ActaCell Charges Ahead With New Way to Make Batteries

Innovation in manufacturing can be just as important as novel designs or materials, particularly when it comes to energy storage and clean power. On Wednesday lithium-ion battery startup ActaCell was awarded one of nine grants given out under a federal program to support innovative manufacturing technologies.

While ActaCell has already raised $5.8 million from investors including, DFJ Mercury and Applied Ventures (Applied Materials (s AMAT) venture arm), this $3 million award (over three years) could offer the Austin, Tex.-based startup a significant boost.

Founded in 2007, ActaCell is working to commercialize low-cost, high-power lithium-ion cell materials based on technology developed in the Material Science and Engineering labs of professor Arumugam Manthiram at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to ActaCell’s work on materials for the anode (which draws in lithium ions when a battery recharges) and cathode of a battery, the company says it’s also working on battery cell and pack designs, and it has developed a module for demonstration in hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicle applications.

ActaCell’s latest funding comes through the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Technology Innovation Program, or TIP. The program, which announced a total of $22 million in awards on Wednesday, is designed to support high-risk, high-reward research projects focused on areas of critical national importance.

Throughout 2010, companies including A123 Systems (s AONE) and Amprius — another startup working on anode technology — have scored funds under the program. The latest round, which drew 110 proposals, was specifically for developing more efficient, lower cost, less wasteful and faster manufacturing processes for industries including renewable fuels, energy storage and advanced pharmaceuticals.

With the NIST funds and additional investment to meet cost-sharing requirements (total project costs are estimated at $6.2 million), ActaCell aims to scale up production of its novel nanocomposite material for lithium battery anodes by a factor of 1,000. Eventually, according to ActaCell’s project description, this could enable “safe, powerful and economical batteries for electric vehicles and other demanding applications.”

While ActaCell claims its anode material is “in principle, significantly less expensive to produce” than state-of-the-art alternatives, the company is still working with small lab-scale batches. “To be commercially viable,” the company says it needs to bring production up to 5-kilogram batches, from five grams today.

What’s the plan? ActaCell’s proposal for a low-cost manufacturing innovation involves what’s called “reactive high energy milling” — a technique that has yet to be applied at commercial scale in the lithium battery industry. According to the NIST project description, “The scale-up of this synthesis process will be a key innovation not only in the lithium-ion battery industry, but also as a low-cost manufacturing technique for other related materials.”

“Inventing disruptive manufacturing innovations is every bit as hard as inventing new materials,” Frank van Mierlo, President and co-founder of solar startup 1366 Technologies, told me in an interview last year. Clean technologies ranging from energy storage for plug-in vehicles to photovoltaics need both kinds of inventions in order to compete with the old standbys (internal combustion engine cars and fossil fuels). As shuttered startups like Imara and Firefly Energy have illustrated in the last couple years, it’s one thing to develop a breakthrough material in the lab with potential to deliver better batteries — but it’s another to be able to produce that material at commercial scale at reasonable cost. With this new funding, ActaCell has until early 2014 to try to figure out that second half.

Image courtesy of ActaCell

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