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Group14 aims to boost rechargeable battery technology with ML plant

by Charles H. Featherstone
| October 19, 2020 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Eric “Rick” Luebbe wants to change the way just about every battery-powered device in the world works.

Luebbe is the CEO and co-founder of Woodinville, Washington-based Group14 Technologies, which announced a deal last week to locate its new production facility on or near REC Silicon’s production plant to eventually make upwards of 750,000 silicon anodes a year for rechargeable batteries.

“We already have a team in Moses Lake,” Luebbe said. “We hope to have 200 people employed when up and running.”

Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries power nearly everything portable, from cellphones and tablets to power tools and automobiles. Luebbe said that while a lot of research has been done to improve battery cathodes — the positive side of a battery — very little has been done over the years on the anode — the negative side.

“The cathode is what holds the lithium when you make the battery, and that’s where most battery technology and material science has gone in the last 20 years,” he said. “The anode has always been graphite. Plain old graphite.”

In a typical lithium-ion rechargeable battery, atoms of lithium move from the cathode to the anode as they discharge their electrons — providing the battery’s power — and then back as they are recharged. In the anode, the lithium ions rest between very thin sheets of carbon graphite. But graphite is limited in how many lithium ions it can hold, Luebbe said.

“If we can make the anode more efficient, and get some big benefits in energy efficiency and cost,” he said. “For a long time, silicon has been recognized as a theoretically better material. It holds about five times more lithium by weight than graphite does.”

Silicon is cheap and is the second most abundant element on earth next to oxygen. However, Luebbe said, silicon expands, fractures and eventually breaks down, making it difficult to repeatedly recharge batteries over time.

What Group14 has managed to do, Luebbe said, is to create a “sponge-like” carbon material with tiny pores 10 nanometers around — about a tenth the diameter of a human hair — that hold the silicon and also have a fair amount of empty space to allow the silicon to expand as it holds the lithium.

“By mitigating the expansion, we’ve enabled the kind of battery cycle life that the industry needs for consumer electronics and electric vehicles,” Luebbe said. “And so the value here is we can boost the energy density of the lithium ion cell by up to 50 percent.”

Because of that, Luebbe said that increased battery efficiency comes at no increased cost, which will eventually make electric vehicles, or EVs, more affordable.

“When we look at electric vehicles, most analysts agree that an EV drive train is a third more expensive than internal combustion, and that still inhibits a lot of market adoption for EVs,” Luebbe said. “EVs are fun and low maintenance, but when you go to buy your Malibu, if the electrical one is $7,000 more expensive than the gas one, it’s often an easy decision.”

While Luebbe said Group14 Technologies intends to have its Moses Lake facility up and running by 2023, he doesn’t think it will be producing anodes for EV batteries in quantity until 2025. So the first place anyone will likely encounter the company’s technology is in their cellphones.

However, Luebbe’s big dream is to grow the entire lithium-ion battery industry by several magnitudes.

“One way to get a scope of the opportunity is the entire lithium ion industry is about a $40 billion industry today,” he said. “But if every car were electric, with a reasonably sized battery like a Chevy Volt battery, then you’re looking at a lithium ion industry that’s approaching $750 billion, almost 20 times the size of the industry today.”

Group14 has already been onsite at REC Silicon’s Moses Lake plant producing small batches of its silicon-graphite anode, and it has begun design work with REC on its full-scale production facility. The company is looking to set up shop in Moses Lake because of the region’s cheap and plentiful hydroelectric power as well as REC Silicon’s production facility.

“We plan to break ground in 2021, and we think it will take about 18 months to complete,” Luebbe said. “It’s going to be a fantastic opportunity for the Moses Lake area as we establish this plant and continue to grow with the industry.”

Luebbe said that Group14 Technologies is currently backed by several major companies in the global materials and batteries industries — BASF (the world’s largest chemical firm), Japanese material giant Showa Denko (one of the world’s largest graphite suppliers) and specialty chemicals firm Cabot Materials — all companies with deep experience in that know-how to mass produce and market sophisticated materials like the substance Group14 wants to make here in Moses Lake.

“Their involvement and validation, I think it shows the world that the technology does what we think it can do,” he said.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

Note: An earlier version of this story spelled Luebbe's name incorrectly.