By John Garvey | Nov 13, 2017
Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado
Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: 3D Lithium-ion batteries
It's the biggest bottleneck in the alternative energy value chain as well as the development of cordless devices. Battery storage. The best available lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries lack design flexibility so devices often have to be designed around their batteries instead of the other way around. There's also an unfortunate trade-off between shorter charging times and longevity.
A lot of this has to do with the layered, 2D architecture and chemistry of batteries, including Li-ion batteries, requiring them to be boxy and limiting the speed and direction that electrons can flow.
Enter Prieto Battery.
"Batteries right now are limiting almost all the applications that they're put into," states Dr. Amy Prieto, founder and CEO. A chemistry professor at Colorado State University with a doctorate from University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Prieto piloted a solid-state, 3D Li-ion battery several years ago at the CSU Research Innovation Center.
Instead of sheets of layered metal, Prieto batteries integrate a copper foam substrate, making its shape much more customizable and providing other functional advantages. All this should amount to shorter charge times, improved safety, greater design flexibility and greater longevity compared to other batteries. To a large extent, the underlying theory has been tested and confirmed. Prieto Battery has secured several coveted grants and partnerships and is well along the path to commercialization.
Tests have shown that Prieto batteries can achieve over 1,000 cycles, which is about double what would be expected of a smartphone battery, says Prieto.
"We are trying to combine several key battery metrics. Usually a battery is designed to either have a lot of energy density, or be fast, or last a long time. We are really trying to be able to combine fast and long time while still maintaining really good energy density."
Prieto Battery has received two State of Colorado Advanced Industry Accelerator grants and secured high-profile partnerships with Intel (2015), Stanley Ventures (2016) and Moses Lake Industries (2017). Intel and Prieto are working to introduce new rechargeable battery solutions for computing devices. Stanley Ventures, the recently formed venture arm of Stanley Black & Decker, hopes to advance the development of cordless power tools. Because of the amount of power they demand, available technologies don't cut it.
In April 2017, Prieto signed a memorandum of understanding with Moses Lake Industries (MLI), based in Moses Lake, Washington. MLI specializes in developing chemical solutions for the semiconductor industry, including high volume electroplating. This is MLI's first foray into the battery industry.
A key part of the company's mission is environmentally safe manufacturing. For instance, the company doesn't rely on caustic industrial solutions for production. The company has also held discussions with hybrid-electric vehicle manufacturers, although no formal collaboration has taken shape yet. Prieto also thinks this technology could make cordless construction sites a reality.
Prieto's technology is also applicable to industrial scale storage such as solar- and wind farms. Prieto Batteries will be competitively priced to boot, if their assumptions prove correct.
"We intentionally chose a manufacturing method -- electroplating -- that is very amenable to scaling up," explains Prieto.
The chemical composition and large surface area of the anode, another advantage of the battery's architecture, allows it to store more lithium per unit volume than conventional graphite anodes. It also significantly improves conductivity. Further, solid state batteries have advantages over batteries with liquid electrolytes including longer cycles, higher power density and reduced flammability. To Prieto's knowledge, nobody else is in the process of commercializing 3D Li-ion battery technologies.
"There is, I would say, a lot of urgency and a lot of interest in the field in trying to develop solid state batteries," says Prieto, who hopes to have some good beta prototypes and thorough testing completed by the end of 2017.
The firm has eight patents issued and 19 pending, representing six families of patent filed in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea, and China. CSU Ventures, the university's tech transfer office, has been instrumental in developing an IP strategy. Prieto Battery's patent attorney is also a trained chemist.
"We have taken a very different approach than most battery startups," Prieto states. "The conventional way to try to do this in the U.S. would be to raise a really large amount of capital and build a facility from the ground up while you're trying to develop prototypes. We've tried to flip that around in that we tried to raise only what we needed to get to functional prototypes and then use really key partnerships to expand our team. I think that's working really well."
Prieto also credits the "incredible support" of local investors and CSU for helping to attract high-profile strategic partners. She sees this technology as a game changer. "In three to five years I hope that you're buying power tools and computing devices that have Prieto 3D Batteries in them. By the three year mark I would like to have a formal partnership with one of these auto manufacturers we've been talking to."
Challenges: "Delivering beta prototypes and readying for commercialization, including honing in on the specifics of the first applications where Prieto can make a difference," says Prieto.
Opportunities: Prieto highlights a few key markets: "Our business plan is to first develop these batteries for smaller format applications, so computing devices and applications in the power tool industry. This is largely driven by our two strategic investors -- Intel Capital and Stanley Ventures, from Stanley Black & Decker. But the ultimate goal is then to be able to scale up to larger and larger packs so that we can get to electric vehicles and even then also to grid level storage."
Needs: Funding. Prieto Battery is finishing up a Series B-1 capital raise to get the product to commercialization.