Founders: Gene Berdichevsky (CEO), Gleb Yushin, Alex Jacobs
Headquarters: Alameda, California
Funding: $930 million
Key technologies: Nanotechnology
Previous appearances on Disruptor 50 List: 1 (No. 34 in 2021)
As the electric vehicle fast becomes the future for major automakers, critical elements including lithium are poised to be the equivalent of new oils.
Elon Musk has been saying for years that if there’s any business a smart entrepreneur should get into, it’s lithium refining. He didn’t wait too long to take the advice himself: The Tesla CEO just broke ground on his own lithium refining plant in Texas this week.
Using metals and minerals in batteries isn’t new, with lithium-ion tech commercially available since 1991, and inside not just the growing EV production lines but smartphones — and in the case of next-generation battery chemistry startup Sila, Whoop fitness trackers. But with the ambitious growth targets for EV production from both automakers and governments, the race is on to secure the natural resources needed for the auto industry’s energy transition, and none is more important than lithium.
According to research published earlier this year from the University of California, Davis, and the Climate and Community Project, “If today’s demand for EVs is projected to 2050, the lithium requirements of the U.S. EV market alone in 2050 would require triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market.”
That’s potentially bad for a lot of reasons, including the expansion of mining. But there are a variety of workarounds, from new battery recycling programs to reengineering the size of the EV battery, and its chemistry, to do more with less.
Silicon Valley-based Sila, founded by a former Tesla engineer, is moving into autos with its new lithium-ion technology to help solve this growing problem.
Sila is building off the standard approach of two electrodes – an anode (negative) and a cathode (positive) – but with its development of a silicon-based anode to replace graphite, more lithium ions can be stored in the battery, increasing energy density, and more of the battery can be constructed from recycled materials. The company says its approach can increase the energy density of batteries by 20%, and serve as a “drop-in” replacement to give batteries a boost across auto companies.
It shipped its first commercial products in 2021, but the real growth is yet to come, with key EV partners in Mercedes-Benz and the U.S. government.
Last October, the Department of Energy awarded $100 million to Sila for construction of its 600,000-plus-square-foot manufacturing plant in Moses Lake, Washington, part of the multi-billion-dollar investment in EVs and battery tech included in President Biden’s infrastructure plan. The 160-acre campus is targeting production of 20 gigawatts of capacity by 2026, which it estimates is enough to power 200,000 electric vehicles. Mercedes’ G Class series is the first production line slated for the new batteries, though production lines are not expected to be fully operational until the first half of 2025.
Sila is not alone in seeking to remake the lithium-ion battery, with rival startups such as Amprius Technologies and Group 14 Technologies also focused on silicon, and in deals with Porsche, and beyond autos, Airbus and the U.S. Army, among others.
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