The POWER Interview: Transformative Technology Aims to Advance Decarbonization

Decarbonization of the U.S. power sector is bringing new technologies to the forefront, including an array of new battery types for energy storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and more.

Lyten, a San Jose, California-based advanced materials manufacturer known for its Lyten 3D Graphene technology platform, along with other decarbonization materials, is moving forward with several projects. That includes manufacturing of the company’s lithium-sulfur batteries for EVs, and producing lightweight composites and other advanced forms of chemical, resonant, and biological sensing solutions for transportation, aerospace, industrial, energy, and defense customers.

Keith Norman, who earlier this year took over as Lyten’s chief sustainability officer, talked about his company’s efforts in the energy space during POWER’s Distributed Energy Conference in Savannah, Georgia, this past August. He recently provided POWER with more insight into Lyten’s technology, products, and services.

Norman joined Lyten after serving as Amazon Web Services’ global head of technology partnerships for energy and utilities, where he led the company’s efforts to decarbonize. He also was a longtime executive at ExxonMobil, and continues to be an active investor and advisor for decarbonization startup groups.

POWER: What differentiates Lyten’s 3D Graphene technology platform from other advanced materials strategies?

Norman: We do not spend much time thinking about materials, but they impact essentially every aspect of our lives 24/7/365.  Transportation, aviation, construction, digital technology, food, energy, clothing and so much more are made possible by the unique properties of materials like steel, concrete, silicon, copper, hydrocarbons, cotton and lithium.  These same materials are also the limiting factors in pushing products we use everyday further. Each material has limitations that define how light they can be or how much energy they can store, for example. This is where Lyten’s 3D Graphene materials come in.  Our material is designed to push the limits of existing materials, especially where weight, strength, and conductivity really matter.

Keith Norman

Graphene was discovered in 2004 and the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 2010 for its discovery because of the scale of the potential impact of an ultra-high performing material.  Graphene is often described as ultra-high strength, ultra lightweight, and highly conductive, among multiple other superlatives.  Since that time, scaling product development from the lab into commercial applications has been challenging for three primary reasons.  (1) The manufacturing cost of graphene is high.  (2) By definition, graphene is a two-dimensional planar sheet of bonded carbon atoms.  Think about it like a sheet of paper.  The only way to chemically interact with the graphene is along the edges of that sheet, so the material does not interact or mix with other elements or materials.  (3) The 2D graphene sheet cannot be easily customized or tuned to deliver the right properties for a particular application.  Essentially, you have to design your application around the capabilities of 2D graphene, often coming in the form of carbon nanotubes (i.e. roll your sheet of paper into a tube).

Lyten 3D Graphene addresses these barriers.  Imagine taking that sheet of paper and crumpling it up and twisting it.  That is 3D Graphene.  Instead of only being able to bond with the material on the edges, you can now bond at every fold and crease, increasing its ability to interact with other elements on the periodic table by orders of magnitude.  This means you can put 3D Graphene into many applications to increase strength, reduce weight, increase conductivity, and gain many additional capabilities.  Second, 3D Graphene can be crumpled and twisted in an infinite number of ways, which means we can tune the structure to exhibit the properties needed for an application.  An incredibly unique future of 3D Graphene is the material can be tuned to exhibit multiple properties (like strength and conductivity) in the same material.  This is why we call it a supermaterial.  This tunability now means we can design the 3D Graphene material to fit the needs of the application.

POWER: How is 3D Graphene engineered, and can it be used to decarbonize the power generation sector?

Norman: 3D Graphene is actually the result of a carbon capture process.  We are able to take methane, a greenhouse gas, and through our proprietary reactor technology we break apart the carbon and hydrogen atoms. The result is pure carbon, in the form of 3D Graphene, and the bi-product is clean hydrogen, which obviously has many potential applications in a decarbonized energy system.

This process is powered by clean energy, and as we scale will allow us to manufacture 3D Graphene as a carbon neutral material and potentially carbon negative depending on our sourcing of the methane feedstock.

As to its impact on decarbonizing the power generation sector, there is a today answer and a potential future state answer.  Today, we are using 3D Graphene to develop and build a lithium-sulfur battery that will deliver some disruptive characteristics vs. li-ion batteries, and the impacts will be  significant. We are now targeting a battery that has greater than twice the energy density of lithium-ion and will be more than 40% lighter weight. Additionally, we can remove many of the mined minerals found in lithium-ion. Lithium-sulfur will not require nickel, cobalt, manganese, or graphite, all heavily mined minerals in short supply and with their own environmental and humanitarian impact. This dramatically simplifies the materials required and will ultimately allow the lithium-sulfur battery to be entirely sourced and manufactured domestically in the U.S. and Europe.  Adding all this together means a battery that will have >60% lower carbon footprint to manufacture compared to lithium-ion today and a clear pathway to an even lower footprint in the future.

We describe lithium-sulfur as the “electrify everything” battery, as it will break through price and weight barriers, enabling electrification to be far more viable for both industries where weight matters (aviation, aerospace, trucking, etc) and mass market adoption where price is a barrier. And specifically for the power sector, we see safety as a growing topic as we electrify more of our infrastructure. The lithium-sulfur chemistry has a lower risk of thermal runaway than lithium-ion.

We are actively working additional applications utilizing the 3D Graphene material and are bringing light weighted composite and sensing technologies to the market in sectors like automotive, aviation, and supply chain. For example, we are developing a battery safety sensor that is highly sensitive to changes in off-gassing from battery cells, potentially providing a first warning for degrading cell performance and an opportunity to avoid thermal runaway events. The next phase of opportunities for applications using 3D Graphene is an existing one for Lyten.

POWER: How is Lyten currently engaged with the energy sector when it comes to the company’s products and services?

Norman: We are engaging closely with the energy sector in two completely different ways.  First, as a user, which as was described above our lithium-sulfur batteries will deliver unique, disruptive energy storage properties. We do not believe there is one battery chemistry for the future. Rather, we see a future where the right chemistry is used for the right job. Our lithium-sulfur chemistry is incredibly useful when high energy density and light weighting really matter.  So, we are starting in the mobility sector where weight is paramount to successful electrification. As we scale, we will look to expand into more stationary applications, again leaning on use cases where our energy density really shines.

We also see strong demand from a wide range of customers, including energy interests, who are looking to diversify their energy storage supply chain. Because we remove nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite, we will be able to entirely source and manufacture our lithium-sulfur batteries domestically in the U.S. or Europe, which is a stark contrast to lithium-ion, where the vast majority of batteries have a supply chain going through Asia and specifically China. This supply chain diversification has proven to be a demand driver.

The second way we are engaging with the energy sector is through sourcing the critical feedstocks for our batteries. First, we utilize methane and are increasingly looking to build a supply of bio-methane from renewable sources like landfills and farms. Second, we are working to build all of the 3D Graphene and battery manufacturing using clean power. This makes Lyten a great partner as a long-term offtaker of clean power sources, which are critical to get clean power generation infrastructure funded and built. We are currently reviewing locations for our scaled-up manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and sourcing renewable natural gas and clean power are critical decision criteria.

POWER: How is Lyten working toward decarbonization across various other sectors, from automotive to aerospace to construction?

Norman: So this is a topic we could talk about for hours. Core to Lyten’s mission is to use our 3D Graphene material to build applications that enable the largest emitting sectors on the planet to achieve net zero.  We strongly believe that customers don’t buy products because they are cleaner; they buy better products. This means better performing, lower priced, and cleaner. This is squarely where we focus … better performing, better price vs. performance, and decarbonizing. If we can achieve all three, then we know we have a great product.

Our lithium-sulfur battery is a great example of this: we are building a higher energy density, lighter-weight battery, with a bill of materials approaching half the cost, and we estimate that the battery can be built with a carbon footprint >60% lower than lithium-ion. Stellantis is an investor in Lyten and interested in applying our batteries to the automotive sector. FedEx is another investor and interested in electrification of their supply chain and delivery fleet. And we are working closely with aviation, drone, eVTOL, and satellite applications.

With our industry partners, we are exploring the use of  3D Graphene to lightweight the composites that are critical to the buildout of a wide range of infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, cars, aircraft, etc).  In each of these industries, weight equals more energy and minerals and that equals a bigger carbon footprint. So every pound we can pull out directly reduces the footprint of not just constructing infrastructure, but also using infrastructure. For example, a lighter weight vehicle requires fewer materials and less energy to build it, but then over its 15-20 years of use, lighter vehicles are also using less fuel each day. The decarbonization impact adds up quickly.

We are currently focused on composite plastic systems, where we have proven an ability to reduce materials required and weight by up to 50%, depending on the application, while maintaining critical performance parameters. We look to take this capability into the automotive, aerospace, construction, and supply chain sectors and are working towards our first application in the market in early 2024.

POWER: Lyten manufactures lithium-sulfur batteries—what are the advantages of that technology, and how does it differ from lithium-ion?

Norman: In a previous answer, I shared the advantages of lithium-sulfur vs. lithium-ion, but let me share a bit more on how it differs.

Li-ion has been the incumbent chemistry to make EVs and energy storage possible, but that chemistry has limitations that put some real barriers in place if we want to achieve mass scale electrification across the planet.  These barriers fall into the categories of cost, energy density, heavy reliance on mined minerals, and safety. In short, we are pushing toward the limits of what the lithium-ion chemistry can provide and if we want to make big jumps, we need to change the chemistry.

Lithium-sulfur battery chemistry has been known as an attractive alternative to lithium-ion for decades because sulfur allows you to store more energy than lithium-ion. In other words, for the same weight, a sulfur-based battery can take you much further. Traditionally, if you want higher energy density batteries, you need to add mined minerals like nickel and cobalt to give that density boost, but that means heavy reliance on ramping up mining and the associated costs. Lower cost lithium-ion batteries like LFP (lithium iron phosphate) solve some of the supply chain and cost challenges, but in return you give up energy density. So the big differentiator for lithium-sulfur is that a sulfur cathode is much higher energy density, made of widely available sulfur and therefore uses lower cost materials.

The challenge with lithium-sulfur has been that sulfur cells have traditionally displayed a low cycle life; in other words, the battery has a limited number of times it can be recharged.

This is where our innovative materials technology, Lyten 3D Graphene, comes in. We are tuning the material to deliver two capabilities for batteries. First, we are designing the material to act like a scaffolding for the sulfur, essentially holding the sulfur atoms in place inside the battery so they don’t move freely, an effect called polysulfide shuttling. Second, the Lyten 3D Graphene is electrically conductive, helping the energy move in and out of the sulfur and within the cathode more efficiently. With these enhancements, we are producing lithium-sulfur batteries from our pilot line today in San Jose, California, and will be delivering to early, non-automotive customers early in 2024.

POWER: How can lithium-sulfur batteries impact the electric vehicle industry?

Norman: This has been addressed above, but in summary, mass-scale EV adoption across the developed and developing world requires a fundamentally different battery cost and performance profile than what we have today with lithium-ion.  Lithium-sulfur batteries promise a 40%+ lighter weight battery and a materials cost that is half that of a lithium-ion. These are performance parameters that are simply necessary for mass-scale EV adoption. As a case in point, Stellantis has recently been discussing publicly the importance of building a 50% lighter-weight EV vehicle by 2030.

POWER: You’ve worked for several major global companies, including Amazon Web Services and ExxonMobil. What are you seeing from these types of companies today, in terms of actions for sustainability and decarbonization?

Norman: Maybe the most striking thing about both these companies, which I believe is consistent across most large companies, is that their actions today focused on decarbonization are orders of magnitude more advanced than where they were just five years ago. This is a growing wave and momentum is still just starting to build.  But, each of their journeys look completely different and is maybe emblematic of two different pathways that large, global, infrastructure heavy organizations can take.

Amazon and AWS really leaned in early, and said we are going to show the world what it takes to be a net-zero company. We are going to set an ambitious, industry-leading target and then motivate our talented workforce to figure out how to make it a reality.

That involves a certain type of risk tolerance and willingness to try (and fail) that is unique to Amazon’s culture and ethos.  They are also leaning very heavily on full impact across Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, which means they are pushing their suppliers very hard to join into the journey toward net zero.  The passion toward making Amazon a net-zero company is felt everywhere.

I had the opportunity to lead ExxonMobil’s Safety, Health, and Environmental organization for the upstream, which spanned operations in 25+ countries. ExxonMobil has really taken an approach of figuring out what they know they can accomplish, as a result of deep engineering work, and only then committing to those decarbonization targets.

In the end, both are ramping huge efforts toward decarbonization and are making real impact in proving the scalability of decarbonizing technologies, but each are doing it in a way that matches their unique cultures and organizational skill sets.

At Lyten, we have seen strong support from large multinational corporations, like our investors Stellantis, FedEx, and Honeywell.  Each of these companies is very different, but each has been very clear that their customers will demand better performing products, better priced products, and products with lower carbon footprints. Customers want better products, not just cleaner products. Lower carbon footprint alone will not scale. Their enthusiasm in working with Lyten is consistent in what I am seeing across all industries right now.  Help them make better products that are also decarbonizing and the door is enthusiastically open. Just come with a technology that can decarbonize and it will be hard to gain internal traction.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

SHARE this article