Less than a year has passed since Quercus Trust and 21Ventures threw down $500,000 in seed money for a small Austin, Texas, startup, Graphene Energy, with a big idea for disrupting the energy storage market. The idea: Develop a technology using graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, with at least twice the storage capacity of commercially available ultracapacitors — devices that have ultra-fast charge and discharge times, but lag far behind batteries in terms of the amount of energy they can store.
Fast-forward six months, and Graphene Energy has used that seed money to make big strides toward its target of achieving twice the storage capacity — at least in the lab. CEO Dileep Agnihotri told us in an interview today that the startup is on track to reach its goal by year’s end. At that point, Agnihotri tells us it expects to raise a new round of investment or secure stimulus funds (the company has applied for grants under ARPA-E and smart grid programs, among others) to help it go into the next phase: taking the technology out of the lab and packaging it into ultracapacitors.
If the company reaches its goal in this time frame, it would be fast work. Back when Graphene Energy first raised funding, it had only demonstrated energy storage capacities that were about on par with commercially available options. But the team has leveraged the resources of founder Rodney Ruoff, a leading researcher in the field of novel carbon materials, and a novel plan to use graphene, which was hailed as the new silicon last year when researchers discovered that electrons could travel up to 100 times faster in graphene than silicon.
While Agnihotri acknowledged that the economic climate is “not very good” for fund-raising, he said Graphene Energy is finding no shortage of interest among venture capitalists. As Agnihotri put it, “Graphene itself is a very exciting material.” It’s stronger than any other material ever tested (about 200 times the strength of steel), and particularly appealing for energy storage devices — potentially an $877 million market by 2014 — because electricity can flow through sheets of graphene very quickly without scattering. Graphene Energy is eying government grants, Agnihotri said, because “like any startup, I would prefer non-dilutive funds.”
This week, scientists from Arizona State University published research on what they say are some of the first direct measurements of graphene’s ability to store energy, and the study confirms part of what Graphene Energy is banking on — that composites of graphene may “be capable of storing much larger amounts of renewable energy from solar, wind or wave energy than current technologies permit.” For Graphene, the idea is to deliver ultracapacitors with super-fast charge times for applications in electric and hybrid vehicles, mobile devices and power grids within the next couple of years.
At this point, Agnihotri said Graphene is also experimenting with new electrolytes, a key part of each ultracapacitor cell (illustrated in a schematic from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, below) that could eventually help increase storage capacity. “Electrolytes used today operate at a certain voltage,” he explained. Increase that voltage, and “you can pack more energy into the same volume.”
But more than a few hurdles remain. In addition to financing and setting up manufacturing (not small feats), Graphene Energy will need a steady supply of graphene — in tons, rather than the ounces that the company is working with now in the lab. Agnihotri said the company is in talks with “a few” startups working on large-scale graphene production, as well as several big chemical companies that are trying to develop graphene production processes. While Graphene produces graphene for its R&D work, Agnihotri said that the company plans to focus on the ultracapacitors, leaving graphene production to outside suppliers.
Graphene Energy certainly wouldn’t be the only customer. The material has huge potential for applications beyond energy storage, notably in solar cells and semiconductors. But those applications remain several years (in the case of solar) to possibly a decade away from commercial viability, said Agnihotri. “It’s the right timing for storage technology. It’s needed yesterday.”