How an ARPA-E Grant Can Transform a Startup

Envia Systems, a battery materials startup based in Hayward, Calif., has just entered an elite group: the 1 percent of applicants awarded a first-round grant under the Department of Energy’s high-risk energy tech fund, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). Given that Envia, founded in 2007, had previously announced only $3.2 million in venture capital financing, scoring$4 million in government funds this week has shifted the playing field for the startup.

As recently as August, when we spoke with co-founder and director Michael Sinkula about Envia’s cathode (or positive electrode) technology, the company was still operating under the radar, with a placeholder web site (it’s since been fleshed out a bit) and reluctance to provide much detail on its scheme to significantly cut the cost of batteries for electric vehicles. But Sinkula told us at the time that Envia, with less than 50 people on staff, was developing low-cost cathode materials specifically for vehicle batteries and working to optimize other components around the cathode in order to pack more energy into each lithium-ion cell. So what’s the new game plan?

The ARPA-E grant will allow Envia to expand its focus to include anode (or negative electrode) technology. Sinkula told us in an interview this week that Envia will be hiring about 10 people for the project, expanding its facility and getting down to work (in collaboration with the Argonne National Laboratory) developing a prototype of a non-graphite anode for vehicle batteries. According to Sinkula, this type of anode has not been commercialized before because of problems with cycling — so far it hasn’t been able to handle enough charge/discharge cycles to be practical for cars.

Envia doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to overcome the cycling hurdle yet, said Sinkula, but the company proposed 3-4 approaches in its application for ARPA-E and expects at least one of them to work — for a prototype, at least. The goal, he said, is to develop a technology that enables lithium-ion batteries with energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), compared with existing batteries for vehicle applications that are in the range of 100-130 Wh/kg. With Envia’s cathode tech alone (which “has been progressing nicely over the last two years”), he said a battery could get around 250 Wh/kg.

According to the ARPA-E project description, Envia will be using “novel nano silicon-carbon composite anodes and high capacity manganese rich layered composite cathodes discovered at Argonne National Laboratory.” If successful, this technology for higher energy densities could help move plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles into the mass-market price range by dropping battery costs. As Sinkula explained to us this summer, “More energy in a cell means less cells in a car,” creating a “domino effect,” lowering costs for the battery pack, safety controls and interconnections surrounding the cells.

Beyond the two years to a working prototype expected for ARPA-E projects, Sinkula wouldn’t venture a guess at time lines, however. When might we see a commercial product? “Sometime after two years.”

Graphics courtesy of Envia Systems and DOE