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US Army scouts silicon energy storage technology for light weight, long lasting portable batteries (photo courtesy of US Army).


Silicon Energy Storage Gets $10 Million Love Letter From US Military

The US Army is pursuing new silicon energy storage technology for light weight, long lasting portable batteries.

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The US Department of Defense has been scouting for better batteries to power the electrified soldier of the future. They have tapped new silicon technology to deliver lighter weight and longer lifespan. Leaving nothing to chance, the DOD also just put down $10 million to help secure a domestic supply chain for silicon-based energy storage.

Onshoring & Scaling Up Silicon Energy Storage Technology

The energy storage firm NanoGraf is the winner of the $10 million, 18-month contract. The money is earmarked for the construction of a new factory in Chicago. Once in operation, it will be the first high-volume manufacturing facility of its kind in the US.

NanoGraf is aiming for an initial output of 35 US tons per year of silicon oxide for battery anodes towards a goal of 1,000 tons per year when fully scaled up.

NanoGraf anticipates that its material will cost about the same as graphite, which is currently the material of choice for the anodes of lithium-ion batteries, but it will perform much better.

The company came across the CleanTechnica radar last year, when it announced  a $1.65 million award from the DOD to develop its 18650 battery.

“The grant from the DoD is meant to develop silicon anode-based lithium-ion technology that is compatible with all portable batteries,” NanoGraf explained. “The goal is to increase equipment runtime by 50-100% when compared to traditional graphite anode lithium-ion cells, and allow batteries to have a shelf life of more than two years and operate across a wide temperature range from -4° F to 131° F.”

That project involved NanoGraf’s portable 3.8Ah (amp hours) 18650 battery, which went into commercial production earlier this year.

NanoGraf also also has another $1 million DOD grant under its umbrella to develop a 4.3Ah version.

“In an industry where performance improvements are typically very small, the 4.3Ah will be a dramatic increase in energy density reaching 870Wh/L,” NanoGraf explained. For that battery, the company is looking at Q2 of 2024 for high volume production leading to field use by the end of the year.

Why Silicon?

The silicon battery has been a long time coming. A small percentage of silicon by weight can be used in graphite batteries, but breaking through to a true silicon battery has been a tough row to hoe.

Initial work on NanoGraf’s silicon anode began more than 10 years ago, at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University in Illinois. NanoGraf started up in 2012 under the name SiNode Systems.

The Argonne lab is part of a silicon battery consortium with the Lawrence Berkeley, Renewable Energy, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia national laboratories to “surmount the barriers associated with development of an advanced anode based on silicon-carbon electrodes.”

“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,” Argonne explains. “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.”

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory provides a good illustration of the long R&D tail leading up to commercial development of silicon-based energy storage. CleanTechnica caught up with the lab in December of 2020.

“As early as 2010 PNNL was plotting the demise of the graphite anode for EV batteries, with an assist from silicon,” we observed. “In 2014 a team of PNNL researchers created a silicon “sponge” fortified with carbon to replace graphite.”

A more recent breakthrough came in the spring of 2020, when Argonne announced improvements to the sponge-like architecture.

Better Energy Storage For Electric Vehicles

In addition to use in the portable energy storage area, silicon has also caught the eye of EV manufacturers.

Back in 2019, Nanograf won a $7.5 million award from the US Council for Automotive Research consortium, which at the time consisted of Ford, General Motors, and the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group. Under the new-ish name of Stellantis, the FCA group of Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, and FIAT is still part of the consortium.

The US Department of Energy has also been disbursing grants for silicon battery development alongside a raft of other technologies aimed at improving EV battery performance.

Last October, GM upped the ante by engaging in a first-of-its-kind collaboration with another US firm, aimed at bringing silicon nanowire technology into the auto maker’s Ultium EV battery family.

The Electrified Army Of The Future

The US Army is a long way off from electrifying its vehicles, but portable electronics have been a feature of warfare for generations, and the DOD has been on the hunt for new technologies that lighten the energy storage load.

One key breakthrough in recent years is a flexible battery pack that can be worn on a vest. The so-named Conformal Wearable Battery can provide power for multiple connected devices.

The next step is to simplify the battery supply chain for devices that are not connected to the CWB. Silicon batteries will help resolve part of the problem, but that still leaves the Army with longstanding interoperability issues.

Last year, the Army drew attention to the need for a more streamlined approach to energy storage, with a focus on weaponry as well as radios, GPS, and night-vision devices.

The effort is spearheaded by the Army Futures Command, under the acronym STUB for Small Tactical Universal Battery. The goal is to create a suite of eight different sizes of batteries, all with the same interfaces.

“Now is an opportune time to standardize power sources as the Army is prioritizing modernization and fielding electronics with greater capabilities requiring more energy than current systems,” explained Dr. Nathan Sharpes, who is a research mechanical engineer with a branch of AFC’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM).

“The goal is to avoid the current model of fielding a proprietary battery for each piece of gear as technology developers have historically delivered unique batteries for new capabilities,” the Army emphasized. “Each battery size provides a different amount of energy, from which Soldiers could choose, depending on their mission needs. This interoperable battery system will seamlessly deliver the correct voltage and power level needs to any device.”

“Currently when a Soldier is on a mission carrying five different pieces of gear that each have a unique battery form factor, along with spares, that’s extra weight and items to keep track of,” Sharpes added. “With this family of interoperable batteries, Soldiers will see benefits cognitively and physically.”

In addition to in-field advantages, the Army anticipates that its procurement and logistics costs will drop. The Army also expects that equipment manufacturers will be able to focus more time and energy on improving the performance of their devices.

In the meantime, don’t give up on EVs for the Army just yet. Last March, the Army Reserve announced its intention to electrify all of its non-tactical vehicles by the end of Fiscal Year 27. The US defense contractor Oshkosh is also pushing the EV envelope, which could mean more electric vehicles are in store under the company’s contract with the US Postal Service.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey (for now).

Find me on LinkedIn: @TinaMCasey or Mastodon: @Casey or Post:  @tinamcasey

Photo: Soldier demonstrates wearable energy storage, courtesy of US Army.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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