Battery technology wins award for research commercialisation

Pure Battery Technologies process

Pure Battery Technologies process 

Startup company Pure Battery Technologies Pty Ltd has developed a simplified process for producing materials for electric vehicle batteries.

Initially developed at UQ and licensed by UQ’s commercialisation company UniQuest, the process produces high-quality, affordable nickel and cobalt battery materials with a lower environmental footprint than traditional
production.

Pure Battery Technologies (PBT) is on a growth curve that most startups can only dream about.

In a few short years, the Brisbane-based company has captured the hearts and opened the wallets of investors and government alike with its more environmentally friendly battery for electric vehicles.

PBT has been catapulted into a fast growth stage as news of its technological breakthroughs make the headlines. It uses an environmentally superior processing technology commercially proven to produce more affordable nickel and cobalt battery materials.

PBT managing director Bjorn Zikarsky

PBT managing director Bjorn Zikarsky. 

But the founders knew that two heads would be better than one throughout the process, collaborating with the University of Queensland’s (UQ) commercialisation company UniQuest in search of a process that would make all the difference to the innovation.

Through a collaborative research project that was launched in 2018, PBT and UQ set out to develop a process that allows for the efficient separation of nickel to yield high-purity nickel salts as well as a cobalt concentrate.

The technology eliminates environmentally demanding chemical pollutants from the extraction process.

As a result, carbon emissions are between 70 per cent and 85 per cent lower, resulting in reduced capital and operating expenses, not to mention a reduced environmental footprint.

This proved to be the best route to market, with PBT going on to raise more than $150 million through investment and government grants on the back of the technological development.

The meeting of the minds came about when UQ Associate Professor James Vaughan and Dr William Hawker initiated conversations with PBT in the search for technologies that could be commercialised in return for equity and royalties.

The research phase was extensive, with government support and investors giving the innovation the wings it needed to commercialise and meet market demand.

PBT managing director Bjorn Zikarsky is firm that the collaboration with UQ will continue. “This combined leaching process is a great example of industry-led quality research and development continuing to develop and grow add-on technologies in collaboration with universities,” Zikarsky says.

“We’re now in the process of replicating the business globally, utilising our plant design to capture the growth in the market. Our ability to refine raw materials and recycle from existing battery stocks is a game changer for the drive towards a truly circular economy,” he says.

It is estimated that by 2025, almost half of all new energy generated will be derived from battery-supported clean energy such as wind and solar. Global demand for batteries is growing at a rate of around 15 per cent a year, driving up demand for nickel and cobalt.

Zikarsky reminds others contemplating entering an arrangement with a university to ensure that the process is mutually beneficial.

“As everyone knows, universities aren’t usually commercially minded.

“You need to be very clear when communicating and interpreting the approach from a university and how you can convert their ideas into a commercial construct,” he says.

The challenge often lies in how to liberate great ideas and then commercialise them, he explains.

“Sometimes through the process, clever ideas emerge, but then you’ve got to step in and eliminate them because they go too far off course or can’t be commercialised,” he says.

“The scientists have great experimental minds, and every idea is a rite of passage. But you’ve got to remember throughout the process that there isn’t necessarily a rainbow at the end of every idea,” he says.

  • Pure Battery Technologies is the winner of the Research Commercialisation Award.
mDetect’s warning system in use at a tailings dam.

mDetect’s warning system in use at a tailings dam. Swinburne University

Swinburne University of Technology

mDetect

mDetect, a spin-out company from Swinburne University of Technology, is using particles from space, known as muons, to help mining companies detect potentially life-threatening weaknesses in the dams that secure highly toxic waste by-products.

This ground-breaking early warning system will have transformative benefits for the environment, economy and human safety.

Muon technology can look through hundreds of metres of rock to detect abnormalities which provide the early warning signs needed to prevent potential structural failures.

Existing monitoring technology is unable to provide these deep structural insights.

Initial results were developed by leveraging smaller trials with Swinburne’s industry partners. These early results enabled the onboarding of OZ Minerals, who became the breakthrough industry partner, offering proof-of-concept trials, validating the technology’s potential and providing the basis for negotiating multi-million dollar deployments across Australia with other customers.

While mDetect’s primary focus is on tailings dams, the company is already exploring a range of other massive global opportunities. There are over 6000 active mines globally and 50,000 Australian legacy mines which could all benefit from the safety benefits of long-term monitoring enabled by muon technology.

Exploration is already under way for applying the technology to the approximately 90,000 large water dams around the world. There are also potential defence and development applications around underground tunnelling near protected sites and water table monitoring.

The University of Newcastle

ImmVirX

ImmVirX is a biotechnology company developing next generation, receptor targeted oncolytic viral immunotherapies to transform outcomes for patients with some of the most prevalent and challenging cancer types.

Leveraging off past commercial success, the team is comprised of former Viralytics members responsible for the development of CAVATAK technology. In one of the largest biotechnology transactions in Australian history, University of Newcastle-born Viralytics was acquired in 2018 by world-leading pharmaceutical company Merck and Co. Inc. for $502 million.

Co-founded in 2019 out of the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy, ImmVirX builds on the technology behind Viralytics by developing novel oncolytic viruses to create powerful new cancer immunotherapy combinations. Supported by the University of Newcastle Research Associates (TUNRA), key research staff pivotal in Viralytics’ medical and commercial success were recruited.

The company’s oncolytic immunotherapeutic program is led by Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer Professor Darren Shafren, a University of Newcastle researcher and global expert in molecular virology research.

Professor Shafren leads 18 scientists and research staff working from ImmVirX’s state-of-the-art laboratory in Hunter Medical Research
Institute (HMRI) in Newcastle.

The company, whose name is an amalgamation of immuno-oncology, virus and X (combination therapy), has defined a clear pathway for their proprietary viruses from pre-clinical evaluation to the first clinical trials in 2021. The trials target cancers with high unmet need, including colorectal, gastric, pancreatic and ovarian cancer.

Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer has become established as one of the pillars of cancer treatment over the past decade.

The University of Sydney

Direct Air Capture

Direct Air Capture – Usyd

The University of Sydney’s Direct Air Capture project team. 

The Direct Air Capture project addresses the urgent need to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, recognised as being “essential” to reach net zero by 2050.

This strong industry-academic partnership is driving the creation of a new negative emissions industry in Australia projected to be worth billions to the economy.

The University of Sydney’s strong industry-academic partnership has identified a new, massively scalable way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using solar-powered Direct Air Capture (DAC) coupled with deep underground permanent storage.

The university says its work with Southern Green Gas (SGG) has resulted in a commercial contract with Corporate Carbon Group and AspiraDAC to supply Australia’s first solar-powered DAC systems. This technology, the first to market in Australia, is one of six carbon removals projects world-wide to be funded by Frontier (a consortium including Microsoft, Stripe, Meta, Google).

The ultimate goal is to provide a role model of the best practice for an environmentally, socially and ethically responsible transition to Australia’s sustainable energy future.

Monash University

Additive Assurance – Quality Monitoring

Additive Assurance has developed a process for monitoring and quality assurance for laser powder bed fusion additive manufacturing.

The Monash spin-out company was created to commercialise a novel in-situ monitoring tool for metal 3D printing. The technology, born from research conducted within Monash by two PhD candidates, is enabling the next generation of quality assured additive manufacturing.

The sensing tool is powered by machine learning analytics to solve reproducibility and reliability issues. It enables the adoption of metal 3D printing across a range of industries.

Additive Assurance has worked closely with leading global aerospace, energy and defence organisations, in what is an exciting area in deep technology with the potential to change the way entire industries operate.

Connecting research and industry to create change

By UniQuest CEO Dean Moss

Every day, researchers around Australia are making an impact on some of the world’s most challenging and complex problems.

Connecting world-leading research with industry is core to driving social and economic impacts and helping businesses gain an innovative edge.

At Australia’s leading commercialisation company, UniQuest, we partner with researchers to connect industry with the world-leading research and intellectual property at The University of Queensland.

About 12 years ago, exciting research caught our eye as the world looked for more clean energy solutions.

Hydrometallurgists Associate Professor James Vaughan and Dr Will Hawker at UQ’s Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology had spent years developing a solution to an industry problem.

This resulted in an innovative process to produce more efficient and environmentally friendly battery technology.

Dr Hawker pitched the idea at a UniQuest competition, taking out a winning place and setting the ball rolling by establishing the relationship.

With global demand for batteries increasing, we saw the potential.

We began working with the team in 2010 and supported further research to confirm proof-of-concept over a number of years.

When UniQuest licensed the UQ-developed intellectual property to Pure Battery Technologies (PBT) in 2018, the journey began to take flight.

The patented process produces high-quality, more affordable nickel and cobalt, which are used in the battery metal supply chain.

Better yet, the process makes use of standard processing equipment while having a smaller environmental footprint, greater energy efficiency and less waste output than other methods.

In 2018, the startup raised $1.74 million to expand its operations and establish a demonstration plant in Brisbane.

The following year, the company received a $1 million Accelerating Commercialisation Grant from the Australian Government, helping it to further consolidate export and supply contracts with potential overseas partners.

In 2020, PBT successfully applied for an Australian Government Co-operative Research Centres Project (CRC-P) grant, of $2.2 million, which showed further confidence in the UQ-developed technology.

PBT expanded its global footprint by acquiring a refinery plant in Germany in 2020, with the commercial success of this acquisition now secured with the plant currently expanding its capacity to ramp up production.

Through a partnership with the world’s largest nickel recyclers, the Cronimet Holding Group headquartered in Germany, PBT is well-placed to support the European auto and battery market.

Recently, the Australian Government awarded $119.6 million to PBT and its MOU partner, Poseidon Nickel to support a planned refinery hub in Western Australian.

PBT has further developed its technology which allows them to also recycle existing materials from battery production and end-of-life batteries, facilitated through the CRC-P grant and in collaboration with UQ.

The research and development journey with UQ has continued in a great example of industry and university collaboration resulting in successful commercialisation.

By advancing the technology, PBT has established long-term commercial viability by creating a closed loop for battery material processing.

The story of PBT – and more than 100 of our other startups – shows the potential that lies in long-term collaboration between industry and researchers.

Together with our startups, UniQuest has raised more than $960 million to take university technology to market.

That’s where opportunity exists to create change.

More on the 2022 AFR Higher Education Awards

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