A Rancho Cordova-based innovator is poised to make a big contribution to lowering lithium ion battery costs and improving their performance. LiCAP Technologies is working on an “activated dry electrode” that is significantly better than the wet slurries now used. Wet coating is energy-intensive, time consuming, and uses a highly toxic solvent, plus it creates a fair amount of waste. LiCAP is addressing all those flaws and getting lots of attention from an industry looking for a better technology.
LiCAP’s CEO Linda Zhong left ultra-capacitor manufacturer Maxwell Technologies in 2011 to pursue her ideas for dry electrodes. Her first venture was EnerTrode in Hayward, and in 2016 that morphed into LiCAP when she moved to Sacramento. Her goal is to revolutionize the fabrication of batteries at dramatically lower costs. Almost half of the energy needs for a Giga-scale battery manufacturing plant are associated with the industry-standard electrode manufacturing methods. Zhong is convinced her innovation could do much better.
However, in order to get a revenue stream started as soon as possible, LiCAP started with the manufacture of ultra-capacitors. Capacitors are simpler and easier to make than batteries. A capacitor consists of an anode and cathode separated by a dielectric material which prevents the accumulated charge from jumping the gap between the electrodes. The key to lower cost is to make the various layers as thin as possible so more material can be stuffed into a small space. LiCAP’s innovation is using an activated carbon membrane that is 100 microns or less thick, yet quite strong. The conventional wet process inherently makes much thicker electrodes.
Zhong’s long-time business partner Martin Zea has been inventing their own production process and machines to make rolls of material at 100 meters per minute, faster than any competitor. The rolls are sent to LiCAP’s ultra-capacitor assembly plant in Tianjin, China, for now. In 2016, the China government lavished help on anyone wanting to set up enterprises such as this, and that gave LiCAP an important kickstart. Now, the company is making millions of dollars of sales per year, with about 40 employees in its local plant.
Dry electrodes have been getting a lot of attention in the market, and LiCAP may have the lead in making them practical. They are smaller, with higher energy and power densities than any other. Super-caps and ultra-caps are used in a lot of products, notably in some EVs to provide near-instantaneous injections of power and energy with very fast recharge times. They are also used in medical equipment, industrial machinery, and consumer electronics to protect against short losses of power or power spikes, or providing an important boost. As their product’s capacity increases they are getting increasing attention for grid support. One interesting LiCAP product is a drop-in replacement for the batteries used in wind turbines to adjust the pitch of the blades as they start to rotate. This kind of high-power draw is murder on batteries, but perfect for ultra-caps that then can last 10-15 years compared to 2-3 years for batteries. They may also become important to backstop ultrafast charging stations. Advertisements for LiCAP now routinely pop up on technology sites and in publications.
But batteries are an even bigger market. Zhong sees that market as her ultimate goal and the one most likely to take her company past the billion-dollar mark. Katharina Gerber has been added to the team in the last year as the Director of Business Development to accelerate the sales and strategic partnerships. LiCAP has been hosting a couple dozen of interested partners and customers this year as word of their new material has spread. They have added a process development area at their facility, which is doing batches of material for batteries, working out the kinks. They hope to have a continuous process in operation soon to start making batteries and getting them to market to increase their impact.
Since beginning the ultracap assembly plant in Tianjing, doing business in China has become more difficult. Zhong now wants to keep the manufacture of the membranes and final assembly in the US, especially with the new IRA law limiting the most generous EV incentives for buyers to those vehicles with a significant fraction of all content coming from the US and North America.
To get to a bigger scale and to build the battery-manufacturing process line, LiCAP will need to find an investment of $25+ million. They hope this will be enough to convince more of the skeptics that they meet the requirements of big orders with a high-quality product that meets all the performance measures. Then Zhong believes they will be able to make the leap to Giga-scale either through an alliance with an established battery manufacturer or on its own.
The CEO has been very quiet about this company and few people even know about it. Will it be the next clean tech unicorn in our region? Linda Zhong is very determined to do just that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart’s Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.