Seattle Startup Group14 Technologies Targets Big Boost in Batteries

A new Seattle materials company is developing a technology that could boost lithium ion battery energy density by up to 30 percent, it claims, while also reducing costs.

Group14 Technologies is a new spin-out from EnerG2, the 13-year-old Seattle materials company that has a growing business providing engineered carbon materials for other energy storage technologies, including ultra-capacitors and lead-acid batteries.

The new company won a $2.8 million Department of Energy grant to advance development of a novel nano-scale material for the anode of lithium ion batteries. Typically made of carbon in the form of graphite, the anode—the battery’s negative electrode—is where lithium is stored when the battery is charged.

Group14 Technologies is focused on silicon “as the next generation anode material,” says Rick Luebbe, co-founder of Group14, and EnerG2’s CEO.

Silicon can absorb on the order of 10 times as much lithium as graphite (more than 3,000 milliamp hours per gram, versus about 350 milliamp hours per gram, Luebbe says), but to do so, it expands to three or four times its original size. That causes problems inside the battery, resulting in very short cycle life: maybe 10 recharges, he says.

Group14’s approach is to create a silicon-carbon composite anode material. The carbon provides a structural support to control the silicon’s expansion. As the silicon expands, it fills void space within the carbon, but the anode particle itself does not expand.

“It’s like we’re putting chips in the cookie dough, and the cookie dough is allowing the chips to expand and contract without breaking the cookie,” says Luebbe.

Rick Luebbe

Rick Luebbe

While the anode is only one battery component, Group14 believes its silicon-carbon composite anode material could lead to an outsize improvement in lithium ion battery energy density—as much as 30 percent, Luebbe says—while solving the problem of short cycle life that has limited silicon’s utility in this application.

“Today, battery manufacturers are working hard to try to squeeze out a few percent here and a few percent there,” he says. “So, we start talking tens of percentage [points] of improvement in the relative short term, that is huge.”

Already, Group14 Technologies has achieved battery lifetimes of about 500 to 800 cycles, which is “in the range of what is commercializable today,” Luebbe says.

The company is targeting an anode material with lithium capacity of 1,200 milliamp hours per gram, capable of 1,000 charge-discharge cycles, at a price of “maybe $40” per kilogram, he says. That’s compared to $15 a kilogram for graphite with capacity of 350 milliamp hours per gram.

“We have a material that’s going to have three- to four-times higher performance at less per amp hour than the cost of graphite,” Luebbe says. “From a commercial perspective, it is going to be the most compelling anode material out there, and will contribute to not just higher-performing batteries, but also cheaper batteries.”

Group14 Technologies still has at least 18 months of work to do to achieve its targets, Luebbe says. “But we do see a number of incremental commercial opportunities as we move the technology in that direction,” he adds.

The market for lithium ion battery anode materials is worth $1 billion, Luebbe says.

He says Group14 Technologies is working “with some of the largest lithium ion battery manufacturers in the world,” gathering feedback and validating performance of the silicon-carbon composite anode. He declines to name specific manufacturers.

Panasonic, LG Chem, and Samsung SDI constitute “the big three” battery manufacturers, says Cosmin Laslau, senior analyst at Lux Research, via e-mail. Those companies “are well-positioned not just in today’s electronics but also in the growing markets for plug-in vehicles and stationary storage,” he adds. He also notes fast-rising China-based manufacturers like BYD, Lishen, and ATL.

Group14’s manufacturer relationships are essential. Lots of researchers and companies are working on improving lithium ion battery anodes, as well as cathodes, binders, electrolytes, barriers, and other battery components. A new material or chemistry in one component often requires tuning of others. And purveyors of these new approaches must show their technology can scale up to keep pace with the growing industry. (The latest proof point is Tesla’s more than 325,000 pre-orders of its forthcoming Model 3.)

Here too, Group14’s leaders believe they have an advantage, thanks to the legacy of work done at EnerG2 on manufacturing large volumes of engineered carbon materials. EnerG2’s factory in Albany, OR, for example, could be used to manufacture the silicon-carbon composite Group14 is developing, Luebbe says.

“We’re expecting a continued tight collaboration between the two businesses,” he says.

There’s plenty of overlap at the outset. The co-founders of Group14 are Luebbe, Rick Costantino, who heads research and development at EnerG2, and Aaron Feaver, EnerG2’s co-founder and CTO.

Group14, which has fewer than five employees but plans to hire rapidly, is sharing office space with EnerG2 on the north shore of Lake Union. EnerG2 has nearly 50 employees, counting staff at the production facility in Albany.

Group14’s federal government grant is being matched with $1.2 million, which Luebbe described as internal support. “We’ll continue to look for opportunities for private funding over the next 18 months,” he says.

And what of the new company’s name? It’s a play on the periodic table, in which each column represents a group of elements with features in common. Group 14 includes carbon, silicon, and other elements with two electrons in their outermost orbital ring.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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