Industry: Industrial & Contract
Products: Particle ALD nano-coating
Founder and CEO Paul Lichty has commercialized a cutting-edge atomic-scale deposition process to manufacture better batteries.
Forge Nano's atomic layer deposition (ALD) is "a unique coating technology that allows you to put on a very uniform, pinhole-free, one-atom-at-a-time layer," says Lichty.
ALD has been utilized by the semiconductor and OLED industries for some time, but Forge Nano's particle ALD hadn't been scaled outside of a research setting before the company's founding. Only a handful of labs worldwide have particle ALD capabilities, Lichty notes. "It was first developed in the 1960s and used in large-scale research, but it was lacking a manufacturing process," he says.
At University of Colorado Boulder, Lichty helped develop a new method for nano-coating surfaces that he thought could scale for use in lithium ion batteries. After the university's Tech Transfer Office declined to try to take it to market, Lichty bought the rights for $1 and went into business in his Westminster garage. He soon moved to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Broomfield.
After five years of R&D, Forge Nano closed on a $20 million Series A financing round from Townsend Capital and opened a new 12,000-square-foot plant in Louisville in late 2016. The company is now nano-coating materials for battery manufacturers and end users that make electric vehicles and consumer electronics.
The pilot plant in Broomfield has been succeeded by a system in Louisville that's "an order of magnitude larger," says Lichty. Capacity is up 1,000 percent to about about two tons a day. That makes it the world's highest throughput particle ALD reactor.
Forge Nano already has close to 50 nano-coating customers. "A lot of these customers are in development," says Lichty. "Car companies take five years to integrate any new technology."
The key to the scale-up was increasing manufacturing capacity and getting the cost of the process down. That makes it attractive in lithium ion batteries, where a uniform surface helps slow the chemical reactions that diminish a battery's efficiency and its ability to hold a charge. "Your cell phone used to hold a charge for 12 hours, now it's six hours in a year or two," says Lichty. That's a side effect of all those unwanted reactions."
But particle ALD helps minimize these stray reactions by "engineering each individual particle," says Lichty. "We prevent a lot of the unwanted reactions that occur in your battery."
The end result is a battery with triple the lifespan and higher energy density. "We can add 20 percent range to your car just by using our coatings, not changing anything in the battery," says Lichty. It's also a safer battery because it stymies the heat buildup that can create "thermal runaway," he adds.
While generating revenue via consulting on R&D projects, Forge Nano bootstrapped itself for the first five years of its existence. With the influx of capital, Lichty says, "We're able to transition from R&D to actual production. We're anticipating growing very quickly. We've got a good technology that actually reduces price per kilowatt-hour, and it's drop-in ready."
Challenges: "It's probably getting customers to trust our production capabilities," says Lichty. "Making a product for 10 years, you have a track record. With a new product, you have to prove it out with every customer, every day."
Opportunities: A wide-open market. "In the ALD space, there's only a few companies," says Lichty. "Nobody has the scale of particle ALD we've developed. We're keeping our eyes open, but right now we have a pretty good lead."
Beyond batteries, Lichty sees potential for particle ALD for the manufacturing of capacitors, catalysts, fuel cells, and ink for solar panels. "We have a platform technology," he notes. But first things first, and that means batteries. "We have to be very focused right now."
Needs: Lichty points to a need for rapid growth: "I'd love to grow as fast as the market dictates, but we're always fighting against our internal resources for that."