CEO interview: Pioneering silicon in batteries
After years of development, with ups and downs of investors, UK silicon battery pioneer Nexeon has raised $80m with a key Korean investor to start volume rollout of its silicon anode material
The silicon anode material can be added to existing production lines for battery cells with a power density of up to 800Wh/l, chief executive Dr Scott Brown tells eeNees Power for wearables and electric vehicles.
“This deal was the culmination of a number of months of strategising and due diligence and this puts us in a very good position for the next phase,” he says. He is planning further fundraising later this year to take the company to profitability and global operation.
The current funding comes from a consortium including global battery and semiconductor materials company SKC in Korea along with SJL Partners, BNW Investment and Kiwoom Private Equity. SKC is the chemical supplier to the SK group, one of the largest battery makers in the world, and opens the door to supplying SK plants around the world, including Hungary.
“We have two technology platforms and the first we are licensing to SKC for them to go into production in volume for that material,” said Brown. “For the other platform we have our own plans and will also enter a production agreement which will be thousands of tonnes over the next few years.”
Nexeon is also planning its own manufacturing plant, and how this sits alongside the investment by European chemical giant Wacker Chemie is key.
“Wacker is still an important investor and still has a board seat and a part of the investment, “ said Brown. “We haven’t decided on the geography for that yet but Wacker is still very much in play.”
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“Tens of tonnes can be done here in Oxford no problem but at thousands of tonnes we will need to be in a proper chemical complex so we are looking at a site for this facility right now, possibly in the UK but also elsewhere in Europe. The final location really needs to be market led, especially with automotive customers, they really want to know what the carbon footprint looks like,” he said.
“We are quite ambitious and we plan to have production in Europe, North America and Asia and looking to customers as to who will enter production first,” he said.
Two silicon anode platforms
The first technology platform is a replacement for SiOx, and can only blend to a certain level with graphite. The second platform, NSP2, resolved the expansion issues of using silicon and so can be used 100% as the active material. This provides 50 percent energy density improvement, 20 percent cost reduction and drop in technology, says Brown.
“The limitation is really the cathode – some people use experimental cathodes, in our case we only quote commercial cell design results. In the most abusive conditions we can do more than 500 cycles and certainly for wearables that’s far better than what’s required. In automotive it still needs to improve but with 10, 20 or 30 percent loading of the anode its good enough, and then it will be a gradual process of improving energy density gradually,” he said. “In a 21700 cylindrical cell with the NSP2 platform we are over 800Wh/l with fast charging.”
So Nexeon’s silicon anode technology is not just about automotive batteries but can be used to boost the lifetime of wearables.
“Qualification processes vary and we are well advanced for wearable devices so I expect to see our material on the market in the second half of 2022 or early 2023 in wearables,” he said.
“I like consumer electronics as the qualification cycle is shorter and the product turnover is faster so here’s an opportunity to get improved materials into the design in a regular basis and that comes with a premium,” he said.
“We want the volume but also want to protect the price as much as possible. It difficult to predict but I would say there will always be a consumer electronics component and a trickle down to automotive. For automotive you are still talking a couple of years before you are in production but we are well engaged with a number of automotive OEMs.”
One of these is PPES, the Toyota/Panasonic joint venture. “We have been doing that project for a couple of years now and have given us volume forecasts for 2025 so that’s the kind of timeframe for them but they are not the only players. We are at the A samples moving to B samples.”
“Our funding round has two parts – to broaden the shareholder base with representation from Asia and a cornerstone strategic partner and that completes that phase. The round is not yet closed so we wan to raise more from financial institutions and we will run a process in 6 months for the second close for another chunky sum of money and that should be enough to take us to sustainability,” he said.
One of the earlier investors was Neil Woodford and his consumer investment fund. This collapsed in 2019.
“We really appreciated Woodford’s interest and support prior to the collapse, and we owe him a lot for managing to get to where we are today,” said Brown. “The collapse was a difficult period for most people but we were lucky that a proportion of the shares ended up with Schroeder and we have a good relation with them. Some ended up at Link who have also been supportive of this funding round.”
The company is also looking at energy storage systems to support renewable energy systems such as wind turbines or solar farms. “Energy storage needs better battery technology and that needs silicon so you really need Nexeon, that’s why people see the opportunity,” he said. “Silicon is on everybody’s roadmap now, we have an extremely performant material and it’s a question of getting this market as quickly a possible, so we are encouraging consumer customers to pre-order.”
He has been working with UK battery startup BritishVolt on a project called Silicon Anode Battery for Rapid Electrification (SABRE). “We are keen to do things in the UK – by the time they are up and running everyone else will be using silicon so this is about building the supply chain. We are confident that there will be supply of material to BritishVolt in the future,” he said.
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