Nanotechnology to boost battery development
In the late 1860s, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemistry professor, devised the periodic table of elements. In 1989, when Don Eigler, a noted physicist and leading researcher in nanotechnology, used a scanning tunneling microscope to move 35 individual xenon atoms into a pattern that spelled out “IBM,” the scientific world witnessed how atoms can be manipulated to potentially build molecular-sized materials and machines.
Ten-Nine Technologies, a Tulsa-based company founded by inventor Paige Johnson, is a modern-day phenomenon rooted in these two defining discoveries. The company uses chemistry to develop new nano-scale materials for applications in the new economy.
Johnson, whose background is in inorganic synthesis and nano-analysis, was engaged in research at the University of Tulsa when she was approached by a Tulsa angel investor with a suggestion and a sum of money.
“The suggestion was that I form a business to work on technology that would be useful to the world,” she said, “and that’s how I got my start.”
Nanotechnology is defined by scale — particles of chemical materials that are so small they are invisible to the eye. To put it in perspective, an ant is about 5 million nanometers long.
Johnson was committed to creating a class of nontoxic nano-materials that produce faster and more efficient chemical reactions, benefiting society by using less heat and energy.
“There is so much chemistry in the friendly parts of the periodic table, we don’t need to go into the unfriendly (toxic) portions,” she said.
The new materials were tested broadly; one seemed to be uniquely conductive and passed electrons around the surface in (as Johnson describes it) an interesting way.
Ten-Nine used this material to build some prototype batteries.
“Batteries are the foundational technology that underlies so much of modern life,” Johnson said. “The reason we don’t have wider adoption of greener technology is the lack of the right battery. We must keep investing in batteries.”
With the Internet of Things (IoT), electric vehicles and environmentally conscious energy goals, making a smaller, thinner, more powerful battery that lasts a long time in all types of conditions is the Holy Grail.
The prototype results were promising; the company raised additional seed funding from investors in Tulsa and surrounding areas. That funding supported development and Ten-Nine’s Parity material achieved parity (amount of energy produced per quantity of material) with fossil fuels. This result, which was measured by two independent testing labs, is a first in the battery industry. Ten-Nine’s first commercial battery, a small but ultra long-lasting cell targeting the Internet of Things, is expected to launch in late 2020.
“We realized there was a different way of looking at battery materials,” Johnson said. “We took a contrarian, nontraditional, and unconventional approach. It is exhilarating and exciting when it works.”
Throughout history, all the changes in energy — charcoal, steam, coal, oil and then nuclear processes — began with chemists who were curious. Johnson fits that description, down to the nanoparticle — and so do many other Oklahoma scientists.
As a state, we have a rich history of innovators who take unconventional approaches to solving conventional problems.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org