EnerG2 Moves Into ‘Execute Mode’ to Enhance Batteries, Natural Gas Cars

4/6/11Follow @xconomy

Every startup, at some point in its maturation, needs to put up or shut up. EnerG2 is starting to enter that phase when it’s time to find out if it can really do what it said it was going to do.

The Seattle-based company, founded in 2003 with technology from the University of Washington, started to talk big when it raised $8.5 million from OVP Venture Partners and Firelake Capital in the fall of 2008. EnerG2′s technology idea was to create synthetic carbon powders with properties that make them highly efficient at storing energy. The business, as CEO Rick Luebbe told my colleague Greg Huang then, was all about using these novel carbons to power new ultracapacitors for industry, and eventually better batteries for cars, tools, and mobile computing devices.

EnerG2 hasn’t said a whole lot about those myriad applications since, but yesterday it issued a statement that—without naming names of customers or providing financial terms—suggested it’s starting to make some headway. The company said it is working on putting its synthetic carbon powders into lead acid batteries, lithium ion batteries, next-generation lithium batteries, ultracapacitors, and natural gas storage technologies. EnerG2 said it is working with industrial, academic and governmental customers. While the company isn’t profitable, it is generating revenue from sales of carbon products for ultracapacitors, which is supporting a broader push into the new market segments, Luebbe said yesterday.

The overall market for its carbon products could reach $15 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years, he says.

“We are solving a real need, and enabling these technologies to advance more quickly,” Luebbe says. “We’re the only company that can make these carbons.”

While EnerG2 is technically an eight-year-old company, it spent several years in R&D mode, and is still in relatively early days as a true commercial enterprise. The company has about 30 employees. EnerG2 can only make small quantities of its synthetic carbons now, but a big step ahead is being planned for October, when the company plans to open a factory in Albany, OR. That plant, which will be staffed with another 35 workers, is supported with a $21.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rick Luebbe

Much still needs to be proven in terms of how EnerG2 operates on a commercial scale, and whether it can penetrate even a small percentage of the big market it envisions.

There’s no question there’s a huge demand for the kind of carbon EnerG2 seeks to make. Carbon, of course, is everywhere in today’s world in solid forms like graphite and diamonds, and yes, various gases in the atmosphere. But carbon is also an essential ingredient in batteries. Most of that carbon comes from natural sources that are chock-full of organic carbon—things like coal, wood, oil, and specific forms of biomass like pecan shells and coconut husks, Luebbe says.

Those “natural precursors” usually get cooked at something like 800 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to peel off all the unnecessary oxygen and hydrogen atoms to leave a form of “activated” or highly porous carbon that is what eventually goes into all of the industrial uses mentioned above. The problem, Luebbe says, is that you get a lot of impurities when you do things this way. Coconut husks, for example, are a popular source for carbon that goes into ultracapacitors, but the carbon that comes from that source has a lot of iron attached to it, so you get a lot of iron impurities along the way. And, Mother Nature being fickle as she is, coconut husks grown in various countries with various climates have highly variable compositions of carbon, iron, and other elements. That means they generate carbons with different properties in the end, he says.

EnerG2 does things quite differently. It starts from scratch with a resin polymerization process, which is controlled in a lab environment. The idea is to begin from the ground up with a consistent synthetic precursor, which allows its scientists to run a conversion process that yields an absolutely consistent form of activated carbon. The process can lead to activated carbons with various pore sizes and surface structures that are tailor made for whatever application the customer wants. The key is in get the process right, and making it reproducible.

“Every batch is the same,” Luebbe says.

Now that EnerG2 has gotten a lot more practiced at making optimized forms of its synthetic carbons for ultracapacitors, it’s ready to test its mettle in those other, potentially more lucrative applications in the battery world.

Right now, none of EnerG2′s customers will allow themselves to be publicly identified, Luebbe says, because they don’t want their competitors to know they are using the synthetic carbons. The technology has potential to enhance batteries in such a way that new kinds of devices and applications will be enabled, Luebbe says. (One of his favorites is making carbons to store liquid natural gas, to turn it into a practical automotive fuel. The idea is to enable liquid natural gas to be stored at much lower pressure than it must be kept at today, which will make it safer in the event of a crash, and cheaper).

There are other high-science approaches out there today. Carbon nanotubes get a fair bit of press, and a couple of scientists won Nobel Prizes last year for their work on graphene—a one-atom thick carbon film that Wired calls “one of the most promising and versatile materials ever discovered.”

Other approaches to making synthetic carbon, Luebbe says, are complicated, and tend to work in small batches. EnerG2 plans to differentiate itself on its ability to keep production costs low, and to have a process that can ramp up to commercial scale.

Time, of course, will tell whether EnerG2 can prove that. The Oregon factory already has a “good amount of capacity” that’s committed to fulfilling orders for customers, Luebbe says. No question, he wants that factory pumping out industrial quantities of synthetic carbons, for a wide variety of customers with specific applications, by this time next year.

“We’re deep into execute mode,” Luebbe says.

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