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Business

Dyson invests big in batteries

Maker of cordless vacuum cleaners to spend $1.4 billion on technology development

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 25, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 13

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Credit: Dyson
A rendering of Dyson’s V6 Absolute cordless vacuum.
Credit: Dyson
A rendering of Dyson’s V6 Absolute cordless vacuum.

Dyson, the British manufacturer of small household appliances, is betting that the right batteries will allow the world’s consumers to cut the cord. Building on its purchase last year of Sakti3, a U.S.-based start-up, Dyson says it will spend $1.4 billion on battery technology development over the next five years.

As anyone who has seen a Dyson commercial knows, the company’s vacuum cleaners have powerful motors and “never lose suction.” That power comes at a price: Cordless versions run out of juice in minutes. Still, the company reports that sales of battery-powered vacuums grew 66% last year.

Batteries are already a focus at Dyson’s expanding R&D center in Malmesbury, England, which will eventually house 3,000 engineers. The company’s battery investments are stoking speculation that it may compete with the likes of Tesla in electric vehicles.

With its purchase of Sakti3, Dyson gained technology for solid-state lithium-ion batteries, which use a thin, solid layer of electrolyte in place of liquid electrolyte to store more energy in a smaller space. The details of Sakti3’s technology have never been disclosed, and solid-state batteries are years away from commercialization, industry watchers note.

To design energy-dense batteries that last, Dyson engineers will have to overcome problems with electrolyte films. The thin layers can create short circuits that lead to battery failure, according to Geoffrey May, who directs Focus Battery Consulting.

“I am sure the $1.4 billion will be needed to get a new lithium battery technology from prototype to volume production, especially if there are unique manufacturing processes,” May says. Dyson’s project, he adds, “is one to watch with interest.”

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