May 25, 2023
A clean energy revolution is under way in Washington state, and the University of Washington is well positioned to be its epicenter.
Fueled by increasing demand for new generations of solar cells and batteries — buoyed by investments from the Biden and Inslee administrations as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions — the marketplace for these industries is being measured in the billions and trillions of dollars, experts say.
With abundant hydroelectricity, manufacturing capacity and a supportive state government, Washington’s economic future is staked, in part, to clean energy.
“The drivers of a modern economy are clean technologies,” said Brian Young, Gov. Jay Inslee’s evangelist for clean energy technologies.
Young, who works for the state Department of Commerce, travels the world encouraging businesses large and small to learn what Washington has to offer: manufacturing capacity, advanced technology solutions, a skilled workforce and a history of leading-edge research and development anchored by the UW, Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“We are on the radar, both nationally and internationally,” Young said.
This fertile ground for economic development and growth has been nurtured for more than two decades. Gov. Inslee has advocated for moving away from fossil fuels since he served in Congress, and pushed for investments in clean energy throughout his tenure as governor.
And, with direct Clean Energy Fund investment in 2017, the UW opened the CEI’s Washington Clean Energy Testbeds, a high-tech lab that has become a portal for researchers and industry partners to collaborate on clean energy solutions through cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art materials development and scalable production techniques.
“The Testbeds provide the bridge for those technologies to get over that first chasm from lab experiments to pilot demonstration,” said Rick Luebbe, CEO of Group14 Technologies, a battery materials company that continues to use the facility’s equipment to expand its technology platform.
Housed inside a plain, former manufacturing plant next to University Village, the Clean Energy Testbeds give clients laboratory, computing and manufacturing capabilities, supported by UW experts.
“They can come through and can scale more quickly, and reach the marketplace and partners more quickly,” said Daniel Schwartz, the CEI director.
Inside the Clean Energy Testbeds there are devices that replicate the power of the sun. A supercomputer can simulate a power grid. And a printing press can produce battery parts and solar panel arrays, thousands in a minute. It’s a kind of open-access Willy Wonka factory that transforms ideas and innovations into next generation, clean-energy commodities.
Research at the Testbeds will revolutionize e-transportation as we know it, said Jerry Schwartz (no relation to the CEI director), CEO of battery materials startup Ecellix. His company is working on technology to increase battery storage and life while decreasing cost and weight.
“You know, it’s been 100 years since cars really were transformed … since Henry Ford,” Jerry Schwartz said. “Now, this battery is going to change our world, change it dramatically, change everything.”
Ecellix’s technology and others like it will democratize the electric vehicle space, he added. Instead of $100,000, the price today for a Tesla X with a 300-mile range, Schwartz predicts consumer options for about $25,000, roughly in line with a Honda Civic.
The company’s origins stem from research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and WSU. But instead of building facilities in Pullman, Schwartz looked across the Cascades to the UW’s Testbeds.
“It would have cost us several millions of dollars of direct investment to have the same capabilities we had at the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds on day one,” Schwartz said.
About half of the Testbeds’ users are from companies like Ecellix and Group14, which pay hourly rates that give their engineers access to the facilities and equipment. Other clients include giant corporations like Microsoft, county utility operations and small startups. Academic researchers, supported by state and federal money, round out the teams working side by side inside the Clean Energy Testbeds.
Even though some of the companies using the Clean Energy Testbeds are competitors — both Group14 and Ecellix are pursuing silicon battery solutions — the fertile Washington state climate for clean energy technologies fosters collaboration.
“The market is so huge that we’re not competing with other silicon battery companies,” Luebbe, of Group14, said. “We’re competing with conventional graphite-based lithium-ion batteries.”
Most negative electrodes in electric vehicle batteries today are manufactured with graphite. Silicon, the transformational technology in Group14 and Ecellix’s batteries, can store more juice, cost and weigh less, and recharge in about the time it would take to fill a tank with gasoline.
Group14 materials are slated to be in 2024 electric Porsche batteries. In the future, the company plans to commercialize batteries for all kinds of mobility, including freight and flight. They are selling silicon battery materials as fast as they can make them at plants in South Korea, Woodinville and, coming in 2024, Moses Lake.
Existing infrastructure in Washington state can help expand these endeavors. REC Silicon, for example, operates one of the largest silicon solar cell plants in the world in Moses Lake. A byproduct of its operation is a key ingredient in silicon batteries, making central Washington an attractive hub for this growing field.
The Washington state constellation of clean energy expertise — from its research institutions to manufacturing sites — builds off the principle that the work is imperative to environmental stewardship.
Daniel Schwartz, the CEI director, said that, because of the institute’s work, the UW and its partners are having outsized influence on the national conversation for how to align private, state and federal funding toward the clean energy innovation imperative.
At a recent roundtable convened by the Energy Futures Initiative, Breakthrough Energy and the Department of Energy, Daniel Schwartz said he was surprised to learn that the UW was the only university represented.
“The UW is charting a unique path to clean energy innovation, and it is getting noticed nationally,” said Schwartz, who also is the Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering and an adjunct professor of materials science and engineering at the UW.
The successful relationship of academia working alongside enterprise also means opportunities for UW students, from undergraduate internships to placements for postdoctoral researchers at companies hungry for expertise, Schwartz said.
“We have a huge opportunity to meet our climate goals, but also implement new technologies, develop new technologies. And we need a partner who can bridge that research and commercialization gap,” said Young, the state’s clean energy economic development lead. “That’s the Clean Energy Testbeds. That’s the University of Washington.”