NREL Electrode Innovation Poised to Shake Up the Lithium-Ion Battery Industry

Dec. 31, 2013 | By Devin Egan | Contact media relations

Sometimes big ideas come in tiny packages.

Such is the case with a groundbreaking manufacturing process developed at NREL that uses a special kind of carbon nanotube to increase the volume of active material that can be stored within an electrode. It takes a certain kind of vision to see how a tube 100 million times smaller in diameter than a pill capsule has the potential to infuse billions of dollars into the economy and cut carbon pollution by billions of metric tons.

And when people with big ideas and bold vision come together at the right time, the innovations they bring to the market can impact the world in profound ways.

At NREL, it’s Ty Ferretti’s job to make that happen. As a licensing executive in the Technology Transfer Office, Ferretti is tasked with finding qualified commercial partners to license the innovations NREL researchers develop and move them out into the marketplace.

“What we are looking to do is match up dynamic companies with groundbreaking technologies,” said Ferretti.

And the binderless electrode NREL scientist Dr. Chunmei Ban and her research partners Dr. John Wu (formerly of NREL) and the late Dr. Anne Dillon developed in 2011 is such a technology. The team utilized the unique properties of highly crystalline and long carbon single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) to develop a unique manufacturing process for combining the active materials in an electrode without the need for binders. By embedding the nanoparticles uniformly in an “SWNT net,” they enhanced the electrode’s structural and cycling stability while enabling it to contain up to 25% more active material. The result is a higher-capacity, faster-charging, and longer-lifestyle electrode. For battery manufacturers, that translates to a higher-performance, safer, lighter-weight lithium-ion battery that can be produced at a lower cost.

Once NREL had filed a U.S. patent application on the process, the next step was to get the word out to potential commercial partners. In addition to posting it as available for licensing on the Energy Innovation Portal developed by program manager Matt Ringer and project leader Meghan Bader, Ferretti organized a webinar.

In the audience was inventor-entrepreneur Dr. David Addie Noye, who founded NanoResearch Inc. in 2005 with a plan to commercialize proven nanoscience innovations with practical applications ranging from consumer electronics to transportation to disaster relief and defense. He wasted no time in contacting Ban to express his interest in scaling up her invention. Ban put him in touch with Ferretti.

There are three criteria NREL looks for in identifying a good commercial partner to license and commercialize its technologies: domain-qualified experience, access to capital, and a solid business plan with a viable commercialization strategy, said Ferretti.

Noye met all three. He also met one other very important requirement. Because NREL’s research is supported by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other federal funds, all technology licensees must commit to manufacturing exclusively in the United States.

“From the get-go, this was a key component of Dr. Noye’s plan” said Ferretti. And a cornerstone of that plan was taking “de-risked” technology from a national lab and leveraging it to secure additional investments.

To do that, however, Noye needed a deeper understanding of the technology to inform his plan for scaling it up. With help from NREL’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, Ferretti arranged for Noye to receive training under the NREL Commercialization Assistance Program (NCAP). This new program uses revenue from all of NREL’s previously licensed technologies to provide prospective commercial partners with up to 40 hours of free research to help them solve a definable problem.

During the two-day NCAP training, Ban walked Noye through the five-step process of making binderless electrodes.

“It was like teaching him how to cook. I had all the ingredients around me. I told him, ‘Here’s the carbon nanotube, here are the electrode materials, here are the current collectors. These are the raw materials, now let’s cook.’”

Noye said the training cemented his decision to license the technology.

“The nanomaterial chemistry innovation and manufacturing process innovation that results in binderless electrodes is a game changer because it helps solve a fundamental problem the lithium ion battery industry has not been able to solve for decades,” he said.

To seal the deal with NREL, Noye partnered with Daniel Kumi, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur with proven success turning technology start-ups into profitable companies. They worked with Ferretti to negotiate an exclusive license that gave their new company, SmartEnergi, sole rights to make and sell binderless electrodes in the United States.

SmartEnergi is currently in the product testing phase, and once he’s satisfied with the results, Noye said the next step is to set up a pilot-scale electrode manufacturing facility. With no known competitors in the United States, he and Kumi are confident in SmartEnergi’s ability to become a leading energy storage manufacturer.

“Our innovation … [enables] existing battery manufacturers to … produce advanced batteries with unprecedented capabilities—without retooling or making changes in the battery cell assembly process,” said Noye. SmartEnergi is already negotiating with major players in the consumer electronics and auto industries and has a “projected addressable market of about $8 billion by 2020,” he said. As such, he and Kumi anticipate a need to establish plants in several states and are looking closely at Georgia, Kentucky, and California.

Pointing to energy innovation as a primary driver of U.S. market competitiveness and intellectual property as the key engine for economic growth, Noye credited NREL’s smooth, transparent technology transfer process with bridging the gap between scientific research and market transformation.

“Innovations in the energy sector will power what is expected as the next trillion-dollar market opportunity, and energy storage is a critical component of this,” he said.

With that in mind, Ban is already on to the next big idea. Her current challenge is to unlock the key to the next-generation battery, and she said she has already filed the record of invention with Ferretti.

“If I can reduce the cost of the battery, I can reduce the cost of the electric vehicle to the cost of a normal car so everyone can afford it. This is my little dream – that the next generation battery can be smaller, cheaper.”