Silicon Valley to amp up WA’s economy
Lesson # 5: It’s all about the batteries
Clean & Prosperous Institute led our second study mission to California last month, which took us from Sacramento to San Francisco to Silicon Valley. We learned so much from briefings and site tours that we want to continue sharing highlights here. (If you missed Lesson #1, about dairy digesters, click HERE. If you missed Lesson #2, about reducing emissions in overburdened communities, click HERE. If you missed Lesson #3, about how public investments from carbon revenues are catalyzing private sector innovation and investment, click HERE. If you missed Lesson #4, about how we can accelerate the adoption of EVs, click HERE.)
What we learned
We learned – or were reminded – just how important batteries are as the world increasingly trades fossil fuel power for emissions-free electricity. Lithium-ion batteries now power everything from our digital watches and mobile phones to drones, EVs, and ferry boats.
Where do all these batteries come from? How will we scale up production? Can battery innovators find new ways to produce batteries that charge faster, run longer, and cost less, while being produced with abundant, recycled, and non-toxic materials?
And how can Washington play a leading role?
Before we share highlights from one of the more fascinating tours of modern battery production that we took in California, a quick tutorial on batteries: There are two main kinds of batteries that most of us use today. Traditional lead-acid batteries (found under the hood of cars with combustion engines); and lithium-ion batteries, that power things like our smartphones, hybrid cars and EVs.
A lithium-ion battery is made up of an anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and two current collectors (positive and negative). The anode and cathode store the lithium and determine in large measure the power output, recharging speed and cost of the battery.
Fast forward to Alameda, CA, where we were ushered into the colorful headquarters of Sila Nanotechnologies, a visionary Silicon Valley startup that is making a breakthrough silicon anode material for lithium-ion battery production. The upshot? Smaller batteries that last longer, charge faster, and are less expensive to produce. (Read more here, in Sila’s white paper, “A Battery-Powered American Energy Revolution”.)
Sitting in their brightly-decorated employee break room, we heard from co-founder and CEO Gene Berdichevsky who talked about his background, how he came to co-found Sila and why he’s building their largest production facility in Moses Lake, Washington.
Colorful in his own right, Berdichevsky was born in Ukraine, raised in Russia, and immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was only nine years old. He studied engineering at Stanford and was the 7th employee at Tesla. With significant investments from both the private and public sectors, he’s leading a team of engineers who are developing anode materials that will improve energy density and lower the costs of EV batteries. He told Forbes as well as our group, “First and foremost we’re pushing for higher energy density,” estimating that Sila’s anodes provide up to a 20% improvement in energy efficiency compared to the best current lithium-ion battery packs. They can also charge faster and hold down costs by reducing the number of cells needed to go the same distance. “If you’ve got a vehicle that has 1,000 cells in it and it gives you the range you want when each battery stores 20% more energy, you can go from 1,000 cells to 800 cells. Now the vehicle is lighter and it’s cheaper to make,” added Berdichevsky.
That technology will help power Washington’s clean energy economy. In May, Sila announced it will open its first stand-alone factory in Moses Lake, WA to produce anode material for 100,000 to 500,000 electric Mercedes-Benz G-Class vehicles. It will all be done inside a converted 600,000-square-foot industrial building on 160 acres in Moses Lake and is estimated to produce enough jobs to make it one of the largest employers in the region. “Each [of the two] production line[s] on this new plant will be about 100 times the throughput of the existing production line we have in Alameda,” Berdichevsky told TechCrunch. The decision to open a facility in Moses Lake came down to talent, clean hydropower and the ability to find a pre-existing space.
After hearing from CEO Berdichevsky, we donned safety glasses, masks and gloves, and moved out onto the super-clean, high-tech production floor. What struck us all was how compact this facility was and yet how enormous the impact is that it’s already having, as young companies like this one compete to find more efficient and more environmentally-friendly ways to continue moving our economy away from fossil fuels.