The co-founders started NanoGraf Corporation after getting "powerful results" from the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Northwestern University, says Breitenkamp.
Co-founder Cary Hayner was researching silicon-based anode materials with "some pretty powerful results," says Breitenkamp. "It was an obvious opportunity to start a company."
A 2013 win at the Rice Business Plan Competition "validated the technology," he adds. "They got seed funding through that. It was the company's genesis and springboarded it into what we are now."
While the co-founders have mostly backed away from day-to-day operations, CEO Francis Wang and Breitenkamp "have taken over the torch and taken the company to a new stage of growth," says Breitenkamp.
And that torch is all about unlocking the potential of silicon-based anodes. "Our company has fundamentally focused on building silicon anode material that increases the energy density of cells," says Breitenkamp. "Silicon, fundamentally, stores about ten times as much lithium as your typical graphite anode. . . . You can make a much more energy-dense battery cell."
Case in point: Breitenkamp says Nanograf's 18650 lithium-ion cell is "the world's most energy-dense 18650 cell."
NanoGraf's technology replaces the traditional graphite anode with a graphene-encased silicon anode. "Graphene is a relatively young molecule," says Breitenkamp, highlighting the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics winners for their work with it. "[NanoGraf] needed five, six, seven years to build a commercial technology we could scale. I came in 2019, just as we started to lock in the technology."
The same year, NanoGraf grew production of its anode material to about 10 tons a year with a manufacturing partner in Japan. The U.S. Department of Defense has since helped fund the technology development. "They recognized the potential of the technology and funded us to make a 18650 cell, an actual battery cell that would go into actual products with our material. That's what kicked off our commercialization phase."
NanoGraf subsequently closed on a $65 million Series B round of funding in early 2023. "We've raised a lot of money; we're now really going into overdrive with manufacturing, scale-up, and trying to get these things to market next year," says Breitenkamp.
Headquartered in Chicago, NanoGraf has a satellite office in Northern California. Manufacturing still occurs at investor JMC's facility in Japan, but in May, they built a new 18,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Chicago.
Annual capacity is projected to hit 50 tons in 2024 versus 10 tons in Japan. "We've taken all that equipment in Japan through an appropriation that Senator Durbon helped us acquire, and we're building a new facility here in Chicago where that equipment from Japan is going to be located," says Breitenkamp.
The company will use that material for a NanoGraf-branded 18650 cell that will be on the market in late 2023.
"Those will be in the military, maybe consumer electronics, medical, those kinds of applications," says Breitenkamp. "For us -- and this is how we're different from a lot of the other silicon companies -- we're not only focused on selling the anode material, we also have these cells we can sell directly to customers that contain our materials."
"Fifty tons per year--that'll make about 20 to 25 million 18650 cells per year. So we'll be selling not just that material but we'll also be generating revenue from selling those cells," he continues. "Some players in the silicon space have raised more money, but we've just taken this stepwise approach of selling the 18650 cells to support the scale-up of our silicon material."
NanoGraf's plan calls for production to increase dramatically at a roughly 100,000-square-foot factory with upwards of 100 new employees by 2025.
"We'll probably be looking at building out a new space very soon," says Breitenkamp. "Our next step is to get to 1,000 tons of material per year. We're looking at doing that somewhere in the 2025 time frame, and we've talked to all of the big EV OEMs. For some of these large auto programs, just one vehicle can use 1,000 tons of silicon."
In other words, he says, "This is a drop in the bucket. We know we need to continue scaling rapidly."
So does the North American battery supply chain, which is in its "infancy," adds Breitenkamp. "A lot of the stuff built out in Asia, we're just starting to do here now. One interesting thing about the NanoGraf technology versus other silicon technologies is that we're working with a silicon-oxide platform--meaning that our raw materials are elemental silicon and silicon dioxide. We can source these abundant materials fairly easily. Most other silicon companies use silane gas. It's a bottleneck because there's only one silane gas producer in all North America, and it's all in one spot in Washington state."
"That's one of the things that de-risks the manufacturing for us because we're using a different process; we're using compounds that are more abundant and easily attainable. It doesn't mean we don't have manufacturing challenges. There are going to be growing pains for all battery materials companies. I believe we have a little bit of a leg up with the processes and the raw materials supply chain we're using."
Chicagoland is the most likely location for the first 100,000-square-foot factory. "We're pretty committed to Illinois," says Breitenkamp. "Senator Durbin and Senator Duckworth, everyone's been incredibly supportive, and I think it's truly important for us to build the supply chain here in Illinois."