Kaner and El-Kady formed their company, Nanotech Energy, in 2014 with physician-entrepreneur Dr. Jack Kavanaugh, with the goal of moving their cutting-edge research on graphene-based energy storage devices from the laboratory to the marketplace.
The Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor of Materials Innovation, Kaner is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering.
El-Kady, who received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UCLA in 2013 with Kaner, is currently an Assistant Researcher in the Kaner group. He was recently named to the 2022 “Talented Twelve” by C&EN. Excerpted from Chemical & Engineering News (by Mitch Jacoby):
From the lab to the battery start-up
Entrepreneurial researchers tell their stories about how they developed a lab discovery and turned it into a commercial battery
What drives entrepreneurial scientists to take an idea discovered in the lab and turn it into a business, especially in areas where other companies have failed?
The transition doesn’t happen in a puff of magic or a single eureka moment. “These companies don’t just come out of the ether from one unexpected lab development. There are many steps along the way,” says Paul V. Braun, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), who cofounded Xerion Advanced Battery, where he serves as chief technology officer. The idea to launch a start-up may not sprout suddenly, but there are often decisive moments that drive the germination process.
Xerion developed electroplating technologies for depositing battery materials such as lithium cobalt oxide on a current collector (top) and for making highly porous electrodes (bottom).
For Xerion, which is located near Dayton, Ohio, one of those moments came when researchers discovered a valuable method for depositing battery materials on a metal current collector—an important step in making batteries. For SES, a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a major advance resulted from MIT researchers figuring out how to make a safe electrolyte for batteries that feature metallic lithium electrodes. And for Nanotech Energy, which grew out of advances made at the University of California, Los Angeles, one turning point was when scientists realized that their novel form of graphene was an outstanding electrode material.
In each of these cases, the researchers recognized that their discoveries could be the start of something big. These companies have long moved past prototypes and early pilot-scale studies. They have partnered with large, well-known companies and have raised millions of dollars. If all goes well, their batteries may soon end up in electric vehicles and other types of brand-name consumer products.
Moving beyond an initial discovery requires a lot of confidence and a major investment of time, effort, and money. But that’s not enough to ensure that a company will do well. Timing is also critical. One of the keys to launching a successful start-up is anticipating an important need—such as powerful batteries to electrify transportation—long enough in advance to do the necessary R&D to win investor confidence in a company’s ability to compete in the market.
Here we explore how the story of these three companies unfolded.
The story of UCLA-based start-up Nanotech Energy unfolded somewhat differently than those of Xerion and SES. The company did not evolve from a single puff of magic, per se, but the idea underpinning its main technology sort of did.
Maher El-Kady, a PhD student working with materials chemist Richard B. Kaner, was studying ways to use flashes of light to prepare graphene from graphite oxide, a common and inexpensive starting material for making this form of carbon. El-Kady, a member of C&EN’s Talented 12 class of 2022, found that light from a laser or camera flash instantly converted the precursor to graphene. Sheets of graphite oxide (sometimes called graphene oxide) normally stack neatly, like a thin ream of printer paper. But when El-Kady analyzed the graphene sheets produced with the light-flash method, he found that they were crumpled in a way that formed a porous 3D network.
Further analysis indicated that the flash triggers photoreactions that deoxygenate the starting material and generate heat. The process liberates gas—mainly carbon dioxide—which forces its way through the sheets, spontaneously crumpling them and forming an open 3D structure. The finding was unexpected, El-Kady says, because other methods for making graphene from graphite oxide form flakes with tightly stacked sheets. He then studied the material’s reduction-oxidation, or redox, properties using a standard electrochemical method for measuring charge transfer and discussed the results with Kaner.
“It was amazing,” Kaner recalls. El-Kady had discovered that the rate of charge transfer in the graphene made with a flash of light was 100 times as fast as that in graphite, the standard electrode material used in Li-ion batteries. “At that point, it became obvious that we should be using this material for energy storage,” Kaner says. Not only was the material an excellent electrical conductor, but its open internal structure led to intimate contact with charge-carrying electrolyte solutions key to the performance of batteries and supercapacitors. Supercapacitors are devices that rapidly store and discharge electrical energy.
The team quickly figured out how to use a low-power laser and the crumpled graphene to form intricate patterns of miniature supercapacitors (Science 2012, DOI: 10.1126/science.1216744). That work sparked interest from several investors, Kaner says, and eventually led to the founding of Nanotech Energy, where El-Kady serves at chief technology officer and Kaner chairs the scientific advisory board.
Nanotech Energy recently developed ultrasafe Li-ion batteries that don’t burst into flames when punctured or heated to high temperatures. The batteries, which have been evaluated by manufacturers of electric cars, are made with the company’s graphene, a heat-tolerant film that separates the electrodes, and a novel electrolyte solution that doesn’t ignite even when exposed to a blowtorch. The company plans to start producing the batteries in volume at a facility in Reno, Nevada, that’s scheduled to open later this year.
In a video statement about Nanotech’s batteries, Andreas Hintennach, head of battery research at Mercedes-Benz, says there’s usually a trade-off between battery safety and performance. With Nanotech Energy, however, “we have extremely safe chemistry that provides high performance now [and] we are very pleased about that.”
As with the researchers at Xerion and SES, scientists at Nanotech Energy toiled for years to move a laboratory development to a commercial product, with no guarantee of success. The people at these three companies were driven by confidence in a scientific discovery and a desire to make a difference in energy technology in what could lead to a financial windfall.
“We knew it was going to be hard when we started,” but that’s to be expected, Xerion’s Busbee says. “It’s difficult to change the world. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.” Read the full article here.
Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, firstname.lastname@example.org.