Is graphene a cleantech supermaterial? This startup thinks so

Lyten recently raised $200M to scale up production of batteries made with graphene, a material that’s light, strong, conductive — and elusive.
By Eric Wesoff

  • Link copied to clipboard
A gridded template of black-and-white microscopic images of graphene

Since its discovery in 2004, graphene has been heralded as a miracle material. Lighter and stronger than steel and as hard as a diamond, it’s also a robust and flexible conductor of electrical and thermal energy. These properties are why graphene holds great promise for a range of clean energy applications — as long as it can be built inexpensively and at scale.

Lyten, a San Jose, California–based startup, aims to perfect advanced graphene production in order to harness its potential performance and cost benefits. Earlier this month, the company announced it had raised $200 million to scale manufacturing of its 3D graphene material with a range of initial applications and production, including next-gen batteries.

Conventional 2D graphene is pretty simple,” according to Dan Cook, Lyten’s co-founder and CEO — it’s a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms in a flat layer. A number of companies aspire to produce the material with consistent commercial-grade quantity and quality, but it remains difficult to fabricate. In fact, much of what is sold as graphene today is actually just chunks of conventional bulk graphite. That’s good enough to be used in bicycle frames and other sports equipment, but it’s a far cry from the 1-atom-thick sheet of actual graphene needed to make, for example, a better battery.

Lyten not only aims to solve the manufacturing challenges around graphene, but it also claims it can produce a much more useful material than standard graphene. When you get graphene in a three-dimensional version, then all of a sudden, you have properties that the original material could only dream of having,” said Cook. You have the ability to make it resistive. You can make it capacitive or inductive. You can make it structural; it can absorb light.”

We can actually shape the energy fields to create different forms of materials,” he added.

The global move toward electrifying homes, business and transportation means we’re going to need a lot of batteries that are more powerful, safer and made with more earth-abundant materials than what is standard for mass-market lithium-ion batteries today.

Rechargeable batteries enhanced with graphene could enable a new generation of lighter, more durable energy-storage devices with shorter charging times and longer cycle lives. Graphene can also extend battery life because of its ability to better dissipate heat and improve battery qualities such as energy density by exploiting the material’s conductivity and large surface area. But so far, these advantages have only been proven out in lab settings. Lyten aims to change that.

In June, Lyten announced the opening of its first lithium-sulfur battery pilot plant in San Jose, California with an aggressive target to produce commercial cells by year-end 2023 and begin shipping to customers for revenue in early 2024. The pilot line has a nameplate capacity of 200,000 cells per year, according to the firm.

We expect to have a commercial lithium-sulfur battery by the end of the year, and we have early-stage customers lined up to get batteries in either a cylindrical or pouch format,” said Cook. Stellantis, an auto manufacturer and investor in Lyten, is among those early customers.

Unlike conventional lithium-ion batteries, the graphene-enabled lithium-sulfur batteries being developed by Lyten do not use nickel, cobalt or manganese, which reduces the environmental and ethical impacts of the battery supply chain. Lyten’s intention is to sell to integrators that will aggregate the batteries in packs and then install them in vehicles, airplanes and other devices.

Lithium-sulfur is the battery chemistry that has the potential to electrify everything. A projected 50 percent lower-cost bill of materials compared to conventional lithium-ion chemistries will enable significantly lower-cost automotive battery packs, making an all-electric automotive fleet economically achievable,” said Celina Mikolajczak, Lyten’s chief battery technical officer, in a release.

Lithium-sulfur batteries were invented in the 1960s, but as of 2023, no company has been able to commercialize the technology on an industrial scale. Sion Power pivoted from researching lithium-sulfur batteries to focusing on lithium-metal batteries. Sony threatened to launch lithium-sulfur batteries to the market by 2020 but has provided no updates since its initial announcement in 2015. U.K.-based Oxis Energy went bankrupt before it could commercialize its lithium-sulfur batteries. Korean conglomerate LG has announced plans to commercialize a lithium-sulfur battery in 2025, as has German startup Theion.

Lithium-sulfur batteries are being pursued for their potential higher energy density, reduced cost and lighter weight. But chemical issues have resulted in downsides such as limits to the number of recharge cycles.

Sulfur is unruly. Lithium is unruly. When you put these two elements together, you get a chemistry that is really difficult to work with. There’s a reason this chemistry hasn’t been exploited for a long time,” Mikolajczak told attendees at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in San Francisco in January.

Lyten’s claim is that its 3D graphene can contain the unruliness of sulfur.

Together with its broad public statements about graphene, these sophisticated and ambitious battery plans raise an important question about the firm: Is it a battery company or a graphene company?

Cook sees his firm as a platform company” — making the fundamental graphene material that will enable it to address a variety of applications across the automotive, transportation, defense, aerospace, manufacturing, energy and construction industries.

He likened Lyten’s strategic approach to that of glass-materials giant Corning, a company with myriad business units that all use the same fundamental material, whether it’s for automotive glass, glass fiber optics or Gorilla Glass used in consumer screens. They have selected verticals, and they’ve taken it all the way to product,” said Cook. For Lyten, batteries are a key vertical, but it’s also focusing on composite materials and sensors.

The startup’s over-subscribed” Series B funding round was led by venture capital firm Prime Movers Lab along with automotive giant Stellantis, FedEx, Honeywell and Walbridge Aldinger, bringing the total equity investment in Lyten to more than $410 million since the company’s founding in 2015.

That’s a hefty sum, but if Lyten aspires to be a graphene producer, a battery manufacturer and a sensor and composites builder, it’s going to have to raise billions more in the coming years — mass production of a new technology doesn’t come cheap.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.