Published on December 4th, 2019 | by Jake Richardson0
Battery Tech Startup Sila Nano Secures $45 Million, Now Has 3 Former Tesla Employees
December 4th, 2019 by Jake Richardson
Sila Nanotechnologies, based in Alameda, CA, has secured a new $45 million round of funding from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Daimler AG led a $170 million funding round earlier this year. The company says its silicon-based materials can increase battery energy density by 20% and potentially up to 40%. Three former Tesla employees are executives at Sila, Kurt Kelty (joined recently), Alex Jacobs, and co-founder and CEO Gene Berdichevsky. They all worked on battery technology at Tesla. Berdichevsky answered some questions for CleanTechnica about Sila’s work.
You mentioned in a MIT Technology Review video that your company could have a massive impact in the future. In what areas of technology/products do you foresee this happening?
The battery material we’ve developed will directly impact consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and eventually grid storage. Much of what’s possible in innovation, design and overall advancements for consumer electronics and electric vehicles is reliant on the capabilities of battery chemistry. Better battery chemistry equates to better performance: range, acceleration, cost, charge time, for cars; and enhanced features and size in electronic devices – essentially all of what consumers care about come down to chemistry. Lithium-ion is currently the most efficient battery technology available, but the materials used have largely remained unchanged, which has led to in the last five years delivering only 1-2% improvements at a time when new features and capabilities require more battery power to run. We are seeing that existing technology is unable to keep up with consumer demand.
Our ultimate goal is to bring higher battery performance, faster charging and longer range – traits critically important to electric vehicles and future innovation overall.
What do your battery materials improve upon or replace, and what are its advantages?
Lithium-ion is currently the most efficient battery technology available, but the materials used in lithium-ion are the same as when Sony first introduced it commercially almost three decades ago. Scientists and engineers have worked hard to perfect the chemistry’s utilization (increasing energy density by a factor of 3 since 1991 to about 2010), but we’re now hitting the theoretical limits of the chemistry. Improvements in lithium-ion technology has become increasingly minimal, and the incremental changes in the last five years have delivered only 1-2% improvements every few years.
Sila Nanotechnologies was founded in 2011, and after 35,000 iterations, our team has developed a silicon-based composite that replaces the graphite anode in lithium-ion battery with Sila’s silicon-based anode. Our material stores dramatically more lithium-ions in the same anode volume, which allows us to pack more energy into a same-sized battery. Today our product delivers up to 20% improvement over the best traditional lithium-ion batteries in the world. Our goal is to bring higher battery performance, faster charging, and longer range – especially important for electric vehicles – and we have the potential to reach 40% improvements in the next few years.
Swelling of silicon-based materials is a challenge that no one else has previously solved. It is the first of many major challenges we needed to overcome in order to bring our technology to market, and an obstacle and price of entry to more ambitious challenges.
The swelling of silicon cannot be fully eliminated due to silicon’s inherent ability to store a tremendous number of Lithium atoms. By nature, those Lithium atoms force the expansion with tremendous atomic force. Rather than preventing swelling entirely, Sila Nano developed a way to keep that swelling from impacting the performance of the battery. In order to do this, we built nano-composite material structures with space for the silicon to expand into without damaging the material or the cell. In addition to inventing and developing the synthesis methods for this technology, we’ve also made the synthesis scalable to automotive volumes. If the technology works but can’t be mass-produced, then it can’t be applied to commercial products such as portable electronics or even EVs.
Your silicon-based material can improve a battery’s performance by 20% or more. Can you simply insert your material into existing EV batteries to accomplish this boost?
Essentially, yes – our product replaces graphite in today’s lithium-ion battery anodes. When we first started Sila Nano, we decided that whatever we created would need to be manufacturable in existing battery factories. The infrastructure for lithium-ion factories already exists globally and an advancement in lithium-ion materials that can drop into any existing factories have an enormous advantage as it can be implemented in almost any battery immediately with no cost changes or delays to manufacturers.
Sila Nano’s silicon-based composite replaces the graphite in anodes to dramatically improve energy density by 20-40%. For implementation in EV batteries, the process is more gradual, with years of intense validation for a battery before the design goes into any major vehicle platforms. With the auto industry, the amount of material we need to produce one electric vehicle is equivalent to what we’d need for 10,000 cell phones, but that does mean our material will be fully market tested by the time we ramp production for EVs in the mid-2020s.
How does silicon store more energy, and is it also cheaper than graphite?
Silicon is able to store roughly 10 times the amount of Lithium as graphite per unit weight (and about 3X per unit volume) – this has to do with some fundamental universal properties of how Silicon reacts with Lithium. Silicon is a widely available global commodity and expected to be cheaper than graphite at large scale on a dollar-per-capacity basis (in part because you can use 10X less Silicon for the same amount of energy storage as Carbon/graphite), making it a fantastic replacement for graphite in lithium-ion batteries.
How much of your silicon material can you manufacture currently and is the manufacturing being done in the US?
Sila Nanotechnologies has been running a pilot production line for more than two years. Our first manufacturing line in Alameda, Calif. is capable of producing material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatt-hours of lithium-ion batteries and we’ll be scaling up operations as we move to phones and then electric vehicles into multiple GWhs of capacity in the next few years.
Who are your customers or prospective customers?
We currently have partnerships with automakers BMW and Daimler, and with the world’s largest consumer battery maker, Amperex Technology Limited (ATL). We are also currently engaged in a number of pilot programs to test and qualify our product. We are starting with small consumer devices first because we can affect the most units as we scale up operations and move to phones, then electric vehicles.
Is your silicon-based material intended only for use in new batteries, or could older EV batteries also be upgraded with it to boost their performance?
The battery cell using our material will need to be manufactured from scratch. The form factor of those cells, however, can be identical to the form factor of the prior graphite-based cells. If an auto maker chooses to put the new Sila cells into the same pack design as the prior cells, that new pack can certainly be swapped in and replace an existing battery pack in an older EV. The decision on how to approach this will be up to the auto OEM.
Daimler and BMW are your automotive business partners, so what does that mean in terms of how your technology could be incorporated into their electric vehicle batteries?
Daimler and BMW have partnered with us to accelerate development of their own electric vehicle offerings and to be on the front lines of a new battery chemistry. We work together with BMW and Daimler to achieve the performance and industrialization required for high-performance electric cars.
Sila Nano’s innovative battery chemistry provides higher performance, the potential for faster charging and longer range than today’s batteries – valuable assets for brands producing the next big EVs. We fully expect that our materials will be in cars in the mid-2020s courtesy of our partnerships with premier automakers BMW and Daimler.
Is that relationship exclusive, or can you sell your battery materials to other EV companies for their batteries too?
Our partners have a close relationship with our company and will be among the first to implement Sila Nano’s technology in their vehicles and products. We expect to work with many OEMs and battery manufacturers and have not given exclusive rights to our technology.
You now have several former Tesla employees on your staff. If appropriate, could you share how any lessons learned at Tesla carry over into your work at Sila Nanotechnologies?
Having the opportunity to work at Tesla set the stage for what I needed to be aware of when I started my own company, and ultimately, I made great connections. One of my co-founders, Alex Jacobs, and our VP of Automotive, Kurt Kelty were both Tesla colleagues.
At Tesla, we were basically pioneering a product for the future and in the beginning there were a lot of challenges we had to face. I learned that in order to do new things, you need to be self-reliant and build a culture based on that attribute. When you’re working in uncharted territory, there’s not a lot of support, but along the way you’ll meet others who want to work on these new, never before seen things too.
Tesla also helped me realize that the people you hire define the company you build and the culture you’ll have. As a company gets bigger, it’s so much harder to embed values because they’ve already been defined. It’s important to set a high bar early on, and to make sure you understand what motivates your team to ensure values align among all your team members.
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