How a MacGyver of the Semiconductor Industry Plans to Rescue Nanosys
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a lithium-ion battery is charging. (When the battery is discharging, lithium ions leave the anode and are taken up by the cathode.) Battery makers have spent a lot of time investigating anode materials that could soak up more lithium, including forms of carbon such as graphite sheets that have a larger surface area. The challenge with this approach is that as the anode material takes up lithium, it physically swells—by as much as 200 or 300 percent, depending on the amount of lithium absorbed.
“You can’t just have this swelling occur inside a sealed package and not have it create problems,” says Hartlove. “We have created a compound material that has a unique morphology that manages the lithium intercalation in a way that doesn’t cause cyclic damage. You don’t have the swelling effect that you get with conventional, non-architected structures.”
Hartlove wouldn’t tell me exactly how the Nanosys compound works. I speculated aloud that the material must twist inward on itself as it absorbs lithium ions—like a coil of chain-link fencing being wound more tightly. “Something like that,” Hartlove answered.
By replacing traditional anode materials with Nanosys’s compound, battery makers could achieve a 30 to 40 percent increase in capacity in a single generation, meaning capacities could potentially be doubled in just two or three years, Hartlove says. “Which puts lithium-ion batteries on a pace now to really meet the demands of the electrification of the infrastructure”—including, eventually, electric cars.
With a more efficient anode material, battery makers could use less of the material to achieve equivalent output, which would be a huge bonus in the electric vehicle business. “If you’ve got 2,000 pounds of batteries in a 3,000-pound car, not surprisingly, you are using a tremendous amount of your stored energy just to move the batteries around,” says Hartlove. “If you could make the batteries lighter weight, or hold more charge with the same weight, it’s a big win.”
But just as on the display side, Nanosys is starting smaller, focusing first on getting its new anode material qualified for use in the lithium ion cells used in mobile phones and notebook computers. It’s also working hard on producing its materials—both the QuantumRails phosphors and the high-capacity anode compound—on an industrial scale.
“We need to be able to produce these materials in the kinds of volumes and quantities required by these industries, and this is another key area where we’ve focused a lot since I joined the company,” Hartlove says. “When I got here we were making micrograms of the material we were using for batteries per batch. Now we are making multiple kilograms per batch, and ultimately we will scale up to kilotons. This is where our competency lies, and I think we are far ahead of anyone else trying to do similar things.”
Of course, being ahead at the half doesn’t always equate to winning, as Hartlove himself admits. “A lot of things can still happen” to keep Nanosys-enabled products from reaching the market as fast as the company would like, he says. “People might stop buying cell phones next year in as great a volume, or the customer that we designed into might be selling pink phones in a year when olive green is the hot color. I’ve been around long enough to know that those are the factors.”
But the 100-employee company (75 full-time) has a strong network of investors, Hartlove says. In fact, the company will soon close a growth-capital round that will help it expand to a new location, where scaling up manufacturing will be easier. (Nanosys’s neighborhood off Page Mill Road in Palo Alto used to be semi-industrial, but no more. “You can’t really be a big battery manufacturer when you have Facebook right behind you,” Hartlove says.)
Josh Wolfe, of Lux Capital, says the biggest challenge for Nanosys these days is not finding new markets for its technology, but “fielding the flood of incoming requests to do deals and intelligently parsing by application and geography.” If Hartlove’s pattern holds true, the company won’t have trouble picking the most practical paths—or carving together the required technologies.
“What I’ve seen with a lot of different technologies is that from the point when you see the university research happen to when you see products come to market is 10 to 15 years, it’s not overnight,” Hartlove sums up. “We are very much in that period of commercialization now, and we are seeing [nanotechnology] in more high-value applications like electronics and medicines. But it has taken a while for people to understand how to make materials at scale, at reasonable costs, with consistent performance—and which specs really needed to be hit.”