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Company builds better batteries

Local scientists use unconventional methods

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The way conventional research goes about discovering new battery material is to read up on it, test the material one compound at a time, screen it and repeat the process.

With its proprietary technology, Wildcat Discovery Technologies can synthesize thousands of material at the same time and screen them in massively parallel arrays, such as one thousand different materials in one thousand battery cells, significantly fast-tracking the process.

But why is there a need to keep discovering new material?

Just like computer chips, battery material needs to be continuously improved, since we need better performing and more energetic batteries.

“Wouldn’t you like to not have to charge your iPhone for a whole week? Or if you have an electric vehicle, with range limited by the battery power, wouldn’t you like one that can go 300 miles on a single charge?” asked Mark Gresser, Wildcat’s CEO, explaining why discovering new combinations of materials for batteries is essential.

Scientists at Wildcast Discovery's lab, working on synthesizing new battery material. Courtesy photo

The startup is not trying to compete with battery and chemical companies. Instead, anyone who makes lithium-ion batteries and auto and chemical companies involved in rechargeable battery research are potential clients it can collaborate with, helping them improve their technology.

Its work has won recognition and awards from several quarters, including the Battery Show, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) and AlwaysOn’s Going Green Top 100.

It has just completed Series B funding, approximately $9 million, to expand its battery capability. Both Series A and B were led by CMEA Capital, 5 AM Ventures and the Virgin Green Fund, which is backed by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

The Mira Mesa company has grown to 32 employees -- mostly scientists -- and revenues have grown at a rate of 100 percent for the last two years.

Wildcat was founded in 2006 by Scripps Research Institute scientist Peter Schultz, who was formerly with the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF); Robert Downs, executive director of GNF who was with General Motors before, where he began GM’s first hybrid vehicle program; and by Donald Murphy, who came from Applied Materials and Bell Labs.

“Our founders developed unique engineering tools while at GNF for drug discovery. Downs and Schultz enabled GNF to look at millions of drug compounds per day. At Wildcat, they spent a lot of time teaching our scientists about the high throughput array,” Gresser said.

Downs and Schultz have developed equipment, devices and an automated process, a robust platform that can be run by scientists.

While it seems like a big leap to go from drug discovery to battery technology, the fundamentals of the technology remain the same, Gresser explained.

With their reputations in the field, the two scientists were able to put together an impressive scientific advisory board that helped them refine a set of platforms where their technology can be applied – not just batteries, but also hydrogen storage, industrial gas separation, carbon capture and electronic inks.

Batteries and hydrogen storage proved to be the ones with the best potential. After some research in 2009, the team decided lithium-ion batteries would have the most immediate impact and began to focus the bulk of its resources there.

It’s come a distance since those early days and is now working with partners in Europe, Asia and in the United States. Currently, it is licensing its technology but in the future, there are plans to make and sell its own material.

Wildcat is working with large multinational corporations such as chemical makers and battery makers in Germany, Italy and France. It’s also collaborating with Japanese automakers.

When a client has a battery that needs to be improved before going to market -- whether it needs a better life cycle or more energy density -- that’s when Wildcat comes into the picture.

“So they’re not quite ready for the market and they need our unique capabilities. In a matter of three to six months or a year, we can run many thousands of experiments on materials that nets them 15 percent more energy or a couple more cycles for a cathode or anode in a battery,” Gresser said, giving an example.

The startup introduced a high voltage cathode and electrolyte this year. It has a pipeline of targets that it plans to roll-out to the battery industry over the next couple years.

The lithium-ion battery market is estimated to be $7 billion to $8 billion.

Within that market, the largest segment is consumer electronics, including cell phones, PDAs, laptops, iPads and power tools, which is a rapidly growing sector.

The military uses roughly $300 million worth of these batteries, according to Gresser.

There are two big segments that have yet to develop. The automotive industry is the one everyone is eyeing, which is expected to become the biggest segment, scaling the market up from $7 billion to $70 billion by 2020.

The grid power market is the other segment, where a lot of work is being done on storing power generated by renewable sources during peak hours and tapping it during off-peak hours.

“Half the cost of a battery is the electrolyte, anode, cathode and separator, so Wildcat is looking at half that $70 billion market by 2020,” Gresser pointed out.

While many green technologies such as windmills and batteries rely on lithium and rare elements, they are not mined in the United States -- the United States has reserves but it’s not ready to be used yet. Gresser said as the use of lithium increases, supply sources will open up more.

Fifty percent of the world’s supply of lithium comes from Bolivia, which has been working on capitalizing its reserves since lithium became a hot commodity.

A majority of rare metals come from mines in China, which enjoys a near monopoly at a time when demand is booming. According to U.S.- based commodity analysts, China has been exploiting its monopoly by manipulating the market.

Lithium-ion batteries have many dozens of cathode chemistry, so the term encompasses a variety of lithium combinations, depending on how it’s used. A stress on safety would require a particular combination while an emphasis on energy would require a different combination.

Wildcat is concentrating on leveraging its main selling point – the scale at which it can conduct discovery.

“We’re pretty unique, there aren’t many companies doing what we’re doing. But we’re fighting an uphill battle to get the battery industry to take us seriously. We can’t and don’t want to compete with the big chemical companies,” Gresser said.

In fact, chemical companies are among its largest collaborators, since they can use its technology to rapidly improve their materials or use the compound combinations it discovers.

The high-voltage cathode and electrolyte material that it discovered and rolled out this year offer vastly improved energy density, which could enable batteries to last 25 to 65 percent longer. While it’s licensing these materials to manufacturers, it is also working on further improving them.

“We’re very happy to be working in this area,” Gresser said.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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