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June 23, 2020 | Tom Ballard

These are exciting times for Anna Douglas and SkyNano

This is a pretty exciting time for Anna Douglas, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SkyNano LLC, a member of the first cohort of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program.

She just won two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants that total $2.7 million, including cost share for one, and has two other smaller projects lined-up for the start-up founded in January 2017 and focused on manufacturing of low-cost, high-value carbon materials from carbon dioxide.

It’s an understatement to say there are a lot of moving parts for SkyNano right now, but they align very well with the long-term goals of the recent Vanderbilt University PhD who quickly became the public face of the IC initiative shortly after her arrival in Knoxville in May 2017.

“These are two pretty different projects,” Douglas says of the DOE-funded activities. One is a Phase I $200,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award that was announced May 20 as part of a $53 million package; the other, announced June 16, is a $2.5 million research and development project that requires a $500,000 cost-share match. SkyNano was one of 11 recipients of the latter that distributed $17 million with most of it going to universities including three awards alone to institutions in Kentucky.

In addition, SkyNano has two other smaller scale projects underway for other clients that Douglas cannot discuss due to confidentiality agreements although she proudly noted that, in one case, “We have our first (private) customer dollars.”

The common tie between all four projects is SkyNano’s focus on the production of high-quality, low-cost carbon nanotubes that can be used in a variety of ways to address critical needs.

The larger of the two DOE awards is for a three-year project titled “Electrochemical Production of Highly Valuable Carbon Nanotubes from Flue Gas-Sourced CO2.” In collaboration with researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Boulder, SkyNano is focused on demonstrating the ability to utilize synthetic and real flue gas provided by a utility to produce carbon nanotubes through a novel electrochemical process.

“Our process permanently stores the carbon in the form of solid products that are used to help lightweight or otherwise improve the performance of materials and devices, rather than releasing carbon back into the air, which is what’s done in commonly-studied CO2-to-fuels technologies,” Douglas says, adding the goal is to use carbon dioxide to make useful things. “We’re really grateful to have a lot of support from TVA,” including a commitment from the utility to provide flue gas off the end of a coal plant that SkyNano can then use to make carbon-based materials as part of the project.

DOE notes successfully demonstrating the work will result in “improved economics (that) will support the commercialization of the technology, which has favorable market adoption potential due to the lack of sources of low-cost carbon nanotubes at prices competitive to carbon black.”

The STTR award is titled “Conductive Carbons by Design: Electrochemically Tailored Carbon Nanotube Conductive Additives for High Rate Battery Electrodes.” Working with David Wood and his team at ORNL, SkyNano will, in DOE’s words, “develop a cathode architecture that employs advanced carbon additives to increase energy density and lower charging time for batteries that have a direct impact on the deployment of electric vehicles.”

Douglas explains the partnership is focused on developing a partial replacement for currently used carbon black additives to enable faster charging of electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

“Achieving the faster charging that EV owners want is challenging because when operating in extreme environments such as fast charging, battery performance tends to be bottlenecked by the inactive components, such as the conductive additive, which is currently carbon black,” she says. “By switching to carbon nanotubes, you can actually overcome that limitation and enable faster charging that makes fully-electric EVs just as convent to “refuel” as gasoline-powered vehicles.  In this project, SkyNano will make the nanotubes, and David’s group will make the batteries.”

The grant is for one year.

While Douglas did not formally collaborate with Wood and his team at ORNL’s National Transportation Research Center during her two-year IC Fellowship, the program did provide a variety of connections throughout ORNL that have made this collaboration possible. And, while she met some of the researchers at NREL during the IC program, the recent DOE funding will enable SkyNano’s first formal collaboration with NREL.

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