Juan José Vilatela works at IMDEA Materials Institute in Madrid, Spain, where he is a specialist in nanomaterial development. We spoke with Juan about his new company, Floatech, and his latest scientific findings – particularly the development of silicon nanowires that are cheaper, more efficient, and sustainable.
What is your technological innovation?
We have a new process to manufacture silicon anodes for lithium-ion batteries. This is an innovative process because we have eliminated all solvents and mixing steps from the manufacturing, which we believe will make the entire process far more sustainable and cost-effective than competing processes.
Other than the silicon anodes, what other specific frontier materials are being used in this process?
There are silicon nanowires that are produced from a metallic nanocatalyst. And in addition, we introduced a carbon conductor to provide electronic conductivity to the electrodes, which represents specific examples of frontier materials.
What are some of the specific applications for these silicon nanowires, and what technologies are they most suited for?
They are ideally suited to lithium-ion batteries because silicon has about ten times more electrochemical capacity than graphite. However, silicon expands when it stores lithium and can eventually fracture. We solved this problem by making the material nanosized, reducing its dimensions, and making the material smaller than the critical crack size. In other words, it has become too small to fracture.
It is this ‘unfracturing’ characteristic that makes our silicon nanowires ideal applications for nanomaterials, especially when done in the form of nanowires as opposed to nanoparticles, because this enables us to achieve a network electrode that is freestanding and doesn't need any additional reinforcing materials. People that have tried using nanoparticles ended up with a granular material that required the introduction of some reinforcing solvents, polymers, or a reinforcing face. On the other hand, our team created our silicon nanowire to develop into an entire self-reinforcing network material, rather than a granular powder formed with nanoparticles, which we found was stronger, cheaper, and more sustainable.
How easy is it to mass-produce these nanowires?
We believe this technology is fully scalable. The reason is that there are related gas-phase processes that have already been industrialized. For example, all the black carbon that is used in car tires is already produced in a continuous gas-phase process, which is on a scale of thousands of tonnes per year. Our nanowire production process has some similarities to this process, and therefore we’ve been able to increase our production rapidly. This has led us to think we could scale up these processes relatively quickly as well. My team and I are currently working on demonstrating our technology in a mobile phone-type battery. And again, this is on top of the fact that our entire process creates zero solvent waste because it doesn’t require any processing solvent whatsoever.
Why do you think no one has already developed this technology at scale before?
The main reason is that the manufacturing process that enables these technologies and materials is relatively new. It combines expertise from multiple complex fields, including knowledge of aerosol physics to produce the catalyst, a basic understanding of the catalytic reaction itself, a sense of nanomaterials, and basic comprehension of electrochemistry. So from my point of view, it is a bit like a puzzle, where you need to have the pieces from many different sources to bring the whole picture together. Fortunately, I was previously involved in developing similar processes, particularly the manufacture of carbon nanotubes for many years.
Do you think that in 10 years, this process can be used on other nanowire materials besides silicon nanowires?
We have already produced other nanowires through this process. Furthermore, I am confident that we will be able to use the technique for mass-production of insulators in about three years. And even further into the future, I believe this will represent an entirely new manufacturing route altogether, enabling society to make better thermal shields, metamaterials for electromagnetic shielding, and catalytic electrodes. This will happen even sooner than ten years from now.
How do you think PUZZLE X will help Floatech and can be leveraged to elevate your technology?
The inaugural PUZZLE X event was chosen as the leading forum to announce the foundation of Floatech! The event provided us with a great opportunity to interact with people from different fields within frontier materials, such as academics who are doing cutting edge research but also industrialization and manufacturing experts, as well as stakeholder investors looking to discover revolutionary new technologies.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Floatech?
Where to start! I would say that the biggest challenge is that we need to demonstrate scalability, cost-effectiveness, and extended durability simultaneously. We must ensure that we are advancing on all these different fronts in a coordinated way; that is the most pressing challenge because maintaining that collaborative effort on scale, performance, and sustainability is not easy. Still, we have high hopes for the future!