Materials/Manufacturing Insights Highlight Energy Week 2021 Day 1 Panelists Discuss Solid State, Silicon, Dry Coating, Recycling, and Hydrogen
The future of the world’s energy generation and storage centers on advances in battery and anode technology, and materials development. That was the consensus of the distinguished panelists gathered to explore startup trends and venture capital opportunities in the energy materials, processing, and manufacturing sectors. The panel discussion highlighted Day 1 of Energy Week, TDK Ventures’ online conference. The leading entrepreneurs, researchers, industrialists, and investors that assembled on Monday, October 18 cited solid-state batteries, silicon anodes, dry coating, 3D printing, and potentially hydrogen as the innovations most likely to transform energy materials and manufacturing over the next five to 10 years.
The experts did, however, express differing views on how these advancements might play out, and the business and investment opportunities they might present. Discussion centered on two questions:
- What do you think is the most impactful innovation in Materials, Processing & Manufacturing to be realized in the next five years?
- What do you think is the most challenging innovation in Materials, Processing & Manufacturing, but is set to disrupt this market in 10 years?
As is often the case when talking about batteries, much of the spotlight settled on personal and fleet vehicles, energy storage systems, and long-haul transportation.
Panelists felt that lucrative opportunities await venture capitalists who get involved in startup companies establishing themselves in this space. Businesses developing next-generation technologies that overcome consumer resistance and pave the road to easy transition to electric vehicles are poised to prosper.
“If you want to design something to replace gasoline, it needs to have five things: long cycle life, safety, high-energy density, high-power density, and cost competitiveness,” said Dipender Saluja, managing director of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Capricorn Investment Group.
Saluja believes solid state is on the brink of delivering these top-five attributes that electric vehicle manufactures crave.
“Long-duration storage is getting redefined. It used to be that eight or 10 hours was long,” he said. “Now, we are talking days or hopefully weeks — that is another front that becomes interesting in the next 10 years. We are starting to see ideas that seem very viable as means for overcoming the last excuse against adopting renewables, which is, “What do you do from a storage point of view?”
The ability to produce and manage hydrogen quickly and efficiently is key to enticing investors, says Sara Chamberlain, co-founder and managing director of Chicago-based Energy Foundry.
“We did an investment two years ago, and the news media getting hyped about it. But it is important to see the apples-to-apples comparisons as we try to get to sub-$20 per kilowatt hour,” she said. “We are looking at companies that can start doing that. The bulk are in green H2 generation, trying to optimize for production capacity. That is the tip of the spear where you have the right transportation and storage to support it.”
The processes for producing hydrogen are not difficult to master, Saluja said.
“It is more about how you scale it and build better electrolyzers at a cost where it is attractive,” he said. “The applications are so many — fertilizer, steel, then transportation. In long-term transportation and shipping, you have a big gaping hole that no battery can address (yet).”
He said truly green energy storage will come as costs drop to rates comparable to those for solar power in the Southwest and Gulf Coast. That will enable wind and solar energy to generate the power required for production of long-duration batteries.
Solid state batteries with lithium electrolyte are a non-compromising way to replace fossil fuels with energy storage.” Saluja said.
“Non-compromising” is the key phrase, noted Bob Galyen, founder of Galyen Energy and former chief technology officer for CATL. He said automakers and their component suppliers must wholly believe in a new technology before committing to it, because adopting it requires a complete overhaul of workflow, both upstream and downstream.
“Put yourself in the shoes of an automobile original-equipment manufacturer,” he explained. “No matter how easy a process change may be, you still need to go and do a completely new validation, because you don’t know how it will impact the entire system.”
He said printing applications for electrode manufacturing could be the technology that tips the scales. “Printing allows combinatorial materials to be printed. You can print three to five times the thickness of the coating we can apply today,” he explained. “By printing, you can put different blends of active materials together on a single electrode. 3D printing will afford us a variety of technologies to produce odd shapes, different thicknesses, different strata with different materials on each layer, and it will work for liquid and solid state.”
“The willingness of manufacturers to devote resources to and venture capitalists to invest in solid state or any other battery technology comes down to discernible value,” said Yan Wang, professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and co-founder of Battery Resourcers, AM Batteries. “And a technology’s value often depends on the application and its commercialization possibilities.
“When you talk to auto OEM and battery companies, often you see that some of them are willing to change, but they need to see the value,” he said. “For instance, eight or 10 years ago there were a lot of programs for metal-air and lithium-air batteries.”
Saluja picked up the thread.
“Metal air batteries will tend to have the lowest cost per kilowatt,” he said. “While we always measure the goodness of batteries based on kilowatt hour rather than kilowatts, long duration applications have to worry about the capital expenditures side of kilowatts, so you will see metal air showing up in the long-duration market.”
Wang said industry and academia should focus on research and development in material science.
“Then, to convert good material to the final product is critical,” he said. “As is manufacturing because 25 percent of a battery’s cost currently relates to manufacturing. Controlling costs and ensuring manufacturability will drive innovations, such as dry printing and dry coating to play key roles in the next five years.”
The manufacturing angle may be difficult for US-based companies to manage, according to Shirley Meng, professor of nanoengineering and materials science at the University of California San Diego.
“I feel the US has lost the race in battery manufacturing,” she said. “Asia enjoys a much stronger commitment from its governments. Upfront capital investment is huge, and workforce development is supported. That’s why there are so many gigawatt factories in Asia.”
The facts bear her out. Of the 142-gigawatt factories in the world, 109 of them — 70 percent — are in China.
“For the US to develop and nurture transformative manufacturing methods like dry processing, we will have to make manufacturing more energy-efficient and sustainable,” Meng said. “There needs to be commitment from more than just academics and startups. We gave up on sustaining [lithium-iron phosphate or commonly known as LFP] A123 battery technology after its rapid rise. We should do it right this time because battery manufacturing and deployment should happen where the customers are — in the US and Europe.”
Galyen, who spent 7½ years at China-based CATL, concurred. He said the company was successful during his tenure because the technology already existed and was available and applicable. “There was no need to reinvent the wheel,” he stated. “Capital was plentiful, often originating from outside the industry, and companies that believed they could leverage the products developed and lessons learned. Also, federal, provincial, and local governments underwrote much of the production costs and invested in infrastructure such as free-EV charging stations. Finally, there were knowledgeable workers and equipment-fabrication expertise available. If you could design what you needed, it could be made right there, locally.”
Arrelaine Dameron, vice president of research and development for Colorado-based Forge Nano, said she believes the US can catch up to Asia by adhering to a plan.
“It takes two to three years to stand up a factory, so industry should focus on several near-term goals:
- Reducing Capital and Operating Costs,
- Dry Processing,
- Front-end Production and Recycling,
- Coating and Materials Modification to Increase Capacity,
- Durability for Extreme Charge.
“Materials that can be used with the same tooling will be useful, as manufacturing innovation will have minimal downstream process impacts,” Dameron said. “Automation in the battery manufacturing and processes — not one single thing, but many — will drive yield higher.
Foundry Energy’s Chamberlain believes that of the six priorities Dameron outlined, materials modification will be the most difficult to achieve.
“Materials platforms are so challenging to commercialize,” she reasoned. “Developing new materials is harder than enhancing existing materials. Entrepreneurs don’t want to build plants that call for new tools, equipment, and workflow, unless the innovation provides an improvement three-, five-, or 10-fold. Only then does it make sense to devote capital expenditures for a factory.”
TDK Ventures was thrilled to present Energy Week, and the lively discussion that punctuated Day 1 was a harbinger of the valuable information panelists and moderators would provide throughout the week. Our objective in designing this event was to inspire a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs, who will help solve the biggest problems in energy we face. We believe the information presented during Energy Week will help inspire startups and investors to identify opportunities, where they can contribute to a more sustainable planet — an objective squarely aligned with TDK Ventures’ mission. Through these discussions with the who’s who in the energy industry, we hope to stimulate long-lasting conversation and engagement in our EX-community that will lead to meaningful actions to help improve and future-proof our world for generations to come.
Each Friday over the coming months, we will recap the insights the presentations brought forth, and we will publish a series of articles based on the issues, challenges, and opportunities identified.
Please view the entire webinar for Day 1 of Energy Week here: