By Eric Peterson | Jun 27, 2022
Cobalt-free cathode materials
As most manufacturers know, single-source supply chains are almost guaranteed to fail. However, that's the case in the modern cathode industry. Unlike anodes -- usually made of plentiful graphite -- cathodes rely on rare and expensive cobalt as a key ingredient.
"Cobalt is in all of the cathodes that are high-energy," says Erickson. "Conventional wisdom is: You need cobalt for high-energy cathodes."
That's problematic for several reasons. Cobalt is scarce -- it is only found in a singular deposit beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo -- and resultantly expensive, but it nonetheless became a cornerstone of cathodes because of its stability and ease of surface finishing. "For EVs, everyone wants high-energy batteries that are more affordable, but cobalt's a big issue with that," says Erickson.
It follows that TexPower has a mission to change that dynamic with a cobalt-free substitute that's less expensive, higher energy, and longer lasting than the status quo.
At University of Texas at Austin before the company's launch, Erickson's research with low-cobalt materials led to a disruptive discovery. He says, "I was working on a postdoc with Professor Arumugam Manthiram -- he's pretty well-known in the battery field. He gave the Nobel lecture for [Nobel Prize winner] John Goodenough because he was a longtime colleague."
The team was "working with low-cobalt materials, and saw that it was working," says Erickson. "We tried cobalt-free, and it was still working. We were a little surprised. It's against our intuition. Everybody for years said, 'You need to have cobalt in there.'"
The resulting -- and now patented -- nickel manganese aluminum (NMA) cathodes spurred a commercialization play in TexPower. Manthiram, now chairman of the board, co-founded the company with Erickson and CTO Wangda Li.
"It's a huge opportunity," says Erickson. "Discovering a new cathode is rare -- there's only a few that are really commercially viable that are out there -- so this is a very big deal to have your own compositional patent."
Early projects have demonstrated that batteries with NMA cathodes are higher in energy and proved the concept in a variety of applications.
Now the key is scaling: The company increased its NMA production capacity from 10 grams a batch to 10 kilograms a month with the help of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.
Staked with Series A funding in late 2021, TexPower is now building out a commercial-scale facility in a 27,500-square-foot warehouse that's adjacent to its 16,000-square-foot headquarters and lab in northwest Houston.
"We're going to build a 150-ton-per-annum plant here," says Erickson, targeting early 2023 for the launch. "We'd make one powder that goes into an electrode and need to partner with someone who makes the cells. And they partner with someone who makes the battery pack. We're in the supply chain."
The market is much bigger than a plant that size could supply, so TexPower has a long-term road map to build another plant that could produce 1,500 tons annually by 2026.
With federal infrastructure funding and domestically manufactured processing equipment, TexPower could then begin to supply the EV and other markets in a more substantial way.
Erickson says Houston has proven a great location for the company. "In Austin, they don't have a lot of infrastructure for chemistry startups," he says. "Down here because of the oil and gas industry, they've got the manufacturing and chemistry skills. It's phenomenal."
Challenges: "It takes a long time for customer development," says Erickson. "We're working with some automotive companies, and you're not going to put someone in a car above batteries that haven't been vetted for several years."
Opportunities: Analysts estimate cathode materials represent a $15 billion annual market worldwide, increasing to $22 billion by 2027.
Erickson says TexPower is targeting high-value applications in the defense market in the near term, but the EV and portable power markets are the long-term play in terms of end uses. "The EV market is huge," he says. "And in the long term, there'll be energy storage everywhere."
He says the bipartisan infrastructure bill is pushing a lot of money into the electrification of transportation and industry. "$20 billion is a huge, huge investment. I think it's going to change the American economy."
Needs: Erickson says TexPower needs about 20 employees to open the first commercial plant by early 2023, then the 10X successor will require about 150 employees. "We're going to be looking for a lot of people," says Erickson.
A Series B funding round is also in the cards, he adds. "The bipartisan infrastructure law requires a 50 percent cost share. The money's there."