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Unique regional partnerships a key theme in SkyNano’s story


Representatives from several local partners attended a ribbon-cutting for the new SkyNano facility in Louisville, Tennesse. Front row, from left to right are Deborah Crawford, vice chancellor for research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Tom Rogers, president and chief executive officer of the UT Research Park; Lindsey Cox, CEO of LaunchTN; Cary Pint, SkyNano co-founder and chief technology officer; Susan Hubbard, ORNL deputy for science and technology; Anna Douglas, SkyNano co-founder and CEO; Chris Saldaña, director of DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office; and Joe Hoagland, TVA vice president for innovation and research, with the SkyNano team behind them. @ Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

In a 2022 video for Innovation Crossroads, Anna Douglas said, “I like to think about the what-ifs. What if we take all the carbon dioxide that's being released into the atmosphere and we put it back into sustainable applications, applications that we use every day like batteries and tires and coatings?

“I want to explore all the ways carbon can be utilized so that instead of being a problematic emission that must be offset, it's a feedstock that we can use to power the products of tomorrow.”

Douglas’ grand vision, strategic moves and laser focus have helped propel her through seven years of building her company, SkyNano, and land $16 million in government and commercial research and development contracts. Earlier this week, SkyNano hosted a ribbon-cutting event to open a new production facility in Louisville, Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville. The celebration drew friends and colleagues from across Tennessee and Washington, D.C., including representatives from the Department of Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, peer Innovation Crossroads companies and LaunchTN.

“SkyNano is a perfect example of how place-based innovation can help startups grow,” said Dan Miller, Innovation Crossroads program lead. “Anna has worked with a host of local partners to build her company. She’s become a pillar in the local ecosystem and a resource to other entrepreneurs.”

SkyNano captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — from flue gas, for example — and uses electrochemistry to convert it into valuable carbon-based materials such as carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are exceptionally strong, flexible and conductive, making them desirable for a range of applications, from enhancing the performance of batteries and tires to strengthening building materials and composite structures.

The company’s use of advanced manufacturing processes for clean energy applications made Douglas a natural fit for the first cohort of ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads. The program is a branch of DOE’s Lab Embedded Entrepreneurship Program, created by the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technology Office, or AMMTO, within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The two-year fellowship program leverages ORNL’s unique scientific resources and capabilities and connects the nation’s top innovators with experts, mentors and networks in technology-related fields to take world-changing ideas from research and development to the marketplace.

The program’s current sponsors include the Tennessee Valley Authority and DOE’s AMMTO, Building Technologies Office, Office of Electricity, and Office of Science Advanced Scientific Computing Research program.

At the time Innovation Crossroads was recruiting its first cohort, Tom Rogers was directing industrial partnerships and economic development at ORNL. Rogers currently serves as president and chief executive officer of the UT Research Park.

In recalling the 2016 meeting, Douglas said, “My professor asked me to come to a meeting with some folks from Oak Ridge who are starting an entrepreneurial program. That's where I first met Tom, who practically jumped across the table to give me his card after I explained what we were doing.”

“Honestly, the stars aligned — I don't know if I would have the company had it not been for Innovation Crossroads,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to say, ‘I’m going to pursue this.’ It gave me the freedom to not have to worry about my bills or a side job. There's real power in being able to focus.”

Since the program began in 2017, 38 entrepreneurs have participated. Fifteen of those entrepreneurs, Doulgas included, stayed in Tennessee to build their companies. Innovation Crossroads companies have raised $156 million in follow-on funding and are responsible for more than 200 jobs.

From the garden to Glenn

Douglas’ interest in science began outdoors in her mom’s garden, which prompted Douglas’ first nonprofit enterprise.

“It was called Garden in a Wagon. I would take my wagon around my neighborhood, selling vegetables. We donated all the money to the local children's hospital,” she said.

In her undergraduate years, Douglas took an internship at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Expecting to file papers and make coffee, she was surprised to be placed in a group studying polymer aerogels, materials that insulate the battery pack on the Mars Curiosity Rover.

“I just completely fell in love with materials science. Working on nanostructured materials that can have an impact on space exploration totally blew my mind,” she said.

Douglas joined the materials science graduate program at Vanderbilt University, which had a rotations program that allowed students to move between research groups. There she met Cary Pint, an engineering professor with whom she would develop the electrochemical technology and co-found SkyNano. Pint is now at Iowa State University and serves as chief technology officer for the company.

“Ultimately, I found energy really compelling — it’s the crux of our society,” Douglas said.

Opportunity in the ecosystem

Joining Innovation Crossroads allowed Douglas to bridge the distance between an academic project and commercialization. During her fellowship, she worked closely with researchers in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, or CNMS, a DOE user facility based at ORNL.

“There were so many folks at CNMS that encouraged us on our journey, including David Geohegan, Dale Hensley and Karren More,” she said. “We worked in Ilia Ivanov’s lab — he’s innovative and forward-thinking. He has an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Ivanov, a scientist studying functional hybrid nanomaterials, said that CNMS expertise in carbon nanotubes and its unique imaging and analytical tools were a boon in developing Douglas’ technology. The collaboration is a two-way road, Ivanov said, and it benefited CNMS by modernizing safety protocols.

“As we began to plan for SkyNano to set up their molten salt electrochemical reactor, which heats above 700 degrees Celsius, we realized we needed to modernize safety protocol for this experiment,” Ivanov said. “The updated protocol worked very well, and we now apply the same safety protocols to other CNMS laboratories. One element of modernization is that a QR code, a short description of the reaction and the name of the responsible researcher are displayed on each experimental bench or hood where reactions take place. Now, anyone passing by an experiment can use their cellphone to access detailed procedures and know what potential hazards to expect, making our lab operation safer.”

Upon completing Innovation Crossroads, Douglas joined UT’s Spark Innovation Center’s incubator program, gaining access to critical lab space and scanning electron microscopy capabilities at the UT Research Park.

“Through the Spark program, I met many UT professors, which has helped in understanding the resources and facilities that are available, not just through Spark, but broadly across campus,” Douglas added.

“Anna is remarkable in the way that, step by step, she continues to build upon her successes,” Innovation Crossroads’ lead Miller said. “She has gone from performing experiments at CNMS, joining Spark and securing lab space at the UT Research Park, to leasing commercial lab and office space and now, opening her own production facility.”

Don DeRosa, chief executive officer of Eonix and a Cohort 2018 fellow in Innovation Crossroads, counts Douglas among the early trailblazers for the East Tennessee energy ecosystem.

“Anna sets an incredibly high bar for every entrepreneur, not just in Knoxville but throughout the country,” DeRosa said. “Anna has helped establish Knoxville as a viable destination for hard-tech entrepreneurs.”

“She literally paved the way — when lab space was scarce, she began setting up facilities to house both local and new companies in the region, which has been critical for the growth of the ecosystem,” he said.

Capturing the petroleum market and beyond

Douglas estimates that the carbon removal potential for SkyNano is about 1 gigaton per year through direct and indirect impacts such as direct capture, offset emissions from a shift in materials production, fuel savings from increased performance of electric vehicles, emerging markets and participation in the carbon removal economy.

“It’s exciting to have a mature solution to offer in an area of the economy that is really growing,” Douglas said. “We’ve built our entire economy on petroleum — I see that as the potential market opportunity for our business.”

SkyNano currently produces small quantities of multiwalled carbon nanotubes, carbon-based powders and multilayer graphene flakes. Douglas sees the potential for carbon nanotubes to replace carbon black in tires, coatings, plastics and more.

“In batteries, our product offers a domestically available, low-cost source of advanced materials that drastically improve performance,” she said.

In a project with ORNL's Battery Manufacturing Facility, or BMF, research showed a 60% improvement in rate capability — performance at high rates of charge — with only a 10% replacement of carbon black with carbon nanotubes.

At the BMF, Douglas worked with then-ORNL researcher and electrochemical engineer David Wood. SkyNano’s technology shifts the production of carbon nanotubes away from heat-intensive industrial chemical vapor deposition to low-cost, efficient electrochemistry. Wood joined ORNL to conduct lithium-ion battery research after more than a decade in industry working on fuel cells for EVs. When Douglas asked Wood to collaborate with her, he found the possibility of making carbon products from atmospheric CO2 “a little exotic.” But the lifelong environmentalist in him was hooked by the many applications of nanotubes.

“If you can make them environmentally responsibly, you have a really good business case on your hands,” Wood said.

Wood eventually joined the company as director of engineering and was later named chief operating officer.

In the battery space, SkyNano is collaborating with DeRosa’s company, Eonix, on a Department of Defense, or DOD, project to increase the lifetime of silicon anodes in lithium-ion batteries and improve battery performance in satellites.

Other avenues SkyNano is exploring include:

  • Building materials: In a DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy project with Innovation Crossroads company Endeavor Composites and the University of Tennessee, SkyNano is developing building materials that permanently store captured CO2 while capitalizing on carbon nanotubes’ strength.

  • Cement production: Carbon nanotubes could contribute to decarbonizing cement production, an industry that has proven difficult to abate, as well as strengthen cement structures and prevent cracks. One DOE Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office project aims to decarbonize cement processing gas and incorporate carbon nanotubes into concrete. Another DOD project is focused on concrete for military applications.

  • Composites: Douglas said the company is beginning to explore carbon nanotubes in composites. Another defense project is focused on creating high-performance composite materials using low embodied carbon structures. “Working with DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL would be a natural next step for us,” she said.

“Ultimately, we have a lot of different types of technologies that are going to all be required to fit together to solve the global climate crisis,” Douglas added. “Where SkyNano fits is that we have a near-term solution that can be integrated without changing how the world fundamentally works.”

Major projects and awards

SkyNano has also secured project funding through the National Science Foundation and the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, Office’s Vehicle Technologies Office and Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office. SkyNano has also benefited from the state of Tennessee’s matching SBIR/STTR funds through LaunchTN.

In one DOE Fossil Energy and Carbon Management project, Douglas proposed capturing flue gas from a natural gas plant and converting it using a lithium salt reactor. It was her first major project and allowed the company to work directly with the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, a public utility with a service area spread across seven states.

In the project, Douglas collected captured flue gas — using a homegrown system powered by the same air compressors found in paint ball guns and scuba equipment — from TVA’s John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant in Rogersville and successfully created carbon nanotubes.

“That project really supported our scale-up efforts so far and TVA continues to be a great supporter. We’re really proud that they see SkyNano as a component to their decarbonization efforts,” she said.

Joe Hoagland, TVA vice president for innovation and research, said, “Working with Anna has been inspiring. She’s a gifted entrepreneur and has taken SkyNano from an idea to a growing company. She exemplifies how the startup environment in East Tennessee is growing and thriving.”

Growth through customer focus

Throughout the years of growing SkyNano, Douglas has built the company by focusing on building commercial customers and market applications on both sides of the value chain.

“We have solutions for both decarbonization and a supply of valuable materials. That’s a compelling story to tell. Our approach to funding is absolutely unconventional, but the result is that we’ve taken zero dollars in dilutive funding, we’ve raised $16 million, and we’ve remained focused on our core mission,” she said.

Wood said that after his 14 years at ORNL, plunging into startup life required him to channel the training and knowledge from earlier parts of his industry career.

“Being on the cutting edge is great. We make a product that can enable decarbonization in sectors like steel and cement, as well as provide materials for consumer products used in everyday life while also making aspects of society better in the process,” he said.

Wood is also intrigued by the potential for unique nanoscale phenomena in the spaghetti-like carbon nanotubes created by electrochemistry. “They are very different morphologically from traditionally grown nanotubes,” he said.

SkyNano’s technology has garnered widespread recognition, including a 2020 R&D 100 Award and the 2021 TechConnect Defense Innovation Award. Douglas and Pint were both named in Forbes 30 Under 30 lists for exceptional contributions to their fields. In 2022, SkyNano received a Tennessee Governor’s Award for Environmental Stewardship. In 2023, Douglas and SkyNano took home the Innov865 Traction Award.

The new Louisville facility will allow SkyNano to build a bigger reactor to produce the larger quantities of carbon nanotubes needed for tires, rubber and elastomers. The first order of business will be to conduct a demonstration in real time of decarbonization and nanotube production at a cement-processing plant.

“We’ve seen a massive change in society’s understanding of the need for carbon management. People really care about this,” Douglas said. “I’m excited that SkyNano is here at this moment. We’re starting to see the tip of the iceberg as to what this really could be.”

UT-Battelle manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.

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