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America's Energy CEO Series: EnergyX's Teague Egan on energy storage advances


Nano-technology membranes increase lithium output

Technology can boost battery energy density

New York — An innovative approach to extracting lithium could also be used to improve lithium-ion battery performance based on research conducted in coordination with Dr. John Goodenough, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the lithium-ion battery, EnergyX CEO, Teague Egan, told S&P Global Platts.

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Asked how Egan got involved in the energy business, he said "I've been an investor in Tesla since 2013 at $7/share and ever since then have been a major advocate of the transition to renewable energy."

Fast forward to 2018, he was traveling and exploring South America, when his journey took him to Bolivia.

"Home to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia contains the largest known lithium resource in the entire world, which is predominantly untapped. It was this moment that I saw a massive opportunity with the exponentially increasing demand in lithium, to start EnergyX," Teague said.

The company is looking to lower the price of lithium by making it more abundant through the use of membrane nano-technology which can lower the cost of energy storage. Additionally, increasing the energy density of batteries can lower their price per kilowatt hour.

"Our work originally started at the University of Texas with Dr. Benny Freeman," Egan said, where "we licensed a large portfolio of intellectual property from UT out of the Freeman Lab surrounding technology for next-generation lithium production using nano-technology membranes."

"This work led us to a partnership with Dr. Goodenough because we were curious how these membranes performed in a battery architecture as a solid state electrolyte, he said, adding that Dr. Goodenough's lab is in the building next to Dr. Freeman's lab, "so it was a logical introduction and exploratory collaboration."

Increasing lithium output

"It's really quite simple," Egan said. Currently, the lithium produced from brine is done through a highly uncontrolled natural evaporation process, he said.

"Over an 18-month period, only about 30% of the available lithium is captured because the lithium co-precipitates out of the brine with other salts. By using membranes, we can now control this mechanical separation process, avoid the co-precipitation that causes 60% of that loss, and achieve a 90% recovery rate," Egan said.

Extending that technology to battery architecture, the company is currently testing their membranes as solid state separators.

There are a variety of properties that make solid state batteries more attractive than current lithium-ion, mainly drastically high energy density, he said.

"The characteristics we look for in the membrane technology to be applicable to a next-generation battery are, Ion Selectivity, Reduction Stability, Oxidation Stability, Chemical Stability, Thermal Stability, Mechanical Properties, Processing Cost, Device Integration, Ionic [Area Specific Resistance] ASR, and Electronic ASR," he said.

"We are measuring these factors to see how our membrane works in the battery," Egan said.

But details around cost and battery price remain preliminary.

"We are very far from determining a price for our batteries," he said.

However, the price per kilowatt hour, which is essentially the price per metric of energy, should be the focus going forward, Egan said.

"Since our batteries aim to have a much higher energy density (pack more energy into a smaller volume), our goal is to have a much lower price per kWh than existing Li-ion batteries," he said.

The company is further along with commercializing the lithium extraction process and expects its next-generation batteries could reach the market around mid-decade.

"Our commercialization timeline for the lithium extraction process is 2022, Egan said, adding "we will have several pilot plants in the field in 2021, which will run for 6 months, and hope to go commercial within a year from there."

"For the next-generation batteries, if everything goes 100% to plan we could look to have early technology adoption by 2026," he said.