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Innovation in Manufacturing: A123Systems, Amprius Score Funds from Feds

Amid the buzz over $151 million in awards under the Department of Energy’s high-risk energy research fund and $2.4 billion battery manufacturing program, a third government funding opportunity designed to help small and medium-sized businesses develop new manufacturing technology for advanced materials has largely flown under the radar. But this week, that third opportunity — a competition put together through the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Technology Innovation Program — has made winners out companies working on 20 projects, with $71 million in awards.

Battery maker A123Systems (s AONE), one of the few startups to win funding under the competitive battery grant program earlier this year, is taking home more than $2.86 million. And early stage battery materials startup Amprius, which is backed by VantagePoint Venture Partners and Trident Capital, has snagged the maximum award of $3 million.

“Inventing disruptive manufacturing innovations is every bit as hard as inventing new materials,” Frank van Mierlo, President and co-founder of solar startup 1366 Technologies, told me in an interview last month. And clean technologies ranging from energy storage for plug-in vehicles to photovoltaics need both kinds of inventions in order to compete with conventional options (e.g. gas engine cars and fossil fuels). It’s one thing to develop a breakthrough material in the lab with potential to deliver batteries with much higher energy density, for example — but it’s another to be able to produce that material at commercial scale at reasonable cost. Amprius, A123 and other companies funded under the TIP program hope to figure out that second half.

Amprius — Silicon Nanowires for Better Batteries: Amprius, founded in May 2008 in Menlo Park, Calif., plans to tackle both sides of the equation. The TIP funds, which require Amprius to come up with a matching amount for the project from private sources, will support development of a continuous manufacturing process for a silicon-based anode material for lithium-ion batteries. The idea is to build a battery with higher energy density using nanostructured silicon instead of graphite for the anode material.

This is not a new concept, but attempts to utilize silicon in batteries have so far been unsuccessful, according to the Amprius project summary, because silicon structures swell and crack when lithium ions move from the cathode to the anode during charging. That puts a serious damper on battery life. Structured as nanowires, however, Amprius says silicon can swell without breaking and deliver batteries with 40 percent more energy density than today’s devices. As Technology Review explained recently, arranging long, thin nanowires in pliable mats helps prevent cracking and opens more sites for the silicon to take up lithium.

Battery startup Envia Systems is working on a similar project with funding from the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program, using silicon-carbon composite anodes and manganese-rich cathodes to produce higher energy-density batteries. As Envia co-founder and director Michael Sinkula explained to us, this research could lead to big savings for electric vehicles. “More energy in a cell means less cells in a car,” he said, creating a “domino effect,” lowering costs for the battery pack, safety controls and interconnections surrounding the cells.

Amprius currently cranks out small batches of silicon nanowires using a process borrowed from the semiconductor industry. But in order to dramatically reduce cost and boost efficiency, the startup says it needs to produce these nanowires “by the mile” at a scale 1,000 times larger than the company’s current operations. If successful, the technology developed in this three-year project could have applications for greentech areas including energy storage, photovoltaics and solid-state lighting.

A123Systems — Second-Generation Cathode Materials: A123Systems, meanwhile, has won funding for a four-year project involving the cathode (positive electrode) material for lithium-ion batteries. The company will be working on a pilot demonstration of “quasi-continuous” production of a new nanocomposite material. According to A123’s project summary, the new material would allow the company to use manganese instead of some or possibly all of the iron in its batteries. This would increase the energy density, A123 writes, and slash the cost per watt-hour.

But making the leap to this second generation material requires manufacturing costs to come way down, and A123Systems hopes to scale up to 10-kilogram per day production of the nanomaterial, from just 10 grams per batch in the lab today. “Since capital equipment and facilities are primary factors in the cost of electrode materials,” the company notes, “increasing throughput offers the best leverage for cost reduction.”

For A123Systems, in the context of its successful IPO this fall and hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants and incentives at the state and federal level, a less than $3 million award for a four-year project may not be a game changer. But for a startup like Amprius, the funding announced this week could be significant. And for the cleantech industry at large, if NIST’s investments in these high-risk early stage projects prove to be wise bets, the resulting technology could help close the gap between good ideas for reducing emissions and serious competition in the market with old school fuels.

Graphic credits Amprius