sheets pocked with stains. This summer, Amprius is moving to a different office; it’s moving because its lease wasn’t renewed, but it will pay lower rent. Money at Amprius isn’t spent on creature comforts. It’s spent on science and manufacturing.

In a lab of the Sunnyvale office is Amprius’s crown jewel: a room-sized machine, designed by Amprius and built in Europe to its specifications, that applies a mix of silane gas and other gases to a metal substrate; the resulting chemical reaction creates the silicon nanowires. Visible through a peephole in the machine about the diameter of a silver dollar, the gas-application process is a purple haze. Everything about it is intricate and finicky: the composition of the gases; the pressure and temperature at which they’re shot in; the speed at which the substrate moves along the conveyor belt inside the machine.

Once the anode material comes out of the machine, in a double-sided roll that’s battleship gray, it packs about 200,000 silicon nanowires per square centimeter per side. It’s cut and sent into a series of small lab rooms, where workers in white coats and blue surgical masks assemble batteries essentially by hand. Amprius says the best of these batteries have an energy density about 60% higher than that of conventional lithium-ion batteries. One downside is that they don’t withstand as many discharges and charges as conventional batteries—something Amprius is working to improve.

Amprius’s cutting-edge batteries have piqued the interest of the U.S. Army, which is testing them for use in clothing that soldiers might wear to power the devices they use in the field. By far the batteries’ biggest buyer is Airbus. As part of a program dubbed Zephyr, Airbus is testing them on unmanned planes known as high-altitude pseudo-satellites, or HAPS. Last December, the two companies announced that one of the Airbus vehicles powered by Amprius batteries flew for more than 25 days, “setting a new endurance and altitude record for stratospheric flight.”

To Sun, the Airbus contract is both a lifeline and a yellow flag. “We charge them a crazy price” for the batteries, he says. “That kind of price is not sustainable.” The batteries crafted in Sunnyvale, in other words, are akin to suits sewn on Savile Row: bespoke, expensive, and therefore at risk. “If it cannot scale up,” Sun says of the California operation, “it will die.”

重金屬:海運集裝箱裝載著Vionx“流體”電池,它儲存著由馬薩諸塞州伍斯特風能渦輪機所發的電力。圖片來源:Photograph by Jesse Burke for Fortune

空客有充足的理由為安普瑞斯的天價電池買單。它正在努力開發和商業化一個成本更低的衛星替代方案,以及可行的電動空中出租機隊,并在這一方面超越包括波音在內的對手。A3 by Airbus的首席執行官馬克·卡辛指出,“市場上有數千家公司”稱自己擁有電池領域的未來突破性技術。A3 by Airbus是空客在桑尼維爾設立的創新中心,離安普瑞斯并不遠。然而,除了安普瑞斯之外,“我們并沒有看到有任何證據表明,任何公司可以在中短期內拿出已經足夠成熟的電池,并將其裝入某款產品。”

與此同時,安普瑞斯在中國正在追逐一個更廣闊的市場。在南京這座孫康長大的中國南部都市,安普瑞斯設立了另一個實驗室,致力于開發不像其硅納米線技術那么稀有、但高出行業標準的陽極材料。它是一個納米級的硅結構,呈粉末狀,然后與傳統的石墨粉進行混合。隨后產生的石墨-硅混合物在一家傳統的電池廠進行加工。與傳統電池相比,這種添加硅的簡單做法通常可將能量密度提升15%。雖然其改善效果遠低于硅納米線材質,但成本要低得多。

在我到訪南京的那天早上,金屬貨架上放置著數十袋硅粉。在我這位業余人士的眼中,這些粉末跟研磨后的咖啡差不多,唯一的區別在于褐色的深淺。有一些類似于法式烘焙咖啡,其他則屬于輕度烘焙版。安普瑞斯正在向美國、歐洲、日本、韓國和中國各大汽車制造商銷售這種材料進行測試。它還將粉末運到安普瑞斯于2016年在無錫附近建造的工廠。

當我到訪無錫工廠時,工廠正在大量生產兒童智能手表和消費電池組使用的電池。工廠還為一家中國無人機制造商生產電池。被派往引導我參觀的科研人員翟傳新(音譯)說,它對于工廠最近獲得表電池的合約感到尤為自豪。為此,公司圍繞能量密度與全球最大電池制造商之一的中國新能源科技有限公司展開了激烈競爭。翟傳新提到了無錫廠服務的另一名客戶:一家使用電池制作寒冷天氣氧供應機器的公司。他說,這家公司向中國軍方銷售機器,在西藏用于醫療用途。

這一點反映了在美中兩國均有業務的眾多電池公司所面臨的敏感問題。孫康說,在兩國關系緊張之際,安普瑞斯必須在投資者和客戶選擇方面慎之又慎。他是美國公民,稱自己更喜歡美國的生活環境。但商業就是商業:安普瑞斯剛剛完成了3000萬美元的融資輪,而且所有資金來自于中國投資者。孫康解釋說,電池市場“屬于中國業務”。他對我說,作為第二祖國的美國“應該醒醒了”。

Airbus has compelling reasons to pay Amprius’s price. It is trying to outpace its rivals, including Boeing, in developing and commercializing both a less-expensive alternative to satellites and a viable fleet of electric-powered air taxis. “There are hundreds of startups out there” claiming they have the next big thing in batteries, says Mark Cousin, chief executive of A3 by Airbus, an innovation center the company has set up in Sunnyvale, not far from Amprius. But, other than Amprius, “we’ve not seen any evidence that any of the companies are close to having something that could potentially be mature enough to be integrated into a product in the short to medium term.”

In China, meanwhile, Amprius is chasing a broader market. In Nanjing, the southern Chinese metropolis in which Sun grew up, Amprius has another laboratory where it’s developing an anode material less rarefied than its silicon-nanowire technology but still more advanced than the industry norm. It’s a nanoscale structure of silicon manufactured as a powder and then combined with traditional graphite powder. The resulting graphite-silicon mixture is run through a conventional battery plant. This modest silicon boost typically raises a battery’s energy density by up to 15% beyond a traditional lithium-ion battery’s. That’s far less than the improvement from the silicon-nanowire material, but it’s radically cheaper.

On the morning I visit Nanjing, dozens of bags of the silicon powder are stacked on a metal shelf. To my untrained eye, they resemble ground coffee, differing only in their shade of brown. Some evoke French roast; others, a lighter blend. Amprius is supplying the material to various U.S., European, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese automakers for testing. It also trucks the powder to a factory in nearby Wuxi that was built for Amprius in 2016.

When I visit the Wuxi factory, it’s cranking out batteries for children’s smartwatches and for consumer battery packs. The factory also makes batteries for a Chinese dronemaker. Chuanxin Zhai, a scientist there who has been dispatched to walk me around, says he’s particularly proud the factory won a recent contract for the watch batteries. It did so after an intense competition over energy density with Amperex Technology Ltd., or ATL, a Chinese company that’s one of the biggest battery makers in the world. Zhai mentions another customer for which the Wuxi factory has made batteries: a firm that uses them to make cold-weather oxygen-?supply machines. That firm, he says, sells the machines to the Chinese military, for medical use in Tibet.

That hints at the sensitivities facing many battery companies with footprints in both the U.S. and China. Amid tensions between the two countries, Sun says, Amprius has to be careful about whom it accepts as investors and customers. He’s a U.S. citizen and says he prefers American living. But commerce is commerce: Amprius is just finishing a $30 million fundraising round, and all of that money is coming from Chinese investors. The market for batteries, Sun explains, “is a Chinese business.” His adopted country, he tells me, “needs to wake up.”

****

與孫先生一樣,大衛·維尤是科技行業的資深人士,曾經耗費10年的時間試圖創建一家電池廠。與孫先生不同的是,維尤(他說自己的名字與“view”同音)曾經歷過失敗的痛苦。

2012年,維尤幫助創建的鋰電池公司A123 Systems申請破產,令人唏噓不已。自從10年前創建以來,A123已經籌集了3.5億美元的私募資金,在美國納稅人配對基金上花費了1.29億美元,然后在大肆宣揚的2009年首次公開募股中收獲了3.9億美元的資金。

A123在創建時曾經設想,公司會獲得來自于通用汽車和其他汽車制造商電動車電池供應合約,不料這些公司大幅削減了生產計劃。A123對某些電池的召回也帶來了不利影響。在破產之后,評論員批評A123是美國補貼本國清潔能源這類荒唐事件的典型代表。A123電池的大多數業務在2013年被賣給了中國零部件公司萬向集團。自從那時開始,中國便開始舉全國之力打造全球領先的電池行業。

在遭遇了A123的內爆之后,維尤認為他已經受夠了電池業務,但隨后又改變了想法。如今,他又開始經營一家電池初創公司,在這個競爭對手林立的行業努力拼搏。然而,這一次他并不打算改進鋰電池,而是要取代它。

維尤是Vionx Energy的董事兼前任首席執行官,這是一家位于馬薩諸塞州波士頓沃博恩郊區的初創企業。投資者,尤其是風投資本公司,到目前為止已經向Vionx和其前身注資1.3億美元。Vionx(維尤在談到這個名稱時指出它是一個“很傻的名字,但這些人一直都很傻”,其發音是“Vy-on-ix”)尋求批量生產一種完全不同的電池,一種可以通過盈利的形式儲存超長時長的大量可再生能源的電池。Vionx是一群公司的集合,它們致力于開發的電網儲存技術在功能和尺寸上并不怎么像電池,而更像是發電廠。

電網儲存領域的種子公司并沒有像鋰電池競爭者那樣,在納米級別擺弄航天材料,而是一塊塊金屬、工業泵和管道,以及一次性往巨大儲罐中傾倒數千加侖的化學制品。

Vionx這個特殊的精巧裝置被稱為“流體電池”。在大規模工作的情況下,它可以提供約10個小時的低成本電量儲存,如果儲罐更大的話,時長會更長。過去幾年中,流體電池已經成為了能源行業類似于笑柄的存在。人們在這一技術規模化方面的種種嘗試均以失敗告終,不僅是因為這種技術會出現各種小故障,而且還在于由化石燃料支撐的電網并不需要儲存多少電能。

維尤現如今堅持認為,兩大根本性的改變——更好的技術以及可再生能源價格的大幅降低——意味著過去并非是序曲。太陽能價格在過去10年中下降了70%,再加上最近降價的風能,正在推動對能源儲存的需求。與此同時,研究機構Wood Mackenzie稱,電網規模存儲系統(電池和建立系統所需的各類工具)的價格自從2010年以來已經下降了85%。

嚴肅的強勢選手如今正在投資電網儲存技術。Exelon便是其中一家公司,它在2018年的營收達到了359億美元,在今年的《財富》美國500強榜單上排名第93位,擁有約1000萬名客戶。公司正在試驗大型電池,并將注資電池科技投資公司Volta。Exelon的企業策略高級副總裁克里斯·高爾德表示,公司已經完成了向太陽能的轉變,儲存業務將得到加強,公司也將從中盈利。

Like Sun, David Vieau is a tech-industry veteran with decade spent trying to build a battery company. Unlike Sun, Vieau (he pronounces it “View”) has experienced the bitterness of defeat.

In 2012, A123 Systems, the lithium-ion company Vieau helped create, filed for bankruptcy, a stunning fall. Since its founding a decade earlier, A123 had raised $350 million in private capital, spent $129 million in matching-grant funds from U.S. taxpayers, and earned about $390 million in a much-ballyhooed 2009 IPO.

A123 had built factories on the assumption it would win contracts to supply batteries for electric cars from GM and other automakers, only to see those companies drastically dial back production plans. An A123 recall of certain batteries didn’t help. In the wake of the bankruptcy, critics pilloried A123 as a poster child for what they deemed the folly of the United States subsidizing a domestic clean-energy industry. Most of A123’s battery business was sold in 2013 to Wanxiang Group, an auto-parts company from China, a country that by then had initiated a national push to build up a globally dominant battery sector.

Chastened by the A123 implosion, Vieau figured he’d had enough of the battery business. Then he changed his mind. Today, he is again steering a battery startup that’s fighting a crowded field. This time, though, he isn’t trying to perfect lithium-ion technology. He’s trying to beat it.

Vieau is a director and former CEO of Vionx Energy, a startup based in the Boston suburb of Woburn, Mass. Investors, primarily venture capital firms, have so far poured about $130 million into Vionx and a predecessor company. Vionx—“stupid name, but they always are,” Vieau tells me of the moniker, which is pronounced “Vy-on-ix”—seeks to scale up a wholly different kind of battery, one that can profitably store vast quantities of renewable energy for many hours. Vionx is one of a gathering stampede of companies developing grid-storage technologies that look less like batteries and more, in both function and size, like power plants.

Rather than tweaking space-age materials at nanoscale, as lithium-ion contenders are doing, grid-storage hopefuls work with slabs of metal, industrial pumps and pipes, and chemical brews dumped thousands of gallons at a time into massive tanks.

Vionx’s specific contraption is called a “flow battery.” If it works at scale, it could provide up to about 10 hours of economic storage—perhaps more, with bigger tanks. Over the years, flow batteries have become something of a joke in the energy world. Myriad efforts to scale them up have flopped, both because the technology has been glitchy and because the fossil-fueled grid hasn’t needed much storage.

Vieau’s bet today is that two fundamental changes—better technology and plummeting renewable-energy prices—mean past isn’t prologue. Solar prices have fallen 70% over the past decade. That, plus newly cheap wind power, is boosting demand for energy storage. At the same time, according to Wood Mackenzie, the price of grid-scale-storage systems—the batteries and the rest of the kit necessary to set them up—has fallen 85% since 2010. (See sidebar at left.)

Serious power players are now investing in grid-storage technologies. One is Exelon, which had 2018 revenue of $35.9 billion, is No. 93 on this year’s Fortune 500, and has about 10 million customers. It is experimenting with big batteries and is writing checks to Volta, the battery-tech investment firm. Chris Gould, Exelon’s senior vice president for corporate strategy, says the company has concluded the shift to solar and storage will intensify and that Exelon can profit from it.

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然而事實是:到目前為止,存儲提供的電量僅占電網電量的一小部分。Wood Mac?kenzie稱,2018年共計儲存了6000兆瓦時的電量。這是全球的數字,但還不到福克蘭群島一年一半的用電量。即便電網存儲市場在2017至2024年的經濟價值能夠按照Wood Mackenzie的預期增長8倍,屆時它仍然只是電動汽車電池市場價值的十分之一。

只要存在,電網存儲通常就是政府補貼和強制政策的產物。即便政府提供此類支持,電網存儲往往會集中出現在特定的地區,也就是那些可再生能源能夠發揮最大經濟優勢的地區,例如加州和夏威夷。這些地區有著尤為充足的日照和風能,而且化石燃料價格異常高昂。

這些在電網上的能量存儲容量如今也就只是幾大堆鋰電池的電量。這對于全世界來說是一個不利的消息,但維尤希望它會成為Vionx的機會。鋰電池已經霸占了玩具、表、手機、電動車等移動設備的市場,因為它能夠將大量的電力塞入一小塊電池中。但如今的電網規模鋰電池組建僅能儲存幾個小時的電量,然后又得再充電。在遇到難以預料的太陽能或風能下滑時,它倒是足以在化石燃料產生的電力回升和輸出之前穩定電網。但還遠不足以支撐將全球電力系統從化石燃料改為可再生能源。

Reality check: So far, storage provides only a tiny amount of power to the grid. In 2018, according to Wood Mac?kenzie, there was enough for about 6,000 megawatt-hours of electricity. That’s for the whole world, and it’s less than half the amount of electricity the Falkland Islands use in a year. Even if the grid-storage market achieves the eightfold increase in economic value between 2017 and 2024 that Wood Mackenzie expects, it still will be just one-tenth the value of the electric-car-battery market at that point.

Where it exists, grid storage typically is a creature of government subsidies and mandates. And even given that support, it tends to be concentrated in places, such as California and Hawaii, where renewable energy enjoys maximal economic advantage: places with particularly strong sun and wind and with particularly high fossil-fueled-power prices.

What little energy storage is on the grid today generally amounts to big racks of lithium-ion batteries. That’s a problem for the world—and, Vieau hopes, an opportunity for Vionx. The lithium-ion battery has cornered the market for movable things—toys, watches, phones, electric cars—because it packs a lot of energy into a small package. But today’s grid-scale lithium-ion installations typically can store only a few hours’ worth of juice before they need a recharge. That’s sufficient to stabilize a grid, in the event of an unexpected drop in solar or wind power, until more fossil-fueled electricity can be cranked up and wired out. But it’s nowhere near enough to flip the global power system from fossil fuels to renewables.

液體資產:用于測試Vionx流體電池的設備,它依賴于一罐罐的化學原料來儲存電能。圖片來源:Photograph by Jesse Burke for Fortune

Vionx為其技術服務提供了一個可能的答案。在馬薩諸塞州的三個由政府資助的測試地點中,Vionx已經部署了裝著其流體電池的集裝箱原型。它們由一堆堆的泵和管道,以及塑料和金屬構成,維尤自己將其稱為“Rube Goldberg”。

在馬薩諸塞州雪里,Vionx正在等待與一大片中國造太陽能電板相連。在完成安裝和運行之后,它應該可以儲存可供160個家庭使用的電量。我在一個下午參觀了廠址,氣溫是如此之低,我的手指在記筆記后都麻木了。我親眼看到,這個系統實在是太大了,與我如今認為鋰電池可以塞入口袋,或至少能塞入背包的想法可謂是天壤之別,但維尤不這么認為。他說,Vionx系統需要達到電廠的規模才能行得通。“否則,就只是個花瓶。”

Vionx在位于沃博恩的總部設計和組裝了這些系統,只不過總部看起來更像是商業車庫而不是實驗室。到處都是大的可以灌籃的桶,不過,鑒于里面裝的都是電池液,要灌籃的話實在是不明智。

Vionx的工程業務副總裁沙扎德·巴特帶我參觀了工廠。他是一位汽車專家,在福特汽車工作了很多年,然后來到了A123,隨后又加入了Vionx。他用平淡的密歇根口音對我說,鋰電池是“儲能行業的法拉利,我們這個是卡車。”

Vionx基于由聯合技術公司開發和授權的技術。它使用金屬釩作為其化學原料能量載體。但初創企業面臨兩大根本性挑戰。一個是供應。釩是一種在全球流通的商品,其價格波動很大。目前的價格很高,不利于Vionx的經濟效益。另一個挑戰在于需求。促使電網儲能市場成形的政府已經出臺政策支持鋰電池系統,但鋰電池通常只能提供4個小時的備用供電時間,而且會出現性能衰減,每過幾年就得更換。但Vionx龐大的系統在成本方面具有競爭優勢,能夠提供10小時的儲存電量,而且可以持續20多年的時間,基本上不會衰減。系統龐大的體形會帶來更高的初始成本,估計只有寄希望于更多小時的電量銷售才能進行分攤。如果購買的Vionx系統只能夠提供4小時的備用電量,那么就不亞于購買噴燈來點雪茄。

維尤在波士頓一家他最喜愛的使用白色餐桌布的餐廳享用生蠔、魚肉晚餐時說:“這是個很大的問題。”這個問題并不陌生。他發現自己陷入了在A123時遭遇的同樣困境:他確信儲能設備在技術上已經做好了準備,但市場并不需要,至少目前不需要。他喝了口法國霞多麗紅酒,然后說:“問題在于,‘以后是否會有那么一天,可再生能源加儲能設備會比煤炭更便宜?’如今我依然堅信這一點,正如我在2004年就認為電動汽車會大行其道一樣。但問題在于,這一天何時才能到來。”

Vionx contends its technology offers one possible answer. At three government-funded test sites in Massachusetts, Vionx has deployed prototype collections of shipping containers that house its flow batteries. They’re mazes of pumps and pipes, of plastic and metal, that Vieau himself describes as “Rube Goldberg.”

In Shirley, Mass., a Vionx battery is waiting to be hooked up to a field of Chinese-made solar panels. When it’s up and running, it should be able to store enough energy to power about 160 homes. I visit the site on a late afternoon so cold my fingers, as I scribble notes, feel numb. To my eyes, accustomed by now to lithium-ion batteries that would fit in my backpack if not in my pocket, the system looks gargantuan. Not to Vieau. Vionx’s systems, he says, need to be the size of power plants to be viable. “Otherwise, it’s a joke.”

Vionx designs and assembles these systems at its headquarters in Woburn, which looks more like a commercial garage than a lab. Scattered around it are tubs big enough to take a dunk in, though, given that they’re filled with battery acid, that would be unwise.

Shazad Butt, Vionx’s vice president of engineering, gives me a tour. He’s a car guy, having worked for years at Ford Motor before ?moving to A123 and later to Vionx. The lithium-ion battery is “the Ferrari of storage,” he tells me in his flat Michigan accent. “This being the truck.”

Vionx is based on technology developed by and licensed from United Technologies. It uses vanadium, a metal, as the energy carrier in its chemical soup. But the startup faces two fundamental challenges. One is supply. Vanadium is a global commodity with a fluctuating price. Right now, prices are high, undermining Vionx’s economics. The other problem is demand. Government policies, which shape the grid-storage market, were written to support lithium-ion systems, which typically can provide about four hours of backup and which degrade and need to be replaced every few years. But Vionx’s system is sized to be economically competitive for about 10 hours of storage—and to last 20 years or more with essentially no degradation. The system’s beefiness brings higher initial capital costs that pencil out only when amortized over more hours of electricity sales. Buying a Vionx system to produce four hours of juice would be like buying a blowtorch to light a cigar.

“It’s a big issue,” says Vieau, reflecting over a dinner of oysters and fish at one of his favorite white-?tablecloth restaurants in Boston. It’s also a familiar one. He finds himself at Vionx today in much the same dilemma that he did at A123: with an energy-storage device that he’s convinced is technologically ready but that the market doesn’t want, at least not yet. “The question is, ‘Can you get to a point where renewable energy plus storage is cheaper than coal?’ And the answer is yes,” he says, sipping a French Chardonnay. “I’m as convinced today that this is a reality as I was in 2004 that the electric car was going to happen. But the question is, when is it going to happen?”

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Vionx只不過是眾多面臨這一困境的電網儲能種子選手之一。另一家是Form Energy,這家初創企業部分源自于麻省理工學院材料科學教授蔣業明的實驗室。蔣業明曾經與維尤共事,是A123背后的科技參謀。Form Energy籌集了1100萬美元,同時最近還獲得了美國能源部390萬美元的撥款。其他投資者包括比爾·蓋茨創建的10億美元清潔能源基金Breakthrough Energy Ventures、不知名的其他全球億萬富翁,以及石油巨頭沙特阿美。

Form Energy希望以較為經濟的方式打造能夠長久供電的儲能設備,不僅僅只是10小時,而是數天或數周的時間。其高管認為有必要讓電網上可再生能源的比例達到真正能夠替代化石燃料的地步。From Energy意圖利用獲得的聯邦政府撥款打造以硫為關鍵原料的系統。蔣業明在馬薩諸塞州劍橋市充滿陽光的辦公室聊天時并沒有表明Form希望商業化的儲能設備是否會使用硫。然而,用詞十分小心的他說道,“硫是最具吸引力、有著豐富儲量的分子。”如果用非科學的語言來解釋,“豐富儲量”等同于價格便宜。

離蔣業明辦公室僅有數個街區的地方,我拜訪了去年從X剝離出來的初創企業Malta。X是谷歌母公司的“臭鼬工廠”。與Form一樣,基于斯坦福大學科技的Malta計劃使用巨型儲罐和泵來儲存可供數天或更長時間使用的電力。但Malta的科技是將能量以熱量的形式儲存,公司認為這種方式更加經濟。Malta的投資者包括瑞典熱交換設備制造商Breakthrough Energy Ventures,和一家中國可再生能源生產商。整個故事就像一個初創企業紀錄片,公司源自于劍橋市的一個共享工作室,冷凝咖啡和康普茶自由彌漫在整個空間,會議室均以歷史上偉大的土木工程項目命名。Malta的首席執行官拉姆亞·斯瓦米納山對我說,她希望公司在大約五年內推出產品。最令她感到擔心的是,公司正在為一個當前并不存在的市場設計一款復雜的機械設備。她表示:“這有點像盲人摸象,我們一直在摸索著尋找出路。”

Vionx is but one of many grid-storage hopefuls wrestling with that dilemma. Another is Form Energy, a startup that grew in part out of the laboratory of Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT materials-science professor who worked with Vieau as the technological mind behind A123. Form has raised about $11 million, plus a recent $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Among its other investors are Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion clean-energy-technology fund established by Bill Gates and a who’s who of other global billionaires, and Saudi Aramco, the oil giant.

Form aspires to affordably produce radically long-term energy storage—enough not just for 10 hours but for several days or even weeks, which its executives argue will be necessary to reach percentages of renewable energy on the grid that really will phase out fossil fuels. The federal grant Form won was to build a system using sulfur as a key ingredient. Chiang, chatting in his sunny office in Cambridge, Mass., won’t say whether the storage device Form hopes to commercialize will use sulfur. But, choosing his words carefully, he says that “sulfur appears to be one of the most attractive, earth-abundant molecules.” Nonscientific translation of “earth-abundant”: cheap.

A few blocks from Chiang’s office, I visit Malta, a startup spun out last year from X, the skunkworks of Alphabet, Google’s parent. Like Form, Malta, based on Stanford technology, plans to use giant tanks and pumps to store energy for several days or more. But its technology aspires to store energy as heat, an arrangement it sees as more economic. Malta’s investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a Swedish heat-exchange-equipment maker, and a Chinese renewable-energy producer. As if out of a startup documentary, the company is based in a shared workspace in Cambridge where cold-brew coffee and kombucha flow freely and the conference rooms are named for grand projects of civil engineering throughout history. Ramya Swaminathan, Malta’s chief executive, tells me she hopes to have a product on the market in about five years. What most worries her is that Malta is designing a complex piece of machinery for a market that doesn’t yet exist. “It’s the blind man and the elephant,” she notes. “We’re all feeling our way through.”

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我所到訪的電網儲能初創企業和鋰電池公司之間存在著巨大的差別。專注電動車市場的公司看起來更加疲憊,因為市場目前就希望獲得更好的鋰電池。

回到沃博恩,少數其他電池初創企業距離Vionx并不遠。其中一家是Ionic Materials,它的創始人是一位沉默寡言的材料科學家邁克·茲莫曼。那天早上我到訪時,他還裹著一條L.L. Bean的抓絨夾克。他在整個職業生涯都在與塑料打交道,包括他在知名的企業科研設備供應商貝爾實驗室工作的那段時間。

茲莫曼在近10年前便開始思考如何為電池制作更好的聚合物。他研發出的一種聚合物在室溫情況下能夠讓離子自由流動。這就讓以低成本方式制作無需液體電解質的電池成為了可能。茲莫曼說,“固態電池”可以更安全,而且具有更高的能量密度。

Ionic Materials的投資者包括諸多知名的跨國公司,例如雷諾-尼桑-三菱聯盟、法國石油公司道達爾以及韓國汽車制造商現代。其他投資者包括自身擁有電池產品的日本巨頭日立,以及儲能行業基金Volta。

茲莫曼的團隊有50人,正在努力減少聚合物的厚度,增強其強度、一致性,并降低其成本。他希望經過一切準備之后,在未來幾年推出產品。他坐在一塊寫著“我們信科學”的掛鐘下,用空咖啡杯敲著桌子,并說道,“這真的是太難了,整個過程令人頭疼不已。”

There’s a palpable difference between the grid-storage startups and the lithium-ion-battery companies I visit. The firms eyeing the electric-car market seem even more harried—because the market wants a better lithium-ion battery right now.

Back in Woburn, a handful of other battery startups sit not far from Vionx. One is Ionic Materials, the brainchild of Michael Zimmerman, a laconic materials scientist who, on the morning I visit, is wrapped in an L.L. Bean fleece jacket. He has spent his career—including several years at Bell Labs, the famed corporate-research outfit—burrowing away on plastics.

Zimmerman began tinkering with how to make better polymers for batteries nearly a decade ago. He has come up with a polymer that, at room temperature, allows ions to flow freely. That raises the possibility of affordably producing a battery that doesn’t need a liquid electrolyte—a “solid-state” battery, which could be safer and, Zimmerman says, even more energy-dense.

Ionic Materials counts among its investors a potent list of multinationals, including the Renault--Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance; Total, the French oil company; and Hyundai, the Korean automaker. Other investors include Hitachi, the Japanese conglomerate whose products include batteries; and Volta, the energy-storage fund.

Zimmerman’s team of about 50 people is struggling to make the polymer thinner, stronger, more uniform, and cheaper—all in preparation, he hopes, for launching production over the next few years. “This is really hard,” he says, sitting under a wall clock whose face reads, “In Science We Trust,” and tapping the table with his empty coffee cup. “It’s a headbanging process.”

未來的電池:Vionx的技術人員陳剛(音譯)為流體電池堆建造控制單元。圖片來源:Photograph by Jesse Burke for Fortune

離Ionic Materials不到1英里的地方坐落著Solid Energy Systems,該公司研發的產品在外界看來更加前衛。公司的創始人胡啟朝對固態電池的理念不屑一顧。他指出,它的安全性能可能更好,但無法容納足夠的電量。他認為硅陽極也屬于類似乏善可陳的技術。33歲的胡啟朝成長于中國武漢,于麻省理工學院獲得學士學位,并從哈佛大學拿到了博士學位。他正在努力實現商業化的技術被電池研究人員視為圣物:一款可以秒殺鋰電池內硅元素的陽極,因為陽極本身由金屬鋰制作。

多年來,問題一直在于安全性。鋰金屬電池在充電時有一個特別的特性,因為這類物質在陽極的積累可能會擊穿隔板,并導致短路和起火。胡啟朝對此并不感到擔憂。他堅信,自家電池不會比在售鋰電池危險。他將其稱為“超越鋰離子”的存在,并希望在明年開始面向無人機銷售。他對我說:“盡管鋰電池汽車也有著火的情況,但人們依然在購買,因此這款電池也是可以接受的。”

胡啟朝是個雷厲風行的人。他打算盡快讓公司上市,因為時間就是金錢。他對我說:“一旦首家超越鋰電池公司上市,它將吸引所有的投資。行業中的每一家企業都想爭做第一。”

我們早上7點半在沃博恩開會,胡啟朝遲到了幾分鐘,手里拿著一個大大的旅行杯,里面裝著茶水。這兩個現象都是可以理解的,因為從他在新澤西的家到這里要開車3.5小時,他每周都得往返一次。

當我在上海見到胡啟朝之后去參觀Solid Energy正在嘉定修建的工廠時,他穿著皺巴巴的斜紋褲和滿是灰塵的工作靴——一周之后仍然是這一套。嘉定這個地區也有著很多首要的汽車制造工廠。多名投資者跟隨著胡啟朝穿過了整個工廠,那里的空氣中滿是新刷油漆的味道。這些投資者總共向Solid Energy注入了9000萬美元的資金,其中包括上汽集團(總部位于上海的中國最大的汽車制造商)和天齊鋰業(全球最大的鋰生產商之一,原料來自于礦石)。Solid Energy的其他投資商還包括:通用汽車和SK。

如此眾多的大公司一再出現在電池行業的現象凸顯了業界尋求技術突破的迫切心態。在SK的韓國園區,也就是策略師黃在尹不愿向我展示的研發樓,黃在尹稱他們在專注于改善陰極,并在降低隔板厚度的同時確保其安全性。SK感受到了競爭的熱浪,這也是公司為什么會通過支持Solid Energy來為自身賭注加固的原因。黃在尹稱,“如果所有的技術都由自己來研發,會存在一定的風險。”

全球最大的汽車制造商之一的大眾也同意這一觀點。這也是為什么公司去年宣布向另一家硅谷電池初創企業QuantumScape投資1億美元的原因。這筆投資也擴大了大眾與SK和其他大型電池制造商的合約。作為其綠色重構的一部分,大眾稱到2030年,公司銷售的40%的汽車都是電動汽車。大眾的采購負責人史蒂芬·索莫表示,“我們現在就必須做出決定,選誰以及在哪里選擇合作伙伴,從而確保大量的電池供應能力。這是在短時間內獲取如此大量供應能力的唯一方法。”

而這一舉措也凸顯了電池競賽的混亂局面及其重要性。盡管各國政府為主導電池產業,保護其國家安全而承諾不斷增加國家在這一方面的資金投入,然而事實上,電池行業是一個不斷全球化的網絡。越來越多的電池公司都擁有來自于不同國家的知識產權、投資者和供應商,其客戶更是如此。這些公司的國別,到底是美國、中國還是其他國家,正在變得越來越模糊。從眾多方面來看,電池競賽似乎不大可能按照既定的模式發展。對于消費者和地球來說,這可能是一件非常好的事情。對于決策者、投資者以及化石燃料時代的企業巨頭來說,這也大大增加了它們掌控競賽的難度。(財富中文網)

本文另一版本登載于《財富》雜志2019年6月刊,標題為《制造更好電池的競賽》。

譯者:馮豐

審校:夏林

Less than a mile from Ionic Materials sits Solid Energy Systems, which is taking an arguably more daring approach. Qichao Hu, the company’s founder, scoffs at the notion of a solid-state battery, saying it may be safer but won’t pack enough energy. He considers a silicon anode similarly ho-hum. Hu, just 33, grew up in Wuhan, China, and got his bachelor’s degree from MIT and his Ph.D. from Harvard. He’s committed to commercializing what among battery researchers has long been seen as a Holy Grail: an anode that will dwarf even silicon in its lithium content because the anode itself is made of lithium metal.

The problem, for years, has been safety. Lithium-metal batteries have a particular propensity, during charging, for the buildup of substances on the anode that can pierce the separator, which can create a short circuit and cause a fire. Hu isn’t worried. He’s confident his battery, which he calls “beyond lithium-ion” and hopes to begin selling for drones next year, will be no more dangerous than those now on the market. “You have cars catching on fire, and still people buy them,” he tells me. “So it’s acceptable.”

Hu talks and works fast. He’s intent on taking his company public as soon as possible, because time is money. “Once the first beyond-lithium company goes public, it’s going to suck up all the investment,” he tells me. “Every one of us wants to be the first.”

Hu has arrived at our 7:30 a.m. meeting in Woburn a few minutes late, a massive travel mug of tea in hand. Both are understandable, given that he has just driven 3.5 hours to the office from his home in New Jersey, a commute he makes weekly.

He’s wearing rumpled blue chinos and dusty work boots—and he’s wearing an identical outfit a week later, when I meet Hu in Shanghai to tour the factory that Solid Energy is building there, in Jiading, a district that also houses major auto factories. Trailing Hu as he walks through the site, the air heavy with the fumes of still-fresh paint, are representatives of several of the investors who in total have poured about $90 million into Solid Energy. They include SAIC Motor, China’s largest automaker, which is based in Shanghai; and Tianqi Lithium, a Chinese company that’s one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, a material that is mined. Among Solid Energy’s other investors: GM and SK.

That many big companies pop up repeatedly across the battery-startup landscape indicates how urgent the technological quest has become. Back on SK’s Korea campus, in the R&D buildings that Hwang, the strategist, won’t let me see, they’re focusing, he says, on improving the cathode and on engineering a separator that’s thin but still safe. SK feels the competitive heat, which is why it’s hedging its bets by backing startups such as Solid Energy. “If we develop things all by ourself,” Hwang says, “it has some risk.”

VW, one of the world’s biggest automakers, agrees. That’s why it announced last year it was investing $100 million in yet another Silicon Valley battery startup, called QuantumScape, an investment that augments VW’s contracts with SK and other huge battery makers. As part of its green remaking, VW says 40% of the vehicles it sells will be battery-powered by 2030. “We need to make decisions right now—who and where is the partner—to secure this enormous quantity of batteries,” says Stefan Sommer, VW’s head of procurement. “It’s the only way to ramp up this huge capacity in this short period of time.”

And that points to a messy yet fundamental reality about the battery race. Despite mounting chest-thumping in national capitals that individual countries must dominate it to safeguard their national security, in practice the battery sector is an increasingly global web. More and more battery firms embody an international mix of intellectual property, investors, and suppliers, to say nothing of customers. Whether these firms are American, or Chinese, or something else is less and less clear. In so many ways, the battery race appears unlikely to stay within established lanes. For consumers and the planet, that may be a very good thing. For policymakers, investors, and the corporate giants of the fossil-fuel era, it will make the race increasingly hard to navigate.

A version of this article appears in the June 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Race To Build A Better Battery.”

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