US Energy Dept. Hearts New Silicon EV Batteries

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There they go again. Just a few months ago the US Department of Energy tapped a startup called Group14 Technologies for a multi-million dollar R&D grant to usher in a new generation of high performance EV batteries, and now here comes Group14 with another $17 million in series B funding spearheaded by the South Korean battery expert SK Materials. If you guessed that means scaling up production for the mass market, you’re right on the money. The bigger question is why the Energy Department is determined to support the US electric vehicle industry, considering that White House policy has been aimed at supporting the US oil industry. Any guesses?

silicon EV batteries energy storage
Silicon is the secret sauce behind the next generation of fast-charging, long range, low cost electric vehicle batteries (image courtesy of PNNL)

Group14 Technologies: Who Are These People?

Group14 Technologies first sailed across the CleanTechnica radar last July, when it popped up in a group of Energy Department grants aimed at improvements in electric vehicle batteries that will lead to faster charging times.

The idea was to use silicon instead of graphite to juice the capacity of mobile energy storage devices, but that’s easier said than done because silicon is, well, silicon.

“In your electric car’s battery, swapping an electrode with one made of silicon could let the battery store 10 times more energy. Why isn’t silicon used? It falls apart,” explains the Energy Department.

Silicon’s superpower is its ability to expand in the presence of lithium. The problem is that silicon overdoes it and expands by about 300%, which breaks up the anode. In addition, silicon is too finicky to withstand conventional manufacturing process.

The solution is to figure out some sort of molecular glue that holds things together while still providing that boost in capacity and keeping costs down, too. Group14’s nanotech solution was impressive enough win the company an R&D award of almost $4 million for a project called “Rationally Designed Lithium Ion Batteries Towards Displacing Internal Combustion Engines.”

That’s just for starters. The Energy Department has had its eye on Group14 since the company launched in 2016 as a spinoff of the firm EnerG2.

In September, the agency also selected Group14 for special recognition in its Energy Storage Grand Challenge, a soup-to-nuts decarbonization initiative, on account of the potential for its patented process to yield up to 50% more energy density than a typical lithium-ion battery with graphite.

It seems the Energy Department is not letting the grass grow under its feet. As a Grand Challenge winner, Group14 will team up with the global specialty materials firm Cabot Corporation, additional energy storage and materials partners Farasis, Silatronix, and Arkema, and the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to commercialize its patented Scaffold Prime™ process.

More & Better EV Batteries For A Decarbonized Economy

Group14 is not letting the grass grow under its feet either. The company has already broken ground on a new production facility and the $17 million Series B funding — which includes returning investor OVP Venture Partners along with SK Materials — will speed things along (for the record, Amperex Technology Limited, BASF, and Showa Denko are previous investors).

How fast? Pretty fast! Last week Group14 dropped an embargoed press release into the ol’ CleanTechnica mailbox indicating that the company is ramping up pilot production and “plans to supply its first commercial customers in consumer electronics in 1Q21, with more to follow in other markets.”

Hmmm…CleanTechnica is reaching out to Group14 for the inside scoop on who those first commercial customers might be. In the meantime, if you have any ideas about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Any number of automakers could be queuing up to improve their EV batteries, so the real question is which ones are positioned to be among the first.

EV Batteries & The PNNL Connection

If you’re wondering how Pacific Northwest National Laboratory came to be involved, silicon EV batteries is one of its ongoing areas of interest.

As early as 2010 PNNL was plotting the demise of the graphite anode for EV batteries, with an assist from silicon. In 2014 a team of PNNL researchers created a silicon “sponge” fortified with carbon to replace graphite. Just last April, the lab issued a press release announcing a new, improved sponge-like nanostructure, and a team of PNNL researchers charted “dramatic progress” over the past few years in a technology review published last May.

Earlier versions of the “silicon sponge” approach were falling short in the mechanical strength department. The new iteration described in the April press release deploys carbon nanotubes to form microspheres of silicon particles. According to PNNL, the new formula displays “extraordinary” strength, so there’s that.

An even more interesting tidbit of news popped up in that April press release. The credit line includes PNNL lead researchers Ji-Guang (Jason) Zhang and Xiaolin Li, along with PNNL researchers Haiping Jia, Junhua Song, Xin Zhang, Langli Luo, Yang He, Binsong Li, Yun Cai, Shenyang Hu, Chongmin Wang, Kevin M. Rosso, Ran Yi, and Rajankumar Patel.

Also included is Xingchen Xiao, who is a staff research with the General Motors Research and Development Center, which means that GM is interested in silicon EV batteries. That would be interesting, considering that the company rolled out its much-heralded Ultium battery for electric vehicles earlier this year.

…And The GM Connection

Xingchen Xiao has been tackling the silicon angle for a number of years, and it looks like all that hard work is about to pay off. As recently as 2018, he co-authored a technology review which noted that “silicon-based anode materials usually suffer from large volume change during the charge and discharge process, leading to subsequent pulverization of silicon, loss of electric contact, and continuous side reactions.”

The technology review took stock of R&D involving tailored nanostructures for silicon EV batteries, but warned that “some practical issues with nanostructured silicon cannot be ignored, and must be addressed if it is to be widely used.”

Ouch! Well, it just goes to show how much can happen in a year or two.

All this is by way of saying that the US Department of Energy has been on a decarbonization tear all throughout the *Trump administration, regardless of White House policy supporting fossil fuels.

It started with a new grid study that was supposed to support fossil energy (spoiler alert: it didn’t), and it all went downhill from there, at least if you’re a fossil energy stakeholder.

Aside from shepherding in the next generation of EV batteries, the Energy Department has been lending financial support, resources, and expertise to a whole raft of emerging technologies that are poised for rapid expansion including offshore wind power, floating wind turbines, new low-cost solar cells, long duration energy storage, our favorite new topic green hydrogen (well, new to some), and green ammonia, which is the new best friend of green hydrogen.

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*Developing story.

Image: “Silicon microspheres have extraordinary mechanical strength due to the addition of carbon nanotubes which make the spheres resemble balls of yarn. In this representation, the image on the left illustrates a close-up of a portion of a microsphere made of silicon nano particles deposited on carbon nanotubes” by Mike Perkins/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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