EV Batteries

Inside one battery company‘s plan to put the supply chain first

“The focus of the company from day one...was to ease the supply chain,” Sparkz's founder told us.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

While other battery startups are pursuing the best performance, the highest energy density, or the longest life span, Sparkz has a different goal in mind.

“The focus of the company from day one, when this company was conceptualized, was to ease the supply chain. That has been the main focus and remains the main focus,” Sanjiv Malhotra, founder and CEO of Sparkz, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Every battery company that wants to actually, you know, produce its batteries needs to think about its supply chain. But not all of them have chosen it as a starting point for optimizing their chemistries.

In 2019, the Sparkz team set out to find a battery that could avoid supply-chain constraints and safety concerns while still providing competitive energy density, cycle life, and cost, Malhotra said. Through partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Sparkz ultimately licensed patents for battery tech that doesn’t require cobalt, a scarce mineral used in many lithium-ion batteries on the market today.

Now, Sparkz is putting that strategy to the test as it begins to build out its manufacturing capacity. The company plans to begin production at its pilot facility in California later this year and have between 0.2 GWh and 0.5 GWh of battery capacity up and running at a new plant in West Virginia by late 2023 or early 2024.

To market

Sparkz announced its pilot manufacturing facility in California in January and plans to begin construction on its battery plant in West Virginia later this year.

“Our first commercial product which we are taking to manufacturing is actually both cobalt-free as well as nickel-free,” Malhotra said. “And we are competitive in terms of energy density. We are competitive in terms of cycle life.”

Eliminating these two expensive battery metals can help lower costs. It’s a strategy automakers are beginning to take with LFP batteries, but Sparkz aims to achieve higher energy density than traditional LFP cells with its cobalt-free chemistries.

For Malhotra, it’s also a necessary step in establishing a domestic EV-battery industry that is less reliant on China and other foreign suppliers.

Along with sourcing enough raw materials, finding enough workers to build batteries in the US could be a challenge. The US could need at least 24,000 workers through 2030 to manufacture batteries, according to an estimate from the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Folks generally think that I can take somebody out of manufacturing, any manufacturing, and put them into battery manufacturing. I wish that were the case. No, that is definitely not the case,” Malhotra said.

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In May, Sparkz signed an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America to train dislocated miners to be the first production workers at the company’s planned gigafactory in West Virginia, combining their existing safety experience with advanced battery-manufacturing skills. Sparkz is seeking a similar arrangement for its facility in California, Malhotra told us.

For now, this type of partnership is a good step in the effort to retrain fossil-fuel industry workers for clean-energy jobs, Alí Bustamante, deputy director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at the Roosevelt Institute, told us. But he said that he hopes to see workforce-development programs created that provide broader skills, preparing workers for roles across an industry rather than at one specific company.

Until then, Sparkz sees the company’s focus on building a battery-manufacturing workforce as a competitive advantage, Malhotra said.

“We are not going to be suffering from the challenge that a lot of the manufacturing companies are suffering from, which is having a pool of trained candidates,” Malhotra said. “That makes this very attractive [for] addressing that big risk, which is the human-capital risk here.”

Who’s buying?

Sparkz is not focused on the EV industry just yet, Malhotra said.

“The automotive customers take anywhere from three to four years for validation and all of that. I don’t have that kind of time to get to revenue. I want to get to revenue now,” he said. “We are working with customers. We have purchase orders. We have supply contracts.”

The company has nonbinding agreements for ~17 GWh of batteries already, predominantly for the stationary storage market, he said, though he declined to share specifics on contract value or current revenue.

The idea is that by targeting stationary storage and then transportation sectors like delivery vans, buses, and off-road vehicles, Sparkz can ramp up production and fine-tune its batteries in order to meet the coming demand from passenger EV makers, Malhotra said.

“A lot of the automotive companies are shopping around, and once they are ready…we will have been producing for three, four, or five years,” he said. “That gives us a significant advantage over the competition and having a product which would be well-tested, which would be at the right price point, and the right production capacity to satisfy the automotive market.”

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