California Lithium Battery Inc. (CalBattery) – a start-up established in 2011 – has announced the development of a potential battery breakthrough that could significantly increase energy density and reduce costs. As the battery industry continues to struggle with performance and cost issues, especially when it comes to electric vehicles, technology breakthroughs are central to creating a competitive industry. While the CalBattery news is potentially important, however, the overlooked story here is how the company is a successful product of government investments in clean energy innovation. CalBattery’s breakthrough is a composite anode material for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) – one of the three main components of battery technology along with the cathode and electrolyte. The anode is the material in which an electric current flows into the battery. For most advanced batteries used in the market, graphite is typically used because it is lightweight and has a relatively high energy density. In comparison, silicon offers a much higher energy density potential, but is typically not stable enough for commercial use – after a few charges the silicon cracks and the battery is inoperable.
To solve this issue, CalBattery’s technology embeds nano-silicon on the graphite anode, which the researchers say provides a much more stable anode. The potential results: an anode that can greatly increase lithium-battery energy density. According to CalBattery CEO Phil Roberts, “This equates to more than a 300% improvement in LIB capacity and an estimated 70% reduction in lifetime cost for batteries used in consumer electronics, EVs, and grid-scale energy storage.” Specifically, independent tests have confirmed an energy density of 525 Wh/Kg in batteries with the company’s novel anode, whereas conventional batteries today have an energy density of between 100-180 Wh/kg. The Tesla Roadster, for example, has a battery pack with a reported energy density of 121 Wh/kg.
And solving this technological barrier required public-private partnerships and government investments in innovation. The company’s breakthrough anode material is the direct result of eight months of development work with Argonne National Laboratory, after having entered into a Work for Others agreement with the lab back in March. An Argonne-patented process is actually used in the nano-silicon embedding process, an approach that “overcomes the traditional problems associated with high-energy density anodes, such as massive volume expansion, high first cycle inefficiency and severe capacity fade,” as noted by Green Car Congress. After perfecting the embedding process, the challenge for CalBattery and Argonne was ensuring that the new anode material could work in a full battery cell with multiple cathode and electrolyte materials.
CalBattery also got an early boost from being a finalist in the Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2012 America’s Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge. The Challenge aimed to “make it easier, quicker and cheaper for America’s entrepreneurs to access the patents of 17 National Laboratories and the Y-12 National Security Complex to America’s clean energy entrepreneurs,” with the only added benefit for the eventual winners being featured at ARPA-E’s annual Energy Innovation Summit. As of the Challenge’s submission deadline, 36 start-up companies signed 43 option agreements allowing them to license different government-developed technologies. (CalBattery licensed Argonne’s embedding process.)
Finally, state and local investments have also helped prepare CalBattery for commercialization. It’s headquartered at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI). LACI, its website notes, was established to “accelerate development of cleantech start-ups by offering flexible office space, CEO coaching and mentoring, and access to a growing network of experts and capital.” The Incubator is funded in large part by municipal governmental entities like the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and the city’s redevelopment agency, CRA/LA, and collaborates with a variety of industry partners and educational and research institutions.
In the next two years, according to the press release announcing the breakthrough, CalBattery plans to sell its anode material to global battery and electric vehicle OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and begin U.S. production of “a limited quantity of specialized batteries for high-end applications.” While it remains to be seen how CalBattery’s technology will fare in its target markets – grid storage and electric vehicles – there can be no doubt that its success thus far can be linked to the national clean energy innovation ecosystem.