A small start-up company in Jessup using cutting-edge chemical technology to improve on the efficiency of lithium ion batteries — think your smart phone or tablet — has been named one of three winners in the U.S. Department of Energy's "America's Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge."
Vorbeck Materials Corp., started in 2006, competed against 13 other companies in the national competition, which was decided through a public voting system and with input from a panel of energy experts.
"We feel honored to be one of the recipients," said John Lettow, Vorbeck's president, during a conference call with reporters after the contest winners were announced Feb. 10.
Part of the Obama administration's Startup America initiative, the competition was organized to highlight companies that have signed option agreements allowing them to negotiate licensing rights for technologies produced by the Energy Department's 17 National Laboratories and the Y-12 National Security Complex, according to the department's website.
Those agreements were in part facilitated by an Energy Department initiative to reduce the costs and paperwork that can prevent start-up companies from bringing to market valuable research developed at the department's laboratories, officials with the department said.
The patented technology Vorbeck is using centers around the material graphene, which the company calls "one of the strongest, most thermally and electrically conductive materials known" and which allows batteries to hold more energy for longer periods of time.
Vorbeck is now working to commercialize "next generation lithium ion batteries" using graphene technology developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a manufacturing method for the material patented by the Aksay Labs at Princeton University.
Lettow said batteries being tested by the company now show "record-breaking energy storage capacity" that will allow smart phones to be charged in 10 minutes and last for 24 hours, and electric cars to be charged more rapidly and run for 400 miles.
Vorbeck is currently working with Hardwire LLC, of Pocomoke City, to integrate the technology into military vehicles, and may in the future apply the technology to toys, tools and commercial vehicles, Lettow said.
Lettow said he expects the company's batteries to be in small consumer electronics on the market toward the beginning of 2013. Larger applications of the technology, such as use in car batteries, will take longer, but model demonstrations should also occur in 2013, he said.
Lettow said he does not expect the company to move from Maryland — its plant is on Patuxent Range Road — as it grows.
Its proximity to Fort Meade and institutions such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland is "a terrific thing" for the company, he said.
Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was also on the conference call, called Vorbeck and the other two winning companies "pioneering," and companies like them "engines of job creation and economic growth."
In addition to the top innovator title, Vorbeck will be featured at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit at the end of this month in National Harbor, in Prince George's County.