Military grant boosts Chicago startup’s mission to extend lithium-ion battery life

The U.S. Department of Defense is granting Chicago-based startup NanoGraf $1.65 million to develop a longer-lasting lithium-ion battery. The goal is to experience a 50-100% longer battery runtime with NanoGraf’s graphene-wrapped silicon anode battery material compared with traditional graphite anode lithium-ion products. More on that project after today’s headlines…

Today’s headlines:

🚜 AGRICULTURE: Argonne National Laboratory unveiled research quantifying how much farms could reduce their emissions by adopting more sustainable farming processes and novel technologies.

  • The research focused on Midwest corn belt states and examined how different practices and technologies affect corn’s carbon intensity. This includes soil organic carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from farming and manufacturing equipment.
  • The research has implications for biofuel production, namely ethanol, and reducing the carbon intensity of biofuels.

***SPONSORED LINK: The Cleanie Awards — the #1 awards program in clean technology — is now accepting applications! Submit to win, or contact us with any questions. Applications close July 30.***

🌞 SOLAR: Solar Power World explains how Wauwatosa, Wisconsin-based Current Electric helped residents in the village of La Farge, Wisconsin, add new rooftop solar and energy storage technologies to increase their resilience following catastrophic flooding two years ago.

🏃 ON THE MOVE: The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal highlighted Bloomington, Minnesota-based building controls startup 75F (previously featured in Centered) for its “Cool Offices” series. The completion of 75F’s new office came at an awkward time — just as the pandemic began.

Now, back to NanoGraf… The DOD-funded project is expected to provide better portable power options for U.S. military personnel’s equipment, including portable communications and resilient networks. NanoGraf’s battery will have to operate in temperatures ranging from -4° F to 131° F and have a shelf life longer than two years.

I recently spoke with NanoGraf CEO Francis Wang and Vice President of Business Development Chip Breitenkamp about the battery materials startup, which the original founders spun out of Northwestern University in 2012.

  • NanoGraf developed a materials technology that goes into lithium-ion batteries that helps them to be lighter, smaller, have a higher energy density, and run longer.
  • It works in many types of batteries that power a variety of products from cell phones to power tools to electric vehicles. “Electric vehicles are the hot topic for the world at the moment… There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening on that in the Midwest, like Rivian,” Wang said.

KEY CHALLENGE: “In our category, I think the biggest thing for technology companies these days is the competition coming out of China,” Wang said. He pointed to the U.S.-China trade war as a problem, as well as the Chinese’s ability to quickly copy or reengineer technology developed in the U.S. “It’s hard for a small company to have a pace of innovation that outpaces the Chinese,” he said.

Another big issue is remaining lean and balancing cash flow to ensure the company grows at the right rate.

“It’s almost a Midwest approach to things rather than Silicon Valley,” Wang said. “One of the biggest issues in the past for cleantech, there was a bubble that burst around 2011 or 2012, was the tendency for companies to raise far more than they ever could be worth.”

ON MIDWEST CLEANTECH: Breitenkamp said he’s impressed with Chicago’s infrastructure of support for cleantech, including organizations such as Clean Energy Trust and Energy Foundry, as well as Argonne National Laboratory, from where many li-ion battery advances are emerging.

“We have survived in large part due to support from the government, a lot from Argonne, but also the big three auto makers. The U.S.’s motor vehicle infrastructure is the Midwest, and they’ve been great at supporting a local Midwestern company with what we’re trying to do to improve batteries for electric vehicles.”

WHAT’S NEXT: NanoGraf is in the pre-commercial validation phase and numerous battery manufacturers are evaluating its material for potential partnerships. The goal is to get NanoGraf’s material technology into a battery in the next 12 months.

Wang predicts that in the coming years EVs increasingly will be built in the United States as more companies and consumers commit to transitioning from fossil fuels to greener energy sources and storage. The battery supply chain will follow suit, therefore growing automotive and energy jobs. “I think jobs are going to come back to the Midwest and I’d like to argue that NanoGraf is one of the companies that will help build the foundation for those jobs here,” he said.

Which other Midwest entrepreneurs should I be covering in Centered? Send news tips, press releases, and feedback to or connect on LinkedIn and Twitter @centereddottech.

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