MALBI, SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Just across the road from a cafe with the largest cinnamon rolls in the world is a small manufacturing plant carved out of the woods that were once rural western Washington.
Inside the building, carbon is infused with silicon gas to create a black powdery substance that high-profile investors hope will be a key component of next-generation electric vehicle batteries, enabling them to go further between plugging in, Charge faster and cost less.
“It’s transformative,” said Rick Luebbe, chief executive of Group14 Technologies, which opened the Maltby factory in 2021 and raised $441 million in funding. The company employs nearly 100 people, and the industrial workplace north of Woodinville is full of startup excitement. As production is underway elsewhere, a research laboratory is being constructed in one corner of the building.
Group14 is one of more than 20 companies around the world aiming to improve lithium-ion batteries – the backbone of the emerging electric vehicle industry – by adding silicon. In the United States, the work has also been supported by taxpayer-funded federal research laboratories, including Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, to help overcome technical challenges that have long limited the amount of silicon in batteries.
Over the next decade, the two companies plan to make Washington the epicenter of this emerging technology. Group14, which has attracted Porsche as a lead investor, and Sila, a California-based Alameda company in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, have both announced plans to open large factories east of the Cascades in Moses Lake.
The two plants will use Grant County Utility District’s hydropower as a power source to produce silicon used in electric vehicle batteries.
“There are many things that make battery packs in Washington state,” Luebbe said. “Power is a huge component. It’s green, and it’s cheap.”
The Moses Lake plant will benefit from a federal tax credit signed into law this summer by President Joe Biden to bring more of the battery supply chain now dominated by China to the United States.
Car companies are turning to silicon as part of a broader effort to design lighter, more affordable, durable and more powerful batteries as they phase out fossil-fuel-fueled internal combustion engines that are spurring climate change.
This silicon technology could also be applied to many other battery-powered products, from cell phones that can last longer between charges to drones and planes that can fly at high altitudes for longer periods of time.
According to Luebbe, products from the Group14 Maltby factory have been delivered to more than 50 customers, many of which are evaluating whether silicon is included in batteries for consumer electronics. One of Sila’s customers uses the silicon in its batteries to make fitness monitoring devices currently on the market.
“Our company already has 350 people [Alameda] headquarters. We’ve gone farther and bigger than some of the other companies,” said Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila. “You know, the battery world is full of noise like never before. “
Silicon is one of the most abundant chemical elements on Earth, found in rocks and sand around the world.
When melted and cooled in a highly purified form, it can be used in computer chips or solar panels.
Scientists have known for years that silicon also has the ability to dramatically improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries, which first entered commercial use in 1991.
But silicon also has drawbacks. It swells, which can cause the anode to crack and destroy the battery.
In a June 22 presentation, researchers at the Federal Department of Energy pointed to another challenge. Silicon anodes are less stable than graphite.
This can degrade the battery’s performance and shorten its lifespan over time, even if it is not charged frequently.
“That’s the problem. It’s something companies, government labs and academic institutions are stepping up to right now,” said Robert Kostecki, a senior scientist working on batteries at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Company officials from Group14 and Sila say they have developed silicon products that can be blended with graphite or replaced entirely without undue impact on battery life.
Group14’s proprietary technology involves constructing scaffolds of carbon materials to keep the silicon in a format that makes degradation a “contentious issue,” Luebbe said.
“Generally, every customer we work with is getting the loop needed for commercial deployment,” Luebbe said.
Even if silicon completely replaces graphite, Sila’s patented technology “meets and exceeds” automotive industry norms, Berdichevsky said.
Some car companies, including Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, believe that silicon can indeed play an important role in next-generation batteries.
Porsche AG was the main investor in Group14’s $400 million fundraising this year. It also owns a majority stake in CellForce, which will use silicon to develop battery anodes.
Mercedes-Benz announced this year that it would open a new battery plant in Alabama and invested in Sila in 2019. Then, last May, the company announced that it would use Sila silicon technology in the electric G-Class, which will start production in 2019. the middle of the decade.
Uwe Keller, director of battery development at Mercedes-Benz, said his company is conducting extensive research on Sila’s silicon products to determine how best to integrate them into next-generation batteries. But he expects Sila’s technology to boost electric vehicle battery range by 15 to 20 percent.
“We had to test it ourselves. That’s what we’re doing,” Keller said. “That’s the most important thing at the end of the day.”
Berdichevsky, who spent his early years at Tesla and co-founded Sila in 2011, said his company plans to start producing silicon from Moses Lake in the second half of 2024 for shipment to Mercedes-Benz.
At the back of the Group14 factory in Maltby, a stack of long, narrow cylinders is safely stored behind a tall chain link fence. They contain silane, a gas formed from silicon that both Group14 and Sila use to make next-generation battery products.
Silane is a global commodity that is shipped around the world by sea vessel.
In the United States, the leading producer of silane gas is REC, which operates a Moses Lake plant built in 1984 to produce silicon products for the solar industry.
Market turmoil dampened demand in 2019 as China slapped tariffs on polysilicon produced at the plant.But in June, REC announced the plant would reopen in 2023 as part of a broader effort to make solar panels in the U.S. in partnership with South Korea-based Hanwha Group
The plant takes silica sand and converts it through a distillation process into silane gas, which is then turned into a granular product used to make solar panels.
Most of the plant’s silane output will be dedicated to making these panels, according to REC officials. But some of the gas produced by Moses Lake, as well as some from another REC plant in Montana, could be used to make silicon cell products.
At the Maltby plant, silane gas is injected into carbon products that resemble charcoal blocks on the factory floor. After quality control, the final powder is finally packaged in foil bags and shipped in large cardboard boxes.
The Maltby plant has an annual production capacity of up to 120 metric tons. Group14’s Luebbe plans to eventually increase production at the Moses Lake plant by a factor of 100.
“The electrification of transportation is going to happen much faster than people realize,” Luebbe said.