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Business Analysis & Features

Nexeon tips magic dust into our batteries

Silicon anode technology is set for use in laptops, phones, even cars – sparking an electric revolution on the roads

In a small lab near Didcot in Oxfordshire a group of scientists have created a special powder that they hope will prevent phone batteries dying before you get a chance to charge up, and make electric cars a common sight on the roads.

Nexeon, their company, began in a university laboratory and now courts business in countries from Japan to Korea and the US – and appears to be on the cusp of something big. For Nexeon has created the silicon powder that it hopes is the key to creating batteries on a commercial level, which will be used in everything from laptops to cars.

The new technology started in 2004, 53 miles away, in the department of electrical engineering at Imperial College London, when Professor Mino Green found the key to what Nexeon believes is the next generation in lithium ion batteries.

And now Sony is in talks to become involved in trialling the new battery technology, while a major global car company – thought to be from the Far East – has just signed a multi-million-pound deal to test the technology for use in electric engines.

This "magic" dust is a powder created by running silver through particles of silicon to create spikes of matter – what Nexeon calls a hedgehog effect – that is used to help the movement of lithium in the battery cell. The powers of the silicon powder mean that, unlike carbon-only anodes, the batteries created from this will last longer, are lighter, and their rechargeability would not fade over time.

The secret powder is the result of a team of professors and technology whizzes who came together following Green's discovery. Nexeon was founded by Green alongside executive chairman, angel investor and serial tech entrepreneur Dr Paul Atherton, senior scientific researcher Fengming Liu, and the late Dr Rob Neat, Nexeon's former chief executive.

With backing from Imperial Innovations – the AIM-listed investor that was spun out of Imperial College – Nexeon has raised £55m since the initial £500,000 invested by Atherton and Imperial Innovations in seed funding back in 2006.

The latest funding round last month – £40m raised from current investors including Invesco Perpetual and Tudor Capital – allows Nexeon to scale up the production of its silicon anode materials from around 2.5 tons to around 250 tons per annum. This represents a commercial supply level and is what Sony and other battery suppliers, as well as the car companies, are interested in. Just last week BMW and Toyota announced a joint research venture into lithium ion batteries.

Next on the list for Nexeon is finding a new production facility, with sites in Portsmouth, Avonmouth, south Wales and Runcorn being considered. This will create up to 60 jobs at first but the figure could run into the hundreds.

Nexeon, which currently employs 35 people, is run by chief executive Scott Brown. He joined from Cambridge Display Technology, which gave him a wealth of experience in working – and living – in Japan. Brown was part of the executive management team during CDT's Nasdaq listing in 2004 and its sale to Sumitomo Chemical in 2007. He visits Japan once a month and is there today – he has built relationships with the major battery companies, from Sony to Sanyo, while his chief technical officer, Bill Macklin, has been in the lithium ion battery business all his working life.

Brown explains: "Consumers want thinner, lighter, safer, cheaper products ... We have now proved the viability of our materials, successfully operated our pilot plant, and now we are ready to scale up. We already have a joint development project with an automobile company and we have materials under evaluation at many other companies."

The market for batteries is huge. Research by Hideo Takeshita – from the Institute of Information Technology in Japan – put it at $18bn by 2020, even without new electric-vehicle customers. If you take into account the growth of electric vehicles, he predicts the market will be worth $35bn by 2020.

With such potential growth, fund-raising for Nexeon has been relatively easy so far. Dr Brown says: "We have been somewhat isolated from the problems in the financial markets in the UK and Europe and consider ourselves very fortunate to have the strong backing of our investors, Imperial Innovations and Invesco Perpetual."

Investors aren't the only fans of Nexeon. Ed Vaizey, its local MP – for Wantage and Didcot – and minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, and Nicola Blackwood, the neighbouring MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, have visited the lab to support its growth.

Nexeon's expansion is due to its decision to make, and not just license, its technology. It is the manufacturing of the cells that needs the new factory and which will create the jobs.

Brown explains: "We are working with leading battery companies with the capability to introduce our materials directly into their supply chain. For automotive, the key to success is to develop safer, higher-energy batteries to extend vehicle range and to reduce 'range anxiety'. This will allow a much faster adoption of electric vehicles in many countries."

Nexeon has already won clean-tech awards; it is hoped its discoveries will lead to universally rechargeable batteries, putting a stop to the huge numbers of batteries going to landfill. Britons throw away around 600 million a year, with just one in 10 being recycled.

For the future, talks with Sony could lead to other joint ventures, and Nexeon could decide to sell a stake in the business to a firm in the chemical or electrical engineering field. But plans for a further funding round – through new investors or a float – are provisionally planned by 2015.

The company does have rivals, particularly in California. Two of these are Amprius, which is making a different version of silicon nanowire anodes, and Nanosys.

Nexeon has 125 patent applications for its technology across the globe – with 10 granted so far.

As Atherton says: "Anyone can make a battery. But we have the magic powder."