Accelerating battery development, part 2: Wildcat Discovery Technologies

Wildcat Discovery Technologies is a venture-backed start-up residing in sunny San Diego. Launched in late 2006, it makes efficient use of just 32 employees. The company has developed proprietary methods for rapidly synthesizing energy-storage materials. 

Serial entrepreneurs Prof. Peter Schultz and Robert Downs have worked together for a number of years at the Genomics Novartis Foundation, and Schultz, as a well-reputed biochemist, has a long history in high-throughput combinatorial chemistry. The two men founded Wildcat to use combinatorial chemistry to tackle energy-storage materials discovery. In the beginning, Wildcat was focused on hydrogen research for fuel cells, and developed its first discovery system around complex metal hydrides for hydrogen storage. 

“Luckily, we felt that this platform for discovery could be applied to some other areas that had similar needs,” says Mark Gresser, Wildcat President, CEO, and board member. “One of those areas was batteries.”

Gresser has more than 20 years of engineering, sales, and marketing experience, including leadership positions at Material Sciences Corporation, Honeywell, and Allied Signal. He joined Wildcat in 2008, right around the time that the company shifted focus to batteries exclusively. 

“We think that was a great move,” he says. “Battery research really took off with [the Obama] administration primarily. And hydrogen research really trailed off at that same time. We’ve seen a lot of activity in batteries steadily since 2009, and it hasn’t let up. There’s significant interest around the globe right now.”


The incredible bulk

Wildcat’s founders, Schultz and Downs, along with their engineering team, developed capabilities for synthesizing useful storage materials in bulk form, and then screening those materials in a massively parallel way to find out how useful they are. The concept is similar to the way discoveries are made in life sciences, such as pharmaceuticals. In the area of battery materials, however, Wildcat is one of only a few organizations that can do it, and it has its own completely proprietary equipment and methods. 

“There’s a whole heck of a lot of money invested in unique-in-the-world equipment that we designed and built here at Wildcat,” Gresser says. “We have a process for this type of discovery that is unique. Secondly, we obviously think our scientists are great. But also they’ve been trained now over years in executing discovery protocol based on this unique equipment and really know how best to use this process.”

As a result, Wildcat can synthesize energy storage materials up to 100 times faster than standard labs. 

“In conventional research, a scientist conceives of an idea for an experiment – say a cathode chemistry,” Gresser says. “The first step is to figure out how to make a small quantity of that cathode chemistry. Once successfully made, there may be other analytics performed on the material. Eventually, if the material looks promising it will be converted into an electrode slurry, then an electrode film, then that film will be put into a battery construction, and then the battery will be tested. We’ve figured out how to do all of those steps in a highly automated fashion, and not just one at a time. In conventional research, a scientist may take a couple weeks or longer to go through that process and get a battery built. At Wildcat, one scientist is capable of synthesizing 400 to 500 materials all at the same time. All different materials. And you end up with a full-cell battery to test, except now you’re testing 500 batteries instead of one, and each of the batteries is different. Our 10 scientists or so can together do about 5,000 in parallel. It has a real accelerating effect. We’re able to do research very rapidly and compress the timeline for discovery. Whatever a scientist in a conventional lab would like to do in the next few years, we can do that in the next few weeks.” 

Wildcat’s synthesis method produces small samples of materials effectively in a similar manner to large-scale production. As a side benefit, the company also finds out how easy materials are to make, as well as how well they may perform.

Because battery testing is highly dependent on charge and discharge rates, Wildcat’s process doesn’t shorten the testing process much. According to Gresser, it still takes them four or five days to find out if a material is interesting enough to take it off line and test it further under various different conditions. But it’s the ability to synthesize hundreds of materials of interest – whether electrolyte, cathode, or andode – in parallel and then test that same number of different materials in full-cell batteries that has made Wildcat so attractive to its clients. 

 

Battery mitosis for hire

So far, Wildcat has worked with about 40 different customers on 64 collaborative projects, in addition to its internally-funded programs. “We’ve got a lot of repeat customers now that are starting to come back,” Gresser says, “and we continue to increase the size of the collaborative projects that we work on.”

Although Wildcat’s customers typically want to keep silent about their working relationship, they’ve included automakers, consumer electronics manufacturers, major integrated cell makers, and large materials and chemical companies. Wildcat also recently announced its first multi-year agreement that it reached with the Ashai Kasei Corp. of Japan, one of the world’s largest producers of advanced battery separators.

Gresser explained that Wildcat usually comes onboard with clients to accelerate their research process. They’ll have a product that they plan to market in a couple of years and will look to Wildcat to improve its cycle life, energy density, cost effectiveness, the solvent or additive in the electrolyte, or whatever the case may be. “We can team up with their scientific group and really compress that time to market,” he says. “We’ve done lots of cathode projects, lots of electrolyte projects, projects around anodes, separators, and binders in the cathode.”

 

Internal combustion

Apart from heating up its collaborative business, Wildcat has also begun to harvest some of the fruits of its internal labors. It recently announced its new high-voltage electrolyte additive, called the EM-1, which can be put into conventional electrolyte formulations to give high-voltage performance to the overall battery cell. Gresser says the EM-1 is under tests now with some of the world’s largest cell makers and chemical companies, who are testing it with their proprietary systems. “The results coming back look very, very good,” he says. 

Besides the EM-1, there’s a high-voltage lithium-cobalt phosphate cathode, which operates at about 4.95 volts, that is also undergoing testing with some major cell-makers right now. It has the potential to boost energy density by nearly a third over current cathodes in lithium-ion phosphate batteries. 

Those are the first two internal Wildcat discoveries that the company has publicized, but Gresser assures us that there are many more to come. “We’re in a position to own a lot of intellectual property that comes from discoveries or royalties or the possibility of licensing,” he says. “A lot of these collaborative projects tend to be near-term technology. Customers want help with something that’s going to hit the market in the next couple of years. Our hope is that we can make some sort of technological leap here in the next couple years.”

So while Wildcat is not a manufacturer, the batteries that it makes for research purposes only are another big factor in how it differentiates its services. “Let’s say we synthesize a pile of cathode powder,” Gresser says. “To understand how it’s going to work in a battery, we feel the best way to do that is to actually build a battery. That’s unique in that we’re using actual full-cell batteries to screen these new material candidates, and we can do that really quickly and inexpensively.”

Other testing methods may involve creating a few-molecule-thick version of a material and vapor depositing, and looking for indicators of whether the material is useful. “We compress a lot of the normal research steps that go into discovering new materials, or eliminate them altogether,” Gresser says. 

Well before Wildcat’s 10-year anniversary, MIT’s Technology Review named it as one of the top 50 most innovative companies in 2012, and the young company seems poised to ride an explosive growth curve in the battery field. It has the advantage of being able to work on just about any battery type, and as Gresser told Technology Review, “we’ve got materials in the pipeline that could triple energy density.”

Such an advance could be revolutionary, but Gresser avoids making too many sweeping, grandiose statements about EV battery advancements for now. Still, he seems quite bullish on the overall battery industry and its progress, sticking with the popular estimates of annual improvements to energy density and cost effectiveness of about six percent, barring any major breakthroughs. 

“The thing that’s really going to enable widespread adoption of electric vehicles is simply more energy, and less cost in a battery,” Gresser says. “Materials I think are the right place to be focused to get that additional energy at reduced cost. I don’t think it’ll be too long before you have a situation where the cost looks very attractive, and you’re starting to approach gas tank equivalency. I think it’s several years out.”

However long that milestone may take, Wildcat’s proprietary systems should remain that way for the duration. The company’s leaders decided early on not to patent most of its unique technology, because patented inventions make it out to the public domain. Although Wildcat does have 37 patents pending, those are all for new material compositions. The company’s production systems, however, remain under wraps, both to the public and even for the most part to its customers. 

“We really can’t show customers much,” Gresser says. “We can give tours and whatnot, but there’s a few parts of the discovery process that are very unique that we never show anybody.” And regarding the obscene levels of security such a strategy might require, Gresser jokingly says, “we just located ourselves a long way from everybody else!”

 

This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 5 – OCT/NOV 2012