University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering: battery tech spinout Echion continues to scale

Echion Technologies Ltd., Cambridge, United Kingdom, , was founded in March 2017, based on the PhD research of alumnus and now CEO, Jean de La Verpilliere and is focused on developing anode materials which will safely enable superfast charging lithium ion batteries, reports. Other co-founders of Echion are Dr Adam Boies, and Dr Michael De Volder, who were Jean’s PhD supervisors, as well as Dr Alex Groombridge, a PhD graduate from the Department of Chemistry. Jean and Alex met as Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (NanoDTC) PhD students in the 2013 cohort.

During his PhD, Jean would conduct battery material synthesis in the labs of the Boies Research Group, and then cycle to the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) on the West Cambridge site where the materials were packaged into ‘coin cells’ for electrochemical testing in the labs of Michael De Volder’s NanoManufacturing Group.

Those familiar with the West Cambridge site will know that it is the location of the Hauser Forum and the offices of Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer and commercialisation office of the University. After engaging with Cambridge Enterprise in late 2015 and working with them to refine their investment case, Echion Technologies closed its £1.5M Seed Funding round (led by Cambridge Enterprise) at the end of 2018, having already secured £1.5M in Government Grants by this stage.

With its first round of funding, Echion grew faster than imagined. “The company initially housed its equipment and facilities within the Department, including a rudimentary ‘office’, in an unused desk space next door to Adam Boies’ office. However, Echion quickly outgrew this space in a matter of months and in April 2019, we moved into brand new facilities in Sawston, Cambridgeshire,” recalls Jean. “And already, we’ve outgrown this space and are looking to expand our facilities and double our floorspace.”

In late 2019, Echion Technologies successfully formalised a number of important industry collaborations, including one involving the Department of Engineering and Vantage Power (an Allison Transmission Company) ‘High Powered Anodes for Fast Charging Buses’ and another with long-time Department of Engineering collaborator, Johnson Matthey ‘Commercialisation Roadmap for Niobium xEv Anodes (CORNEA)’. Echion’s materials enable superfast (6 minutes, full charge) charging lithium-ion batteries that are safe, reliable and have long cycle life. Today’s lithium-ion batteries cannot superfast charge without significant compromises or drawbacks and charging rate is fundamentally limited by existing anode technology. “Around 95% of anodes in lithium-ion batteries today are based on graphite or graphite mixed with silicon. The remainder are typically ‘Lithium Titanate’ or LTO, which can fast charge but has its own compromises. Echion’s Mixed Niobium Oxide technology is positioned and proven to be an effective replacement for Graphite and LTO anodes in high power, superfast charging cells as it provides greater energy densities amongst other key advantages, like retained performance at -20oC, or exceptional cell safety,” says Alex Groombridge, CTO.

Safe and reliable superfast charging batteries are widely predicted to increase the uptake in electric vehicles and energy transition by:

  • Alleviating ‘range anxiety’ for EV users
  • Allowing systems designers more flexibility in the size of the batteries for their products. No longer would they need to specify or design for very large battery packs, if there are opportunities for recharging during the day, as this can be done very quickly, and not inconvenience the end user.
  • Allowing for smaller battery packs (in some case, halving the size required), Echion could help reduce the total amount of resources and energy required to produce batteries, helping make the industry more sustainable.

A big challenge for any new battery material and anode development, is being able to demonstrate results in full cells, matched with an appropriate cathode technology. To this end, Echion has successfully demonstrated its superfast charging capabilities in 3Ah pouch cells as well as 12.5 Ah cells, their largest cells to date. Echion are supporting the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science and continue to support research at the Department, for example in a recent EPSRC grant award for research into next-generation batteries to power up electric vehicles.

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