Most Green Inventions Never See the Light of Day. Here’s Why

This year, TIME’s annual list of Best Inventions includes more innovations in sustainability than ever before. Among them is SCC55, a material that significantly enhances silicon-lithium battery performance (pictured above), made by Group14 Technologies. The company has seen major success in 2022, recently gaining a $100M grant from the Dept. of Energy, but Group14 CEO Rick Luebbe knows his is a unique case in the field of green innovation. He spoke with Barun Singh, CTO of TIME CO2, a new platform to help businesses become net zero and build a nature-positive world, about how we can foster the ingenuity that can protect the climate.

Barun Singh, TIME CO2: You and your co-founder both came from a company called EnerG2, working with materials and advanced chemistry. Was the work you did there foundational for what you’ve ended up doing at Group14?

Rick Luebbe, Group14 Technologies: Yeah, absolutely foundational. We’ve incorporated some proprietary carbon scaffold technology to help stabilize silicon that was originally developed at EnerG2. (EnerG2 was a carbon battery materials company.) And so this is really, I guess, round two for the core technology team here at Group14.

And now Porsche is slated to use your batteries for their entire EV fleet in 2024. Is that expanding to other manufacturers as well?

We are working with almost all the major players in the industry, on the battery maker side, consumer electronics, trying to commercialize electric aviation. Virtually everything in the energy storage space is recognizing the value of a silicon battery. And we’re commercializing today—literally, we’ve got a commercial facility here outside Seattle. We have a joint venture with SK Group, and that is launching a commercial facility comes online in January. And then we’ll be scaling up to what we describe as “EV scale” here in Washington state in the end of 2023, early 2024.

What is “EV scale”?

About 100,000 EVs per module. There will be two modules here in Washington state initially, and so I’ll have 200,000 EVs worth of capacity. So when we say “EV scale,” it’s enough to support a legitimate mass market program.

OK, so Group14 is slated to make batteries for Porsche EVs, you’re scaling up, and you just got a $100M grant from the Dept. of Energy. But many green products don’t get that far. Our climate action portfolios at TIME CO2 include funding for innovation as a component for exactly that reason—we need so many more entrepreneurs to be able to make it to the stage you’re at now. For every 100 of these ecopreneurs, we really need there to be 10,000. What are other ways to support the green innovation ecosystem?

You really hit the nail on the head. Where I see struggle for folks in the industry is starting from an idea to try to get it to commercialization. There are two chasms to get past. The first one is demonstrating the viability of the idea outside the lab. So you need to have data. For example, we needed third party data to get even our first seed investments at EnerG2, and we didn’t have the funding to get the data. We had to buy equipment, and we had to outsource the testing. Fortunately, we were able to run across a local grant organization in Washington state called the Washington Technology Center, and they specifically provided grant money for ideas generated in Washington state universities. But those are pretty limited grants, and without it all those challenges would be difficult to overcome.

The second chasm is getting to commercial scale. EnerG2 wound up getting government money to do that, in the Recovery Act. The problem with venture capital and these ideas is it’s not a fast return. Investors say, “I will invest if you can show us a purchase order for your material.” And the problem is you can’t get a producer for free material and say, build a factory, so you get caught in this chicken and egg problem.

Looking at companies that need to do this from scratch, it is number one, they need ways to validate the technology. One idea is funding incubators. Giving companies very, very low cost access to the best equipment in certain technical categories and better materials. The [Dept. of Energy] National Labs could have this capability, but they are so expensive to work with. It just does not work for startups. If there’s a way to subsidize a National Labs program that could give true small businesses—like less than 30 people—access to these kind of cutting edge technologies, that could get these ideas proven to the point where they can get funded by third parties and private investors.

You mentioned working on electrifying aviation. That’s a particularly interesting one, because it is such a high footprint. For a lot of people, flying may actually be their highest footprint, and it’s not something we can easily get rid of. Every time I hear about electric aviation, it seems like we’ve got two possible approaches: making aviation fuel more sustainable, and trying to electrify airplanes. But that just requires intense energy density, that seems to be orders of magnitude greater than what is available. Not like a 50% bump up, but a 5,000% bump or 10,000% bump in energy density. How do you see it happening?

I think it’s a complete blend. You can’t electrify a 747. At least not in my understanding of physics. As you pointed out, the energy density requirements are just too great. And then the answer is sustainable fuels. Perhaps it’s a hydrogen-based system that is yet to be invented. But I think that’s the direction you have to go.

But for regional flight, I think electrification makes a ton of sense. We think we can enable it with about a 50% boost in energy density. The other thing that is really required is fast charge. If you can charge them in the time it takes to get 20 passengers off and 20 passengers on, now it makes sense. Now you can fly all day long, you can capitalize quickly, your fuel expenses go down significantly, and you’ve got a clean CO2 footprint, depending on your power source. That technology is close. I think we’re going to see hyper-regional electric aviation, where instead of flying from Seattle to Spokane, I’ll be flying from one end of Seattle to the other to avoid traffic. It’s the concept of the air Uber that you take to work or to the beach. It’s going to be transformational.

Most Green Inventions Never See the Light of Day. Here's Why

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