More batteries, less bottlenecks: meet Liminal

Keegan Pinto
4 min readFeb 7, 2023

Shannon Whitaker and Keegan Pinto

We are thrilled to announce our newest investment, Liminal Insights. In practical terms, what Liminal does is straightforward: Liminal inspects battery cells. The company can identify whether a given cell is defective, the impact to its performance, and why the defect occurred. In the complex world of battery manufacturing, this is game-changing.

We invested for three reasons:

  • Timing: battery cell manufacturing is about to grow exponentially;
  • Complexity: battery cell manufacturing is unbelievably hard; and
  • Value: Liminal unlocks the capacity, quality, and cost savings that battery cell manufacturers need.

Timing

Demand for Electric Vehicles (“EVs”) is growing at an incredible pace. There are market tailwinds from government regulation, consumer demand, and OEM commitments. This is great news for the planet: IEA data tells us that a typical mid-sized EV will create less than half of the emissions of a comparable ICE vehicle, under one fifth if it is charging on a renewable grid, and even less if it is manufactured on one. Because road vehicles account for about 15% of global CO2 emissions, ensuring this transition happens quickly will be critical to the avoidance of a climate catastrophe.

Source: McKinsey, 16 January 2023, “Battery 2030: Resilient, sustainable, and circular”

Downstream, more people buying EVs means greater demand for battery cells. McKinsey projects that in only eight years, manufacturers will turn on nearly six times the total capacity available today. By and large, this is excellent news if you’re in the business of manufacturing and selling battery cells.

Complexity

Ramping up production of the high-quality cells used in EV batteries is a challenge. Mass-manufacturing of combustion automobiles has been continuously improved for over 100 years — by comparison, the very first Nissan Leaf was released in 2010.

Because this technology is so new, the industry continues to see growing pains. Recalls are abound, and often historic in their scale — sometimes costing billions of dollars. Despite this, the true cause is often unknown.

The defects that make it to headlines are only part of the story. The quality control process — which takes weeks — costs millions, and can outright miss faulty cells. When they are found, identifying the root cause is expensive, time consuming, and sometimes even impossible. This makes process improvement challenging: the yield of a first-year production line (the amount of “good cells” compared to total cells) is often only 50–60%, and can take years to ramp up to a steady-state yield of 85–90%. In addition, defective cells typically aren’t recycled, meaning that all of the expensive material used to make them is wasted.

Value

All of this means that battery cell manufacturers have more demand than they can effectively meet, and that they need a solution to enable scaling without compromising safety, reliability, and affordability. This is precisely what Liminal is able to address.

The Liminal team has developed a contact-based ultrasound solution, implemented within a battery cell manufacturing line, to scan the battery cells that are produced — today, a sample of them, but soon, every single one — unlocking a new type of data. This new ultrasound data is then processed through a machine learning algorithm allowing Liminal to not only figure out which cells are defective, but actually diagnose the cause. This is game-changing because battery cells are literally sealed shut — they can’t be simply visually inspected. Instead, to test quality, manufacturers can fully charge and discharge a sample of cells until they die (costing time and money), tear a sample of them apart (dangerous and often inconclusive), or run an electrical pulse through the cell (inherently imprecise). The ability to see inside a battery cell and instantaneously know if something is wrong can create not cents, but dollars of value per kWh. For context, this is millions of dollars of value for a single GWh, in a landscape where manufacturers are routinely announcing individual plants that will be able to produce as much as 100GWh.

Liminal’s technology works across battery cell chemistries and formats, allowing it to provide value even as alternative battery types are developed in the future. The end result is a battery cell that is safer, more reliable, and more affordable than anything we have today.

We see Liminal soon becoming an integral part of the battery cell manufacturing process. In addition to incredible product-market fit and impeccable timing, we found an unbelievably talented team that is more than capable of executing on the opportunity in front of them. Liminal is positioned to play a defining role in the battery industry and not only help to ensure that the EV transition stays on track, but catalyze it — and together with other technologies in the battery ecosystem, will play a critical role in the fight against climate change.

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