Advanced battery material startup lands two employees on "40 Under 40" list

Battery photo credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL.

The Energy News Network recently released its 40 Under 40 list and two honorees are from the same Chicago startup, Volexion, which develops advanced materials for lithium-ion batteries. Hear what CEO Damien Despinoy and CTO “Ted” Jung Woo Seo say the recognition means to them, and what’s brewing at Volexion, after today’s headlines.

💧 HYDROGEN: The University of Kansas is part of a collaboration to develop technology that separates gas using renewable, high-performance polymer fibers. The project could increase hydrogen production by 20%, reduce waste by 20%, and reduce separation costs.

A cross-section of a membrane module that contains hollow fibers for separating gases. Image credit: Hills Inc.

🌞 SOLAR: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Acciona Solar Power, whose U.S. headquarters is in Chicago, developed technology to reduce hydrogen buildup at concentrated solar power plants. Hydrogen off-gassing at these plants is an expensive problem and decreases efficiency by 15%.

🌊 WATER: The U.S. Department of Energy is seeking technical assistance with improving the value of hydropower. The partnerships would help to validate new hydropower technologies and identify potential opportunities in an evolving grid.

🚚 TRANSPORTATION: ClearFlame Engine Technologies (previously featured in Centered), which is developing a diesel engine that runs on cleaner fuels, says it has successfully demonstrated on a Cummins X15 engine that its technology matches the torque and power of traditional diesel engines while burning ethanol.

🏆 HONORS: Shorewood, Wisconsin-based SafeLi is one of the four winners of the Wisconsin Innovation Awards, reports Wisconsin Inno. The company is developing a patented material to improve lithium-ion batteries’ energy storage capacity and was chosen for the award from more than 400 applicants.

📈 EXPANSION: Mpower Energy is expanding its renewable energy services into Ohio and is opening a facility in Columbus. A ribbon-cutting ceremony and job fair will take place at the site on Monday.

Now, back to Volexion. Both Despinoy and Seo say they are honored to be recognized as Energy News Network 40 Under 40 recipients, and they hope the exposure further advances Volexion’s progress on the road to commercialization.

“It’s a great honor. I've been in the energy industry for 15 years. … It's a tough space if you're trying to upset the incumbents in a large, established market,” Despinoy said. “It's nice to be recognized on the way to triggering bigger and better things in the industry.”

Damien Despinoy, Volexion Chief Executive Officer

“This is a moment of realizing the impact — that all the work that's done in the lab is recognized in society and in the community. I'm grateful for that and very appreciative for the support I have received,” Seo said.

“Ted” Jung Woo Seo, Volexion Chief Technology Officer. Photo credit: Mark Lopez, Argonne National Laboratory.

What they do: Volexion develops advanced material coatings for components used in lithium-ion batteries and future battery models. The proprietary graphene material increases battery power by about 10 times, improves the life cycle, and reduces battery costs by nearly one-third, Despinoy said. The coatings also reduce battery emissions and are appropriate for a slew of products, from electric vehicles to drones to power tools. 

“Volexion is a versatile technology that can be applied across a wide range of battery applications. We will have to prioritize,” Despinoy said. “I see no shortage of interest from industry partners in our technology.”

Why it’s different: In addition to improving performance, Volexion’s graphene materials stabilize batteries, which is a big issue for lithium-ion cells.

“Our technology stabilizes new materials coming onto the market. They have high energy but are not too unstable,” Despinoy said. “It can take a long time to introduce new material in batteries — sometimes decades. But because Volexion is a finishing technology, we can foresee very quick commercialization, approximately two to three years.”

Many battery material developers focus on the device’s anode. But Volexion focuses on the other major battery component, the cathode.

Helping hands: Volexion emerged from a lab at Northwestern University. The company has received support from numerous entities along the way, including Argonne National Laboratory’s Chain Reaction Innovations incubator. Seo says startups should embrace all the resources at their disposal.

"Emerging battery technology takes a lot of resources and expertise with translating the lab scale results to industry," Seo said. "The scale-up of the technology is challenging and the pathway we are leveraging to address this is to utilize all the resources and partnerships possible, especially in the Midwest ... to make sure the scale-up is done effectively under the rigorous industry standards." 

What’s next: Volexion currently is making prototype cells and testing its products with several industry partners. A short-term goal is to grow the team and migrate from the CRI and Northwestern lab spaces it uses into its own facility in the Chicago area. That will help with scaling up operations, attracting stakeholder interest, and gaining an industry foothold.

The material solution is “on the verge of being big,” especially in industrial applications, Seo said.


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