Battery Chats: Richard Wang, CEO & Co-Founder at Cuberg
And an overview of lithium metal anode technology.
In this issue, we chat with Richard Wang, CEO and Co-Founder at Cuberg. If you enjoy this newsletter please give us a share and subscribe!
Lithium metal anodes
There is an increased need for advanced battery technologies in smaller and lighter packages, with more applications in the mobility sector requiring increased power and energy than conventional lithium-ion technologies can deliver. This includes applications like long-range electric vehicles (>500km) and high power applications like eVTOLs.
Commercial lithium-ion batteries based on graphite anodes are hitting a plateau that limits performance. Lithium metal is seen as (one of the) holy grails for higher energy anode materials to replace graphite (lithium is the lightest metal in the periodic table with a theoretical capacity of 3862 mAh/g), and end-users are developing lithium metal technologies to push cell performance. At a cell level, there is academic research and startups working with energy density upwards of 500 Wh/kg and 1000 Wh/L!
However, there are key challenges associated with incorporating a lithium metal anode.
Perhaps the main challenge: uneven lithium deposition can lead to dendrite growth, resulting in internal shorts of the battery. This is also related to anode volume changes during charging and discharging due to the hostless nature of lithium metal and can lead to pulverization (destruction) of the anode. Lithium metal can also break off, leading to the loss of lithium (“dead lithium”), all of this leading to low Coulombic efficiency.
Side reactions of lithium metal with the electrolyte eventually corrode the lithium anode. This forms an unstable SEI layer which can repeatedly break and re-form, depleting the electrolyte and causing a vicious cycle of corrosion.
Safety concerns need to be addressed. The high reactivity of lithium (with oxygen/moisture), as well as the need for a low defect rate (to prevent dendrite growth), needs to be properly managed in the manufacturing step.
While potentially more simple to use a metal foil vs. graphite/silicon anodes, manufacturing lithium metal anode foils with a wide format is still very early in development with no commercial suppliers yet!
Not an entirely new development - the lithium metal battery was first invented in the 1970s using lithium anode and titanium disulfide (TiS2) cathode, but faltered due to dendritic issues. Today, several key players have emerged in the space including Cuberg (acquired by Northvolt), SES (recently hosted #SESBatteryWorld), Factorial Energy, Sion Power, QuantumScape, Soelect, LiBAMA, and many more. In addition, innovators have emerged working on supplying these scalable lithium metal anode foils like Pure Lithium and Li-Metal.
We sat down with Richard Wang (Co-Founder & CEO at Cuberg, full interview below!) to learn more about the company. Cuberg batteries combine a lithium metal anode with a proprietary liquid electrolyte that suppresses dendrite formation and ensures uniform lithium plating which enables high energy density and high power capability. The company has expertise in building lithium metal batteries and delivering cells to 20+ customers. In addition, Cuberg was recently acquired by Northvolt and is able to leverage scale production capabilities and deep experience in battery recycling. To date, Cuberg’s efforts have been focused on the aviation industry and enabling electrification in an industry that has struggled to do so in the past. Through 2021, Cuberg has made large advancements in chemistry development as well as optimizing cell formats for various aviation customers, helping make the electrification of the aviation sector more of a reality.
Advanced Science. Confronting the Challenges in Lithium Anodes for Lithium Metal Batteries
Journal of Energy Chemistry. Lithium metal anodes: Present and future.
🔋 Battery Chats: Richard Wang, Co-Founder & CEO at Cuberg
Cuberg is commercializing next-generation battery technology to power the future of electric mobility. The company was acquired in 2021 by Northvolt, a global supplier of sustainable, high-quality battery cells and systems. As Northvolt's Advanced Technology Center operating in Silicon Valley, Cuberg is developing and commercializing lithium metal batteries, building an innovation ecosystem around lithium-ion technology, and leveraging Northvolt's state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities to rapidly scale up production of advanced batteries. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Intercalation: Great to chat with you! Can you give a rundown of what you’ve been doing for the last few years?
Richard: We're developing a lithium metal cell technology based on a liquid electrolyte. It spun out of my Stanford 2016 PhD work and our thesis is how do you make next-generation technology work with maximum scalability and compatibility on infrastructure?
At the end of the day, lithium-ion batteries have progressed so far that anything that requires rethinking or reimagining of what that looks like is not going to work. Even if it works at a product and technology level, it's not going to scale fast enough to make a real difference in the climate crisis. If we want next-gen technologies to actually do something big, you have to start transitioning to extreme technologies as fast as possible and the only way to do this is by piggybacking on all the existing momentum to build out gigafactories this decade. That's why we're focused on liquid electrolytes in a way that's relatively uncommon. Other than SES, there's nobody else working on it in a really prominent way.
With Northvolt, we have an exciting opportunity. We're not directly going to the automotive industry which is ruthless when it comes to costs and a relatively commoditized industry. Aviation, on the other hand, has a much higher value proposition for next-generation technology and a better fit for early commercialization.
Intercalation: I remember Cuberg was part of the Boeing accelerator many years ago. Is that kind of the accelerator that shaped you towards moving towards the aviation industry?
Richard: Boeing invested in us back in 2018 and sparked a good amount of interest in the aviation space. It was a mutual interest, we were already interested in exploring aviation. Through Boeing, we got a lot more traction and visibility in the aviation industry as well. We've been working on it for more than three years at this point.
Intercalation: Cuberg has been on such a journey! How has it been since you first started as a fresh spinout? And then you got your first round of funding, what were the big changes from pre-funding to funding? And then going forward, what were the key changes going from being a private company to being acquired by Northvolt?
Richard: Before the acquisition, we had built a good foundation of customer attraction in the aviation industry and we were shipping cell samples to companies in the space. But the maturity was still low, not where we wanted it. We were still a small startup. We didn't have a longer-term plan, resources and expertise to back up that we could ultimately become a trusted supplier in the aviation industry.
With Northvolt, it really changed the dynamic. Northvolt has tremendous manufacturing as well as financial resources and have committed to making lithium metal batteries work in aviation and eventually in automotive. We've seen a tremendous shift in terms of how the industry perceives us. At the end of the day, they're already building out tremendous gigafactory capacity around the world. It isn't much of a stretch to say that we could deploy our technology and become a large credible supplier.
We're able to leverage the scale that Northvolt has. If you’re a startup and you've never done manufacturing, you can now do it for the first time. Jumping to a gigafactory scale as a first move is a very risky move, whereas we're more cautious. We're tackling aviation and we have all the manufacturing resources. That's helped us to mature our product, our process, and our production capacity much faster.
Intercalation: How has your role changed as CEO? I imagined it was completely different pre and post-acquisition.
Richard: I don't need to do fundraising anymore! That's pretty nice. Northvolt has lots of resources so they've done this internally for the most part.
Beyond that, I spend a lot more time engaging internally and see how can Cuberg can leverage the broader resources in terms of expertise, particularly engineering expertise around scale. We've also built out a technology scouting responsibility seeing what are the next exciting startups coming down the pipeline and working with them at an early stage, before integrating them into the normal sort of portfolio of technologies that they want to fly.
Intercalation: Going back to your comment about scale, when you get acquired by a company, the metrics used to track companies may change a lot. When Cuberg joined Northvolt, how did the company’s metrics change?
Richard: We are fortunate to have structural and cultural alignment with Northvolt. Many acquisitions don't go well because the small company gets absorbed into a larger entity. They slow down and there's politics and misalignment of objectives. Northvolt has the wisdom to be hands-off when it comes to the integration, and it’s up to us to go and ask if we need their help with anything. Otherwise, they've left us basically independent to continue pursuing the aviation business opportunity, which is very distinct in their current business line. That’s the beauty of being distinct in terms of the business we're building, is that you don't have this misalignment that might come up where we are asked pursue a completely different set of objectives. We've been doing very much what we were planning to do anyway, just with a lot more resources support.
Intercalation: You've been on this journey for a couple of years. What's Richard doing 5-10 years from now?
Richard: Hopefully, leading the effort to deploy our technology in aviation and automotive at a large scale. There's going to be a lot more work to do to advance the technology and mature the manufacturing.
Intercalation: What are the hardest challenges that you're facing right now?
Richard: It's going through this process of increasing TRL (technology readiness level) and maturing and scaling up. That is the simple answer for any battery technology, that is the hardest piece.
We're not making a solid state technology, which is astronomically hard. Our technology is much more viable, but it's still hard to figure out all the different things you have to do to make this into a product. So just maturing across the board, from technology to materials through to production process, and ramp as fast as possible to meet customer demand in short timelines.
Intercalation: I'm curious about how Northvolt approached you. What was the story of your first engagement?
Richard: It was directly with Peter Carlson (Northvolt CEO), I've known him for a few years and met him at a conference in France three years ago, we've been in touch for a while. He was interested in doing technology scouting in 2019. I remember he would visit us and they were impressed with the progress we have made in a couple of years and deploying actual multi amp-hour pouch cells with different customers, it's just something you don't see at startups our size, or even startups larger than our size back then. That really caught their eye.
Northvolt met with the most of the promising startups around the US, and ultimately Cuberg was the best fit in terms of their own values and what they see as important in the battery industry and a credible bet to scale this up.
Intercalation: It seems like their appetite for trying out new startups is quite high, so that's a good sign that gigafactories are trying to innovate as well. Do you have an estimated timeline for when this is going to be deployed?
Richard: We're sprinting to mature our technology. At the same time, our aviation customers are working hard to design, certify and deploy their various aircraft programmes. We see entry into service around 2025 for a variety of platforms, both air taxi as well as like electric plane platforms.
Intercalation: Is there anything that you want to mention that I didn't ask about?
Richard: I'll be honest, I'm concerned with where the industry is going, in terms of the speculation that's going on in the battery industry and EVs broadly. There’s so much money in the stock market for a variety of macroeconomic reasons, even more money concentrated in the electrification industry. This is not a bad thing. We need tons of capital to make electrification happen. But if you look at the history of battery startups and technologies, times like these are when investors get burned. A lot of companies that generate a lot of hype end up not making it work out. It's very easy to generate a tonne of hype.
My word of caution is to pick winners carefully, emphasizing the need for genuine transparency in the industry surrounding next-generation technologies and the development of their performance, as there is so much misinformation regarding what technologies are real and feasible and which aren’t. As more investment is funneled into the sector, highlighting how important it is as an investor, customer, or professional to understand what companies are delivering on their promises and are making a positive impact on the industry to strive to better the mobility market.
Intercalation: Thanks, Richard!
Cuberg is looking for talented, motivated scientists and engineers at all levels with a solid background in materials science and engineering and/or electrochemistry to help build the future of electric mobility. Check out the openings on LinkedIn.
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