MALTBY, Snohomish County — Just across the road from a cafe boasting the world's largest cinnamon rolls is a small manufacturing plant carved out of the woods of what was once rural Western Washington.
Inside this building, carbon is infused with a silicon gas to produce a black powdery substance that high-profile investors hope will be a key component of the next generation of electric car batteries enabling them to travel farther between plug-ins, recharge more quickly and cost less.
"It's transformational," said Rick Luebbe, chief executive officer of Group14 Technologies, which opened the Maltby facility in 2021 and has raised $441 million in funding. The company now employs nearly 100 people, and the industrial workplace north of Woodinville has the excitement of a startup company. A research laboratory is under construction in one corner of the building even as production is underway elsewhere.
Group14 is one of more than 20 companies launched in a global quest to improve the lithium-ion battery — mainstay of the fledgling electric car industry — by including more silicon. In the United States, this effort also has been supported through taxpayer-funded federal research laboratories, including Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to help overcome technical challenges that have long limited how much silicon could be included in a battery.
Within the next decade, two companies plan to make Washington state a hub of this emerging technology. Group14, which has drawn Porsche AG as a lead investor, and Sila, an Alameda, California, company that is partnering with Mercedes-Benz, both have announced plans to open large-scale plants east of the Cascades in Moses Lake.
The two plants will draw on Grant County Public Utility District hydroelectricity as a power source and produce silicon for use in electric car batteries.
"There's a lot of reasons why Washington state makes sense for making battery components," Luebbe said. "The power is a huge component. It's green and it's inexpensive."
The Moses Lake plants will benefit from federal tax credits signed into law by President Joe Biden this summer to bring more of the electric battery supply chain — now dominated by China — to the United States.
Automotive companies are turning to silicon as part of a broader effort to engineer lighter, more affordable, more durable and more powerful batteries as they phase out internal combustion engines fueled by fossil fuels that are spurring climate change.
The silicon technology also has applications for many other battery-powered products ranging from cellphones that could last longer between charges to drones and aircraft that could stay aloft for more hours of flight.
Group14 Maltby plant product is shipped to more than 50 customers, many of whom are evaluating the silicon for inclusion in batteries for consumer electronics, according to Luebbe. And Sila has a customer that use its silicon in batteries for a fitness monitoring device now on the market.
"Our company already has 350 people at its [Alameda] headquarters. We're much further along, much bigger than some of these other companies," said Gene Berdichevsky, Sila's chief executive. "You know, the battery world is full of kind of boisterous claims that never come to pass."
Silicon is one of Earth's most abundant chemical elements, found in rock and sand all over the world.
When melted and cooled in a highly purified form, it can be used in computer chips or solar panels.
For years, scientists have known that silicon also has the ability to greatly enhance the performance of lithium-ion batteries, which were first put into commercial use in 1991.
Here's how these batteries work:
As they are charged, lithium ions flow from the positive area of the battery — know as the cathode — to the negative area known as the anode. Graphite is typically packed into the anode area to enable the storage of lithium.
The lithium ions release their current — powering a vehicle — as they move back through electrolyte liquids to the positively-charged cathode.
Silicon, when packed into that same space as the graphite, can hold a lot more lithium, and that can increase the amount of energy stored in the battery.
Silicon also has drawbacks.
It swells, and that can cause the anode to crack and destroy the battery.
In a June 22 presentation, federal Energy Department researchers noted another challenge. A silicon anode is less stable than graphite.
This can degrade the battery over time and greatly shorten its useful life even if it's not charged very often.
"That's the problem. This is something that companies and government labs and academic institutions intensely work on right now," said Robert Kostecki, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who is involved in battery research.
Company officials at Group14 and Sila say they have developed silicon products that can be blended with graphite — or replace it entirely — without unduly compromising battery life.
Luebbe said Group14's proprietary technology involves building a scaffold of carbon material that keeps the silicon in a format that makes degradation a "moot point."
"Generally, every customer we're working with is getting the cycling they need for commercial deployment," Luebbe said.
Berdichevsky said Sila's technology, also proprietary, "achieves and exceeds" automotive industry specification even when silicon entirely replaces graphite.
Some automotive companies are betting that silicon does have an important role to play in the next generation of batteries.
Porsche AG is the lead investor in a Group14 offering that raised $400 million this year. It also has a majority stake in CellForce, a company that will use silicon to develop battery anodes.
Mercedes-Benz AG, which this year announced it's opening a new battery plant in Alabama, invested in Sila in 2019. Then, last May, the company announced it would use the Sila silicon technology for electric G-Class vehicles that will start production in the middle of this decade.
Uwe Keller, directory of battery development at Mercedes-Benz AG, said his company is involved in extensive research with Sila's silicon product to determine how it best can be incorporated into a next generation of batteries. But he expects Sila's technology will boost electric car battery range by 15 to 20%.
"We have to test it by ourselves. That's what we're doing," Keller said. "And that's what counts at the end of the day."
Berdichevsky, who worked at Tesla in its early years and co-founded Sila in 2011, said his company plans to start producing silicon product from Moses Lake to send to Mercedes-Benz in the second half of 2024.
In back of the Group14 plant at Maltby, a stack of long narrow cylinders are securely stored behind a tall chain-link fence. They contain silane, a gas formed from silicon, that is used by both Group14 and Sila to produce their next generation products for batteries.
Silane is a global commodity, shipped around the world in seagoing vessels.
In the United States, a major producer of silane gas has been REC, a company that operates a Moses Lake plant — constructed in 1984 — to produce silicon products for the solar industry.
The plant closed in 2019 amid a tumultuous market that dampened demand as China placed tariffs on the polysilicon produced at the plant. But in June, REC announced the plant would reopen in 2023 as part of a broader effort, working with the South Korean-based Hanwha Group, to produce solar panels in the U.S.
The plant takes silicon sand, and through a distillation process converts it to silane gas, which then is converted to a granular product used in making solar panels.
Most of the plant's silane output will be dedicated to making those panels, according to a REC official. But some gas produced at Moses Lake, as well as some from another REC plant in Montana, could be made available for making the silicon battery products.
At the Maltby plant, the silane gas is injected into a carbon product that on the plant floor resembles blocks of charcoal. After quality control, the final powder ends up packed in foil bags, then stowed in big cardboard boxes for shipment.
The Maltby plant has the annual capacity to produce up to 120 metric tons of product. Group14's Luebbe is planning for the Moses Lake plant to eventually produce up to 100 times that amount.
"Transportation is going to electrify much faster than people realize," Luebbe said.