There they go again — again! Just a couple of years ago, the US startup Group14 Technologies was a twinkle in the eye of the US Department of Energy, which chucked $4 million in funding at the company for developing new EV batteries aimed at displacing internal combustion engines. They must have been on to something. Two years and several deals later, here comes Group14 again with ambitious new plans for killing off gasmobiles. They’ve hooked up with the Slovakian firm InoBat Auto…wait, Ino who?
InoBat Claims To Make Really Smart EV Batteries
InoBat is new on the CleanTechnica radar, having popped up there in October of 2020 with a claim to producing the world’s first “intelligent” battery just a year or so after its startup in 2019.
“First of all, the company behind this bold claim is InoBat Auto, based out of Slovakia, and the company description is that it “discovers and produces intelligent battery solutions customised to the individual specification of the end-user for an increasingly diverse market of electric vehicles in automotive, aviation, commercial and industrial sectors,” observed CleanTechnica editor-in-chief and CEO Zach Shahan, while cautioning that bold claims are, well, bold claims.
InoBat’s co-founder and executive chairman Faysal Sohail is a believer. He is also a managing partner at something called Presidio Partners, which is described as a “US-based multi-sector, deep technology-focused VC fund investing in IT, life sciences, energy, and materials.”
Interesting! The energy end of Presidio’s diverse portfolio includes a connection to EV batteries through the carbon nanotube firm Cnano, which bills itself as a “leading nano-material company that manufactures and develops carbon nanotubes for advanced energy, especially Li-ion battery, conductive plastic and structural applications.”
Presidio is also behind the advanced materials company Wildcat Discovery Technologies, which nailed down an Energy Department grant of its own back in 2019 to work on one of our favorite topics, solid state batteries (more solid state coverage here, here, and here).
Smart EV Batteries — Oh, So That’s What They Mean!
Furthering the reputation of InoBat is a partnership with the increasingly popular energy storage firm ESS, of which CleanTechnica took passing note earlier this year. ESS specializes in flow batteries. That doesn’t have too much to do with EV batteries, at least for now, though some folks do think that flow batteries have a future in the zero emission mobility scheme of the sparkling green future.
The “smart” in the bold claims of InoBat actually applies to the company’s production methodology, which aims at a quick turnaround for customized batteries.
“Through proprietary R&D capabilities supporting continued performnce improvement, InoBat Auto rapidly optimises existing cell chemistry and evaluates new battery innovations, accelerating them from the laboratory to the factory floor,” InoBat explains (original in all caps).
That’s where Group14 comes in.
Last week, Group14 and InoBat announced that they have hooked up to manufacture high energy density EV batteries on a customized basis, leveraging Group14’s very special energy storage material, which is this:
“Reimagined into its most ideal form for energy storage — amorphous and nano-sized — silicon has 10x the capacity of graphite by mass. Precisely engineered, SCC55™ is the perfect combination of carbon, silicon, and void space and is readily available as a drop-in ready for any blend ratio with graphite or as a complete displacement to deliver unmatched energy density and cycle life stability.”
Translated into the field of EV batteries, that means “dramatically more energy density per volume than traditional lithium-ion-based batteries” according to the two partners.
For those of you keeping score at home, the customization involves different kinds of cell architecture, including the pouch-style setup for EV batteries currently favored by General Motors.
What Is This Silicon Energy Storage Device Of Which You Speak?
The new partnership on EV batteries with InoBat represents a step-up in scale for Group14, which has been focusing mainly on batteries for consumer electronics at its factory in the state of Washington. Last December the company hitched up with the firm SK Materials to add a second energy storage factory to its roster, which will be located in South Korea.
That’s a strong vote of confidence for silicon-enabled energy storage, which just a short time ago seemed an unlikely candidate for EV batteries. There are — or were — two main challenges. The first problem is easy to explain: silicon expands during charging, which could cause it to break apart.
The second problem is a bit more involved unless you already know what initial coulombic efficiency is. If you don’t, it basically means that the output from the first charging cycle for a rechargeable battery should be as close to 100% of the input as possible. Anything below 80% is a non-starter and that’s where silicon was at, not too long ago.
“Silicon is a very attractive alternative to graphitic carbon alone due to its much higher theoretical capacity for energy storage, nearly an order of magnitude more per gram, and relative availability due to its use worldwide in various industries,” explains the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory. “However, in electrodes with larger amounts of elemental silicon (about 15 percent) and thus much higher energy density, several problems seriously limit the calendar life, including large parasitic currents on standing.”
“The wealth of previous electrochemical studies on anodes with this element is both a testament to its potential and the size of the challenge that must be overcome, requiring innovation on multiple fronts,” the lab adds, meaning that researchers have been hammering away at the problems because the payoff is so attractive.
How High Can EV Batteries Go?
Today’s crop of 200-mile EV batteries has already put the range anxiety issue permanently to bed. After all, who needs to drive 200 miles in one day? US drivers on average barely put in 30 miles a day, the last time we checked with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. As explained by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory earlier this year, a new generation of silicon based technology could “reduce battery pack size by 25%–30%, or increase driving range by 30%–40% with packs the same size as those found in current EVs.”
NREL is the leader of the Energy Department’s recently hatched Silicon Consortium Project, which rolled the Silicon Electrolyte Interface Stabilization and the Silicon Deep Dive projects into one big R&D powerhouse. Other members include the Sandia, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, along with Argonne.
It seems that a lot can happen in a short time. By June of 2021, the Energy Department was already having a serious convo about best practices for manufacturing batteries with silicon anodes.
Stay tuned for some more news about silicon batteries. Last year the Energy Department issued a $55 million R&D pot of funding for advanced vehicle technologies, and Group14 was one of seven awardees in the silicon category. The others were the University of Maryland, University of Delaware, Stony Brook University, Enovix Corporation, Sila Nanotechnologies, and Solid Power.
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Photo: courtesy of Group14 Technologies.