Cover image: SparkNano engineers in the lab (courtesy of TNO)
An interview with Huib Heezen and Paul Poodt
This is the second post in a new series of blogs in which we will share exciting information about companies or other organizations within the atomic scale processing industry. Through an interview, we aim to get insight into the kind of projects the companies have and in what way they see these projects developing in the future. We also try to dive deeper into what these companies drives and what makes them so enthusiastic about the atomic scale processing industry. In addition we will address topics like how the company implements science communication and which student opportunities exist.
For this second post we got the opportunity to talk with SparkNano situated in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. SparkNano is a company that develops spatial-ALD machines. These are machines that enable the deposition of thin functional nanolayers that can be used for fabrication of devices. During such a deposition, the substrates move through different zones in which they are exposed to vapors in order to build up the layers. This in contrast to regular ALD where the substrate is static and only exposed to one gas at a time. Using the spatial-ALD technique a higher throughput at low cost can be achieved, making it promising to use for industrial applications. The aim of SparkNano is to commercialize this spatial-ALD technology and enable their customers to design and mass produce energy devices, more precisely for: green hydrogen devices, fuel cells and batteries.
|Facts and Figures about SparkNano|
|Markets||Energy (including electrolysis, fuel cells, batteries and solar cells) and displays|
|Main collaborations||TNO, TU/e, VDL ETG, and air Liquide|
|Number of employees 2022||10|
|Number of employees 2021||7|
|Student opportunities||Yes, we regularly have opportunities for students. Please contact SparkNano to learn more.|
|Goal for 2022||We want to grow our company, engage with new customers and of course, sell our products.|
The history of SparkNano
Historically SparkNano originates as a spin-off from TNO, that had developed a technique to use spatial-ALD for OLED displays. In order to keep the development of this technology -and the employment opportunities coming with it- within the Netherlands, SparkNano was founded, at that time with the name: SALDtech.
However, the market for displays proved very difficult despite the fact that technical milestones could be met. Part of the reason for this was the enormous size of the machines needed for fabricating displays and the large amounts of starting money you need to have in order to build them. But also Covid made things additionally difficult. Because of the pandemic traveling to large display manufacturers in Asia became impossible, while at the same time these manufactures had to vastly increase their supply in order to keep up with the skyrocketing demand, making it an unfavorable time for them to invest in new technology.
Because of this SALDtech started to look for different markets where the same techniques could be applied. This is when they completely shifted their focus to green hydrogen devices; fuel cells and batteries. As part of their new positioning in the market a new company identity was born with the name: SparkNano.
What kind of projects is SparkNano working on now?
SparkNano focusses on developing spatial-ALD machines for different applications within the energy market. Their main focus is on using spatial-ALD in the production of green hydrogen. Additionally, other applications include using spatial-ALD for fuel cells (that convert chemical energy of a fuel like hydrogen into electricity) and for making batteries. But how and why should we use spatial-ALD for these applications? As an example let’s zoom in on the usage of spatial-ALD within the process of producing hydrogen
Producing green hydrogen
For the production of green hydrogen electrolysers are used. The basic working principle of an electrolyser is that a voltage is placed over the electrodes, -making negative ions move to the cathode and positive ions to the anode- this way water molecules can be split. In order for these electrolysers to work efficiently a catalyst layer is needed. The catalyst materials that are generally used are iridium oxide and platinum. These are very rare materials and especially of iridium oxide there is a big shortage. To give some perspective: only about 7000 kg IrO2 is mined per year (which is equal to about half a truck full) and currently there is about 1-2 mg/cm2 IrO2 used in an electrolyser. A bit depending on who you ask, the amount of IrO2 used in the electrolysers will need to be reduced by approximately 40 times.
So it is important to minimize the use of these materials as much as possible, in order to reduce the costs of hydrogen and make it an affordable alternative to fossil fuels. This cannot be reached by the conventional technique used today. Currently the conventional technique for deposition is by applying a suspension with particles that are several micrometers thick. Because of this the deposited layer also becomes several micrometers thick. Having such thick layers is a waste of material, since during the reaction inside the electrolysers only the surface of the catalyst layer is used and not its bulk. With spatial-ALD these layers can instead be deposited in nanometer range, which saves a lot of material, while maintaining the same catalytic activity.
ALD machines for upscaling
Not only for green hydrogen production, but also for other applications, such as for batteries, it can be important to deposit very thin layers of scarce materials on specific places, with large uniformity. This is studied in many research labs all across the globe, but eventually we also need to upscale this in order to use these techniques industrially.
Challenges for these mass production devices are the large substrate dimensions in order to get high enough throughput, but also being economical with precursors. We want to go to 0% waste. There are several steps to reach this: for starters you need to have a very efficient process and use precisely enough precursor, for this you need to know a lot about the exact details of your process. You need to limit deposition to the active surface and not deposit on for instance the reactor wall of the deposition system. You need to reclaim all the unused precursor for reuse. Right now without reclaim about 70% efficiency can be reached. The next step SparkNano want to take is to look into how to efficiently reclaim precursor for reuse.
What is the unique expertise of SparkNano?
As a company SparkNano has certain areas of expertise where they can set themselves apart from the rest. One of these areas of expertise is the knowledge on the spatial-ALD process itself, by having a lot of hand-on experience. As mentioned before an extensive knowledge on the process is one of the vital ingredients for bring up the efficiency and bringing down the amount of waste. For instance, to know precisely how much precursor to apply and where to apply it, you need to understand a lot about the process. Aspects such as how the gasses are transported exactly through the ALD reactor need to be known and for this SparkNano has developed elaborate models.
Also the drive to find ways to get 0% precursor waste, can set SparkNano apart. They do this not only via knowledge of the ALD process, but also by investigating new techniques and opportunities like reclaiming precursor after the process has finished.
Another area that SparkNano is good at, is called patterning. This technique enables you to only deposit at the region of interest and this way allows you to use less precursor. The technique of patterning was first optimized by SparkNano for display application, but turns out to be a very important asset for the energy market as well. The patterning technique is possible by the use of plasma-based spatial-ALD, which also makes it possible to deposit at low temperatures.
Last but not least SparkNano knows how to make machines. Just knowing how the ALD process works is off course not enough, you also need experience with how to build the machines, integrate all the parts and make them work together.
What are the main clients of SparkNano and the type of machines that are being sold and developed?
Clients of SparkNano range from startups to established companies. An example of clients that are more established can be found in for instance the automotive industry, as these companies see that combustion engines might disappear in the future. Therefore they are looking for alternatives such as engines running on hydrogen. Some of these automotive companies are therefore considering building elektrolysers. However, also a lot of startups take interest in this field. It is a relatively new and small, but booming market right now, making it a good moment for SparkNano to jump in.
For the battery market there are also both large companies and startups, although the number of startups is clearly smaller. As this market already exists for a longer time, there is a different dynamic compared to the elektrolyser market. Here it would be difficult for spatial-ALD to become relevant in the current generation batteries (like the mass production of car batteries currently fabricated). However, for the future generation of batteries there are chances such as batteries which allow for faster charging or with higher energy densities. Also in the battery field scarce materials are used, like Cobalt and Nickel as well as Lithium itself.
Type of tools that SparkNano makes for the different markets
The electrodes used in the electrolysers for hydrogen are not extremely large. Their size varies between 30 x 30 cm2 to 50 x 50 cm2. These are approximately the sizes the larger tools of SparkNano can handle. The shape of the electrodes often differ a bit between manufacturers, which is why the machines of SparkNano have a flexible platform so that things can be adjusted for different shapes. Because there is still a lot of optimization being done for all the different steps of electrolyser fabrication, there is not one fixed concept for the mass production of elektrolysers. Currently there are two concepts for mass production by spatial-ALD being considered now, namely roll-to-roll (flexible substrate that is rolled through the machine) or sheet-to-sheet (foil mounted on rigid substrate moving back and forth in machine).
For the battery market the machines that SparkNano makes can be considered as scalable lab tools. The smallest tool SparkNano makes has substrates of around 15 x 15 cm2, which might already be too big for the average university and is more aimed at corporate laboratories or specific institutes. Of course for the current generation batteries much bigger machines are used. SparkNano does not yet make these kind of machines but it is something that is planned for in the future.
What type of collaborations does SparkNano have?
Of course as the parent organization, TNO is still a very important partner of SparkNano as they do a lot of research in this field. But SparkNano also works together with other companies. The environment in Eindhoven is very unique, with so many high tech companies so close together. For instance for the supply of raw materials and parts, a lot of collaboration is done between the companies present on the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven.
An example where SparkNano chooses to collaborate with another company in research, is in a new project in which they develop a way to reclaim precursor for reuse. SparkNano has limited experience with this and uses the collaboration of another company with lots of expertise in chemistry to develop this further.
Other collaborations are with universities, but also collaborations in the form of outsourcing the fabrication of certain parts of the machine, as this is where their expertise lies.
Does SparkNano actively pay attention to science communication?
SparkNano has their own website where they communicate about their technology. The added value of this science communication for SparkNano is first and foremost to familiarize (potential) clients with the advantages of using spatial-ALD. For instance that by using less Iridium also the costs of the electrolysers will go down, while the efficiencies remains the same or even increases and with that the costs of green hydrogen eventually will go down too. To prove these concepts references to scientific publications are also added to the website and presented on seminars or in meetings.
Other reasons for doing (science) communication for SparkNano are to satisfy stakeholders, apply for subsidies or attract the interest of investors. Also because there are many companies within this new field, that SparkNano shifted its focus to, it is very important to position yourself well within the market. This is why SparkNano also hired a cco (chief commercial officer), who has experience with what other parties want to know (which is definitely not just science based) and which details can or should be left out.
Yet as a company you have an additional difficulty that you do not want to tell your secrets or confidential information of your clients and collaborators. Part of the reason why communication about new developments or inventions done by companies is often so delayed, is because there are years between inventing and protecting your intellectual property by getting a patent.
What kind of student opportunities does SparkNano offer and what are the advantages of a small company?
Finally we asked SparkNano what kind of student opportunities they would have and what students can learn from working at a company like SparkNano. They explained SparkNano is open-minded when it comes to offering students opportunities for internships or other projects. So far they have had one student working with them and this was a success. However, sometimes timing can be difficult. When doing an internship, SparkNano finds it important that you can actually have time on the spatial-ALD machines to do your experiments, and so there has to be room at that moment to do so. SparkNano is not looking for one specific type of student. Many fields of expertise can be very useful: students that want to do research on the deposition or characterization of thin films, students with a mechanical engineering background and students interested in doing techno-economic analysis.
Advantages of doing an internship at a company is that it helps show the difference between academia and industry. Because SparkNano is a relatively small company, as an intern you can sit in on the different meetings and learn a lot about technical concerns, but also about the economic concerns of a company. The university does not give a lot attention to the latter. They do not really teach students that it is not necessarily about the best process, but that other factors (like costs) weigh heavy too. SparkNano believes that knowing how to calculate costs and how to take these costs into account is a very beneficial skill for students to learn.
As an extension to our question we asked SparkNano what are the advantages of working at a small company. First of all, the primary advantage they mentioned is that everyone is involved in the end product. This means you have a clear idea for what reason you are putting in all your effort, which is very motivating. You also do not only hear from people working in your own field, but also see what problems people within the other fields encounter, this makes the work here even more interesting. The collaboration in such a small group is tight and everyone needs to deliver. You cannot just lay back and not perform well. You simply have to ask yourself what kind of person you are and what you like. Working at a small company means more risks, but at the same time it is extremely exciting and rewarding.