The Electric Future, Built in America: Q&A With Urbix Resources’ Nico Cuevas
Experts and investors now agree that the future of global transport is electric. However, a future driven by electric vehicles (EVs) hinges on the procurement of a critical element: graphite. The material is a naturally-occurring form of crystalline carbon that is predominantly sourced from China.
Now, entrepreneur Nico Cuevas wants to wean the United States off this dependence on China by purifying graphite on American soil in an innovatively climate-conscious way. In this interview with MarketCurrents WealthNet Cuevas describes the underlying innovation and the future of his Arizona-based startup Urbix Resources.
Vishesh Raisinghani and Sumehr Sondhi of MarketCurrents led an interview with Nico Cuevas of Urbix. The recorded version is also available below.
Could you give us some background on how Urbix came to be the only entity outside of a consortium of China-based enterprises to be able to meet U.S. demand purified graphite?
Urbix determined that the high cost and poor environmental outcome in the current state of graphite purification needed to change. Our initiative worked with the University of Arizona’s world-famous Center for Optical Science to create the only modern forward-looking alternative to what has existed heretofore.
At the moment the United States imports 100% of its natural graphite. Although companies that purify graphite exist in the USA, the technology implemented in the USA is mainly high temperature ovens. The capacity of these companies is constrained by the low yields and high operating costs of their systems unable to compete with the foreign lower-cost alternatives. Don’t get confused, the high-temperature purification technology is definitely critical for very unique applications that require extremely high levels of purity (99.99%+ for instance). However, the grand majority of products that require purified graphite do not need this grade of purity.
Urbix is the only company in the USA that has developed a high-yield and environmentally friendly process that is able to purify graphite at lower costs than the foreign alternatives. At 30 minutes per cycle, we are able to purify graphite at 1/100th of the time of the High-Temperature oven and the Chinese-Method alternative.
Researchers seem to be working on silicon anodes to replace the traditional graphite ones. Samsung seems to be working on silver-carbon (Ag-C) composites. In your view, could silicon (or other breakthroughs in material science) make graphite less critical to future battery technology?
Battery technology takes several decades to go from lab proof to commercial adoption. For example, Lithium-Ion batteries were invented in the 70’s, but it was not until 1991 that it was taken to commercial scale and not until the 2010’s that the technology began really being adopted at a wider level.
Another example was the NMC Cathode Technology developed at Argonne National Lab in 2001. It did not come commercially scalable until 2011 and it’s only in the past few years that we are seeing a wider adoption.
Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, as well as other Market Data Analytical companies estimate that Graphite will continue to dominate more than 80% of the Li-Ion Industry well past 2040. Urbix expects a wider adoption of Silicon (10%) – Graphite (90%) composites as anode material past 2025 and Urbix’s hybridized spherical graphite technology is well-suited to accommodate Silicon in a bottom up composite particle. Urbix is currently developing anode-grade coated spherical purified graphite particles using hybridization technology and incorporation of silicon is a major R&D focus.
What are the biggest hurdles to profitability for Urbix at the moment?
Obtaining the financing to scale our pilot system to commercial size. We have developed enough relationships in the marketplace and are confident that Q1 2021, when our commercial facility is finalized, we will have a full order book. We have passed our R&D Phase regarding our purification technology, as such our technology is ready to be taken to market.
You mention new pebble reactors, purification related to rare earth elements purification, recycling of used battery graphite, and revenue from graphene products could add $300 million to the top line within five years. Could you give us more context and your outlook for these future innovations?
As far as pebble bed reactors go, you must be referring to our collaboration with Oak Ridge National Lab to develop a Nuclear Grade Graphite Feedstock for the next Generation IV reactors, of which some will be pebble beds. Urbix is the only company at the moment engaged with any government agency to purify graphite domestically to develop the fuel cells for these Next Gen Reactors.
Further Revenue expansion exists by utilizing the same Mechano-Chemical Urbix purification system on Rare Earth Elements, which like Graphite, are also critical minerals and a matter of National Security to our government.
To best describe your $300M statement, If Urbix has 30% of the US Market for Battery Grade Graphite Anode by the Mid 20’s, the Revenue potential of that business alone can be $300Mn.
Do you have any comments or advice for potential investors who are keen on learning more about Urbix?
When Looking at Urbix as an investment candidate consider several key components:
1. Geo-Politics created by the US’s foreign manufacturing dependency: US now focused on bringing manufacturing back, especially of critical minerals and how uniquely positioned Urbix is timing wise.
2. We are not Seeking investment to go do R&D for 4 years, we are passed that, the funds of these round are earmarked to purchase the equipment to go into commercial scale production
3. The “electrification” of the world is inevitable. Urbix is also uniquely positioned to be the Only American Company with an American Green/LowCost Technology to be able to address the 25% CAGR BEV market. that is EV’s
4. Green Matters. Urbix is engaged in conversations with the two largest automakers in the world, and one of their priorities is to “localize” supply chain, processing techniques and the provenance of the raw materials that go inside their vehicles.