Paging Dr. Electrolyte
Paging Dr. Electrolyte
Brian Francisco, PhD, is the Technical Director of Electrolyte Development at Solid Power. At our Colorado headquarters, he’s known by a different name – “Dr. Electrolyte.”
Dr. Francisco began his doctoral studies at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2009. A newfound interest in materials thermodynamics led him to the on-campus labs of Professors Conrad Stoldt and Sehee Lee. Professors Stoldt and Lee, along with their respective teams, were working on a promising new type of energy storage technology for all-solid-state batteries.
“I really fell in love with solid-state chemistry because sometimes, you’re just not sure what you’re going to get,” Francisco says. “We’re constantly recalibrating our intuitions and learning new things about the way a combination of materials will behave.”
As Dr. Francisco approached graduation, the team’s research made its way out of academia and into then-battery startup Solid Power. A decade later, Solid Power has established itself as a leading solid-state battery developer working with automakers like BMW and Ford. Dr. Francisco was Solid Power’s eighth employee when he joined full-time in 2015, and the need for his expertise was quickly apparent.
“There was a realization that in order to make the best batteries, we also needed to develop electrolytes,” he notes. “I brought a knowledge of electrolyte development from my doctoral work and naturally became the electrolyte guy.”
Today, Dr. Francisco and his team oversee the full scope of sulfide solid-electrolyte development, from materials research to experimentation to powder production. The team also assists in the development of lithium-based anodes.
To ensure Solid Power is building the best possible battery, it’s not enough to develop an electrolyte that’s highly conductive – Dr. Francisco and his team also have to make sure it’s cost-effective, can be produced at scale, and is compatible with the battery’s other components.
“Conductivity is usually the first thing we look at, but it isn’t necessarily the most important,” he stresses. “High conductivity doesn’t always translate to the best material. In a lot of cases, the best conductors don’t work with certain anodes and may also not be stable against the cathode. The wrong reactivity can destroy the material. We really do believe that sulfides offer the best overall benefits.”
Dr. Francisco’s role is challenging as there’s no established playbook for solid-state battery development. As they help pave the way toward commercialization, Dr. Francisco’s electrolyte team is carefully iterating. Sometimes the experiments are successful. Sometimes they aren’t. Fortunately for Solid Power, the team is energized by trial and error.
“Everyone has those days where it’s like ‘Man, why am I doing this to myself,’” Dr. Francisco says. “However, when you get something to work or when an experiment goes the way you’d hoped it would go, it’s so refreshing and washes everything else away. It takes a certain kind of person not to get discouraged by failure, but we’ve got a team that’s driven enough and curious enough to push through until we find something that we think works well.”
Dr. Francisco views every test or experiment as a learning opportunity. Even when things don’t go according to plan – especially when things don’t go according to plan – the electrolyte team gains better insight into how solid-state chemistry functions and how it can be fine-tuned. A true scientist in every sense, Dr. Francisco often has to resist the urge to explore an interesting development as soon as he encounters it.
“That’s the hard thing – fighting your curiosity,” Francisco explains. “It’s easy to fall into rabbit holes. At the bottom of the rabbit hole, you’ll learn something, but does it need to be determined today? An idea might not be relevant at the time, but there have been many, many cases where a little bit later, it becomes relevant. And in those instances, we’ve already done a little bit of work around it and don’t have to start at square one.”
Dr. Francisco’s role, much like Solid Power and the broader EV battery market, continues to evolve. Nimble processes, both created and executed by Dr. Francisco’s team, help keep Solid Power on schedule.
“To make sure we have the projected volumes we need of a certain material, we’ve started our own internal development program to make it ourselves,” Francisco notes.
Like many Solid Power employees, Dr. Francisco takes full advantage of the beautiful Colorado landscape when he isn’t in the lab.
“I like camping a lot,” he says. “When I moved to Colorado, I stopped in Chicago on the way and bought my first tent. I practiced setting it up in my hotel room. The next night, I camped in the Badlands. There was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was scared for my life, my tent pressed up against my head. That definitely broke the ice.”
Now a seasoned pro, Dr. Francisco’s recent camping experiences have been much more enjoyable.
“Sometimes I’ll pull out a map, see where service roads are and whether or not my truck can get there, and find a good spot to set up camp,” he adds. “I’m hoping to do more of that. Plus, I just got a really nice bike that I want to put to good use this summer.”