Skip to main content

Bridging the Gaps in the Battery Supply Chain and Manufacturing Crisis

January 27, 2023 Victoria Soelect Blog Featured photo Cleantech Summit

UNC’s 2023 Cleantech Summit on March 27 – 28 will feature discussions on the growing concerns around the security of our domestic supply chains and manufacturing capabilities. As echoed in several White House released statements, it is in the interests of national security that the US embraces a reliable and robust supply chain, especially regarding critical minerals to support the production of renewable energy technology and infrastructure. Yet, as will be discussed in this panel, the growing demand for scarce critical minerals which the White House estimates to be a 400-600% increase in the coming decade may very well outpace progress toward the clean energy transition. For these reasons, it is essential that companies in the US engender innovative and efficient solutions to lessen dependence on foreign nations and decrease the pressure placed on dwindling resources. The company Soelect, a local startup in Greensboro, NC, is doing just that.

I had the opportunity to interview the CEO and founder of Soelect, Dr. Sung-Jin Cho, to understand his motivation behind working in the battery and energy sector and to discuss some of the hurdles his own company is facing. Dr. Cho is a highly credited professional who obtained a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Marquette University, has published over 40 peer-reviewed papers, and received several patents for his innovative designs and technology. Embracing an innate passion for engineering and energy mechanics, Dr. Cho began his journey working with Lithium-ion technology in 1997. He has always seen innovation as a means of bettering society and influencing the support of diverse groups of people around the clean energy transition. Thus, Soelect’s mission towards producing high-density, fast-charging, and less resource-intensive batteries of the future aligns directly with Dr. Cho’s core values.

The two technologies his company innovates include a solid-state electrolyte membrane (SEM) and “LiX” or Lithium anode technology. When I asked Dr. Cho to go more in-depth about these products, he explained how the LiX anode is a composite type of high energy and fast-charge capable lithium metal anode that they produce with “20-30 microns to create ultra-thin products” rather than utilizing the normal 50-100 microns lithium-ion battery anodes comes with. The SEM (Solid Electrolyte Membrane) technology, a non-PEO (Polyethylene oxide) based polymer electrolyte, unlike its liquid lithium-ion counterpart, inhabits a solid state. This presents many advantages over flammable liquid electrolytes, such as having greater safety features, being mechanically flexible, and a lower overall battery manufacturing cost. Yet, these innovations are not the only solutions Soelect has unearthed to lessen our resource dependence on foreign nations, such as China. Dr. Cho explained Soelect’s current development “reusing lithium material from recycled batteries” to enhance the domestic supply chain. For the LiX anode, Dr. Cho expressed how Soelect sources most of its materials from the US, and even conducts most of its lithium mining activities in North Carolina with a processing facility in Kings Mountain, NC. Circular economic practices and efficient use of materials enable Soelect to produce the same high-quality batteries as other companies, like Albemarle or Livent, more sustainably.

Since its inception in 2018, Soelect’s rapid progress toward advancing clean energy technology is apparent, placing the company in a position of becoming an industry leader in the battery space. As such, I wondered if Soelect could be a model for future startups to pave the path toward bringing manufacturing prestige back to the US. Dr. Cho adamantly agreed with this assessment adding that “we know the IRA – the Inflation Reduction Act – is helping to protect manufacturing companies in the US. And as such we want to bring out all the battery production and systems in the US to protect our national security. The US has all the technology, now it is time to bring out its manufacturing capability.”

To enhance this ideal, Dr. Cho highlighted the necessity of having “strong human and social capital” with diverse backgrounds to yield innovative solutions. Thus, Dr. Cho described some of the outreach programs Soelect offers to local universities, colleges, and innovation centers. Realizing the benefits of public and private sector unity, Dr. Cho welcomes the addition of student interns from NC State, UNC-CH, and Duke University who demonstrate both academic rigor and a willingness to address new challenges and skills. These students spend several weeks training, learning, and understanding the intricacies behind making batteries and electrodes and analyzing data. At the conclusion of this internship, Dr. Cho states these students are “almost at the level of a junior battery engineer.”

As the company continues to expand its production, I was curious in understanding what goals and hopes Dr. Cho envisions for his company in the future. I was eager to learn that Soelect has announced that they are planning to build a $100 million production facility in the US, which would be the largest lithium metal anode plant in the country. So far, Dr. Cho expresses that they have raised $14 million in capital for the new facility and have hired “more than 20 full-time employees, part-time workers, and contractors.” Regional expansion may be in sight as Soelect looks towards South Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere for locating operations facilities. Ultimately, Soelect wishes to become a market leader in the battery space and with their entrepreneurial mindsets and innovative prestige, they may very well reach this goal soon, cementing a clean energy path for companies around the US to follow.


About the Author

This article was written by Victoria Farella, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Science. She is currently an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern involved with the Supply Chains and Manufacturing panel. Connect with her on LinkedIn.