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Summary:

A Midwest startup wins a big business plan competition by showing the promise of its technology to create a longer-lasting lithium ion battery that also can charge at a faster rate than what batteries in smart phones can deliver today.

Figure 1

A startup spun out of Northwestern University, called SiNode Systems, is building a lithium ion battery using a piece of graphene drilled with tiny holes. The unusual structure can boost the amount of energy that a battery’s anode can hold by ten times, and can also enable the battery to be charged much more swiftly than conventional lithium ion batteries.

While the Evanston, Ill.-based startup is only a year old, it’s made some substantial progress this year, and this month SiNode Systems won over $900,000 in the Rice Business Plan Competition. The startup is now working on raising an additional $1.5 million to bring its technology out of the lab, Guy Peterson, director of commercialization and manufacturing at SiNode, told us in an interview.

SiNode Systems is building on research developed by Northwestern Professor Harold Kung, whose work focuses on the use of a composite of silicon nanoparticles and graphene for the anode part of a battery. A battery is made up of an anode and a cathode and an electrolyte in between, and electrically charged lithium ions flow between the anode and the cathode to discharge or charge the battery.

Figure 2

SiNode’s core intellectual technology involves creating a porous structure in the graphene to speed up the movement of electrons between the anode and the cathode and to stabilize the silicon, creating a sort of scaffolding around it. Silicon swells and contracts quickly and could fall apart easily without a supporting structure.

Lithium ion batteries on the market today typically use graphite for the anode. For the cathode, cobalt oxide is commonly used for consumer electronics while other compounds, such as iron phosphate and manganese oxide are also found in electric cars and power tools.

Lab work has shown that SiNode’s technology could lead to an anode with roughly ten times more energy capacity than the conventional graphite anode, said Guy Peterson, director of commercialization and manufacturing at SiNode. A higher capacity will create a battery that can keep your mobile phone working longer before you have to charge it.

So what does a better anode mean for the overall energy capacity of the battery, which is ultimately what battery retailers and consumers would want to know? Peterson declined to say, partly because the company is still working on that number.

Figure 5

The graphene structure also makes it possible to cut the charging time of the anode by about 10 times compared with the typical charging time of a smart phone at home, Peterson said.

A promising technology needs to marry a low-cost manufacturing process to find success in the market, especially when the technology is targeting the consumer electronics market and there is no shortage of major battery makers and startups working on using silicon and other compounds to improve the anode’s performance (see our list of 13 battery startups to watch).

Peterson said SiNode is working on a production process that promises to be less complicated than some of the existing methods. The process creates a sheet of material at the end rather than a powder.

“A lot of competitors take two steps forward in performance and four steps back in scalability,” Peterson said. “We can offer performance and scalability.”

Figure 3

SiNode plans to supply the anode material or license its technology or both. The company is still working on its business model and manufacturing plans.

From the Rice competition, the startup is set to receive $700,000 in equity investments, $110,000 in cash and $101,400 in office space, marketing and other business services. Before the competition, the company had raised just over $200,000.

Photos courtesy of Northwestern University

Updated at 3:30 PM on April 29, to correct that the technology boosts the amount of energy that a battery’s anode can hold, it does not boost the amount of energy that a battery in general can hold.

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  1. Dangerous_Dave Monday, April 29, 2013

    I’ve been seeing reports overtly similar to this for a couple of years now. Why have none of them come to market? Doesn’t make me very hopeful for this one.

    1. Battery development takes many years to bring an idea into the market. You have to create and test the formulation of the material and make sure it works well with the other materials inside the battery (to avoid corrosion, overheating that can cause fire and a host of other problems). Then you have to create a process to mass produce them. That will involve designing factory equipment and testing it. Then you have to install a pilot production line to show your potential customers that your production process really works. Your potential customers will want to make sure the batteries rolling off the line can work as well as you promised. So there will be field testing by them that will take months or even a few years. Then you will likely need certification by an outside lab that shows your batteries are safe to use before you can sell them. You have to decide if you should make your own batteries or contract with factories to do it. Regardless, you will already have to raise tens of millions of dollars to get to this point, if you can. Then you need to hire sales people to sell your batteries and be sure to make deliveries on time. There are many stumbling blocks along the way.

      1. Great comments. Thanks.

        The question I have is “how many years ’til it comes to market”?

        I want to buy another EV in about three years. I’m hoping to buy one that can get 300 miles a charge (I currently get 100 miles (RAV 4 EV)), and still cost under 40,000.

        Any ideas when? Anybody?

        Thanks.

  2. it would be nice to mention what is holding them right now. i am sure if this was all good, and they would not be accepting cheques worth 100K!

    1. I’m not sure what you mean. The company is so young and at the early stage of developing a new anode material. It has raised a bit of money before the Rice competition but needs to raise more money even after the competition.

  3. Manuel Pereira Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Good News, Are All Innovation News!

  4. Is this technology being looked at for electric cars too? It would be great if the average affordable electric car could get more than 100 miles on a single full charge.

    1. The company is developing the technology for whoever is willing to buy it. The electric car market could be one of the markets for the company. But given that the EV market isn’t growing quickly — and the consumer electronics market is much larger — it makes sense for battery startups to focus on where they could find more ready customers.

      1. I am Eddie King, I know a lot of people has done research in rare earth metal to build solar batteries with graphene very thin layers and it store 10 times more electric with solar
        panels for electric buses,truck.The recharging time is 6 minutes. My e mail is edkingmd@yahoo.com The batteries if it reaches in mulfunction, it will cause fire.
        Thank you for your review about this. Eddie King 06-05-13

  5. Makes sense, Takes time to r&d the idea and lots of money.

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