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Category → Batteries

Solar Boom in Japan, with Battery to Match

Japan has been making large strides in solar since the Fukushima disaster, and those efforts look set to accelerate, at least in the near term. The country, which is not blessed with a wealth of fossil fuel resources, had relied heavily on nuclear energy, but it is now spending big for solar installations as well as energy storage.

Just in time for Earth Day, Bloomberg is reporting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to spend around $204 million on a battery system to stabilize the flow of solar power on the northern island of Hokkaido. The location’s less expensive land has attracted ground module solar power systems. The report did not state what type of battery will be used, though Cleantech Chemistry will be looking for updates. The ministry is targeting 2015 for the system to be up and running (up and storing?)

The country began a generous feed in tariff for solar in July, which attracted just over 1.33 GW of installations through the end of January of this year. According to IHS iSuppli, the FIT is around 42 cents (in U.S. currency) per kilowatt hour, which is quite generous.

Though the tariff may be scaled back as systems come online, IHS forecasts that Japan will install 5 GW of solar capacity this year. To put that figure in perspective, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association reports that 30 GW of grid-connected solar was installed globally in 2012, about the same as in 2011.

Electric-vehicle Batteries are Like Olives…

Sometimes  while I’m reading a standard press release about something that I thought I understood kind of,  I come across a bit of a gap in my knowledge. This week, Nissan says it has opened its lithium ion battery manufacturing plant in Tennessee. The release states, “The first batteries produced at the plant have completed the required aging process and are now ready to receive their first charge.”

Um… what the what? Do these things need to be put on a shelf and cured like olives?

Nissan helpfully includes a really nice graphic describing the manufacturing process, most of which does sound familar to me. In the fourth flow-chart box, after the electrolyte is injected with what looks like a hypodermic needle, the text explains “Cells are aged to allow the cell chemistry to be properly formed.”  Then they go on to be tested, trimmed to size and charged.

If you are a battery geek, I’d love to hear your idea of what the chemistry formation is and what it does for the battery.

My only guess is that the pause is needed for the formation of the solid electrolyte interface (SEI) on the anode – or negative electrode. This layer is formed with the help of the electrolyte (and there are SEI additives for electrolytes to make the process better). It protects the surface of the anode from the degrading environment of the battery when it is recharged. The SEI layer may be composed of various stuff, depending on the particular materials used in the battery but are commonly Li2CO3, LiOH, LiF, or Li2O.

Nissan explains its battery manufacturing process:

 

A123 Systems Files Chapter 11, Johnson Controls to Buy Assets

It looks like it’s pretty much all over for A123 Systems. The advanced battery company announced today that it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to reorganize its debts. Johnson Controls, which also makes large-format lithium ion batteries for the auto industry, will purchase facilities and other assets for $125 million. A123 was earlier mulling an offer to sell itself to Chinese auto part maker Wanxiang Group.

A123 Systems makes advanced lithium ion batteries. Credit: A123 Systems

A123 was one of a host of battery, battery materials, and electric drivetrain companies to receive government money as part of the Recovery Act. The goal was to set up a full manufacturing supply chain to for U.S.-made advanced batteries. Those batteries were intended to go into U.S.-made electric vehicles. A123 received $249 million in government grants. It also has shareholders, who will likely lose their investment in the re-org.

Overall, Recovery Act funding for the advanced battery industry totalled $2 billion. A123 Systems stood out – and was most vulnerable to market forces – because it was a tech-driven, pure-play battery company. Unlike Dow Kokam, or Johnson Controls, it has no deep pocketed parent or additional technologies and markets to sell into. (A123 will license back techology for batteries used for stationary storage).

And the market A123 sells into is the hyper-oversupplied market for electric car batteries. As we’ve mentioned recently in this blog, electric cars are selling very, very slowly. A recent article in MIT’s Technology Review says battery production capacity in 2013 will greatly outpace demand with 3,900 MW hours of capacity to serve 330 MW of demand, based on estimates from Menahem Anderman at the consulting firm Advanced Automotive Batteries. Needless to say, many production lines are sitting idle at the moment.

When A123 was still a young firm, it was selling batteries for power tools to Black & Decker. Indeed, when it went public its S1 filing was based on that partnership. The company certainly had its sights set on what was to be a huge automotive market.

But one has to wonder, what would have happened if A123 hadn’t received the “free” money? What if it hadn’t been swept into the government’s big plans to create a new advanced manufacturing industry from nothing?

A Bad Week for Electric Vehicles

It’s not quite clear whether makers of all-electric passenger vehicles need upgraded batteries or upgraded customers. Maybe both.

Cute but rare? Toyota’s eQ, all electric vehicle. Credit:Toyota

Improved technology might bring cheaper batteries with extended range and a longer useful lifespan. But firms like Nissan might also benefit from customers that don’t mind paying a lot and aren’t suffering from “range anxiety.”

Certainly, it is easier for automakers to change their strategy than to invent the perfect customer. This week, Toyota said it would roll out 21 new or redesigned gas-electric hybrids. It will expand sales of a version of the Prius that plugs in. But it is tempering expectations about its all-electric eQ, saying it plans to sell just 100 of the tiny vehicles, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told the WSJ that it will upgrade the battery in the Nissan Leaf EV to help the firm lower its price. The Leaf has suffered slowing sales, and recent critisms that the battery’s capacity has dropped too quickly for drivers in hot climates.

Interestingly, Hundai says it would like to leapfrog the battery issues and instead offer a fuel cell-powered electric vehicle, says Reuters. The FCEVs will have their own problems – high sticker price and a lack of refueling stations.

Chrysler, a brand not known for cute subcompact city cars, has been a laggared in electrified vehicles. Nonetheless, it has a test fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles. But the company has already determined that the initial batteries will need to be upgraded as the test showed problems with overheating. The company is testing how fleet operated electric vehicles might be able to transfer power from their batteries to the electric grid – a process called “reverse power flow.”

Lux Research, which has been sounding the alarm about likely weak sales of EVs commented on the Toyota announcement. “The reality is that HEVs and light PHEVs are simply far more economical now, given high battery costs, and will remain so for years to come. As a result, in 2020 sales of HEVs and light PHEVs will be 16 times greater than those of heavy PHEVs and EVs.”

No IPO For Smith Electric Vehicles

As recently as yesterday, IPO-watchers were keeping an eye on Smith Electric Vehicles, which was expected to go public today. I recently wrote about the company’s plans.

But last night the company pulled its SEC filing. “We received significant interest from potential investors, however, we were unable to complete a transaction at a valuation or size that would be in the best interests of our company and its existing shareholders,” said Bryan Hansel, Smith’s chief executive, in a release. “We have instead elected to pursue private financing opportunities to support the execution of our business plan.”

Though in general, IPO traffic has picked up in the last few weeks, some cleantech and chemical companies have been shy to pull the trigger on public markets. But many have had success instead with follow-on rounds of venture investing or strategic investments.

It can be a better bet than the IPO market, because investor appetite for particular sectors can change quickly. In Smith Electric’s case, some analysts think that slow sales of plug-in hybrid passenger vehicles dampened enthusiams for the electric vehicle market overall.

John Petersen, an analyst who blogs at SeekingAlpha, includes the news about Smith Electric in a larger roundup of information about the battery marketplace. He includes information from a Congressional Budget Office report on the high cost of government subsidies for the electric vehicle market. And he links to a detailed article from the American Physical Society about why lithium ion batteries (at least the versions around now) may not be the right technology for transportation.

 

Smith Electric Vehicles Wants Investors, Cheaper Batteries

There aren’t very many electric vehicle companies in the world. One of the few was founded way back in 1920. Which makes it older than most cleantech firms by at least eight decades. But like many hip, tech-driven, venture-backed start-ups, Smith Electric Vehicles is planning an IPO.

A Smith Electric Vehicle truck delivers Staples products. Credit: Smith Electric Vehicle

Smith manufactures medium-duty delivery trucks – often called box trucks – used for delivering stuff. The trucks are much bigger than the kinds of passenger cars that come to mind when someone says “electric vehicle” – they need 20 times the battery power of a Nissan Leaf, for example. But they use similar types of batteries as their tiny cousins.

As President Obama noted in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, high tech battery manufacturing has been part of the U.S.’s push into advanced manufacturing. He mentioned “thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines, and long-lasting batteries.” I’m assuming by “long-lasting” he’s talking about the big rechargeable li-ion battery packs meant to power electric vehicles.

In large part to make those jobs possible, several battery manufacturers got significant government support from Recovery Act spending. Factories are indeed manufacturing advanced batteries. But as C&EN reported back in February, the electric passenger car market is moving more slowly.

At the time, Smith’s CEO Bryan Hansel was plenty happy about the glut in big batteries. “It’s tremendous for us that supply is coming up—we’re ahead of the demand curve and so we benefit from oversupply in the short term,” he says. “It drives down cost and helps drive demand for our products, and we can then be a bigger customer.”

But with the IPO coming, business and technology risks in the battery industry cast a bit of a shadow on Smith’s operations. The company is shifting to batteries made by A123 Systems, a pure-play technology firm whose own stock chart looks like a downhill ski slope. And it’s not just A123. I also saw in Smith’s SEC filing that a related risk is “the recent bankruptcy filing by Valence Technology, Inc., or Valence, which produces the battery systems for our U.K.-produced vehicles.”

Also in the filing, Smith explains that it is depending on decreasing the costs of its electric drivetrain in order to make a gross profit on its truck sales. As of now, the company loses money on each sale. If the battery makers cannot be profitable, it will be hard for Smith to be profitable.

But that is not to say anything is hopeless. The value proposition to fleet operators to switch from diesel trucks to all-electric ones is promising. The whole supply chain is going to depend on developing and scaling-up the production of cost-effective batteries.

Battery Start-up Gets New Name

Liquid Metal Battery Corporation now has a new name – Ambri. I have to admit, since I track a number of cleantech start-ups, I had a fondness for LMBC partly because the name was so descriptive of the technology. It helps when my memory gets a little faulty.

The researcher and founder of Ambri, Donald Sadoway, is profiled in C&EN’s very recent cover package about Entrepreneurs in Chemistry. I enjoyed Sadoway’s story very much. As C&EN’s Amanda Yarnell points out in the story, though he is an expert in materials, Sadoway and his team are not experts in the battery industry. Their outside perspective helped the team come up with a cheaper method to store intermittent, renewable energy.

But I will miss the old name. The press release says Ambri comes from a snippet of Cambridge, home of MIT. Maybe Liquid Metal Battery Corp was considered too long, or perhaps too, er, sloshy?

iPad: Pushing the Limits of Materials

In addition to the famed design sense and technological know-how that make the iPad possible, Apple also must call in some key material innovations to fit all that fun into such a small package.

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I talk to the companies that make materials for today’s hot mobile devices and their sleek touch screens. Like Corning’s Gorilla Glass. And I show how surface chemistry‘s contributions to making better consumer goods is spreading to other categories including sneakers, make-up, house paint, and new LED light bulbs.

The new iPad, with its 4G internet speeds and energy hogging retina display, is also pushing the limits on battery materials. It is a bit thicker and heavier than the first version, mainly due to needing a larger battery. In a guest post on a Forbes Tech blog aimed at executives, Noam Kedem, VP of marketing for Leyden Energy, says that the new iPad’s need for more power also makes it run hotter, and also is the reason it takes longer to recharge the battery. Heat, and irreversible chemical changes over a battery’s lifespan, are major materials problems for lithium ion batteries, he writes.

Leyden Energy is a Calif.-based firm has developed a new electrolyte chemistry for batteries that the company claims will help to fix the heat/degradation process. Almost all consumer rechargeable li-ion batteries use LiPF6 as their electrolyte; Leyden is working with a chemistry based on lithium imide. According to the firm, lithium imide makes batteries much less temperature sensitive.

I hope that Apple’s engineers have seen this week’s lead news story by my colleague Mitch Jacoby on research that tantalizingly suggests new chemistry for “low-cost batteries with greater capacity and longevity than today’s commercial Li-ion batteries.” In this case, it is not the electrolyte but rather the anode that has been improved. In research published in the ACS Journal NanoLetters, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists were able to make anodes of silicon-carbon nanocomposite. Li-ion battery anodes are normally made of carbon.

Past efforts to make silicon anodes ran into problems; during charging, they swell to three times their size. In addition to making a more stable version, the PNNL folks found the resulting battery “exhibited a charge capacity more than five times as great as that of conventional carbon anodes.” Wooo! That’s a lot more YouTube on the ol’ iPad. The story comes complete with descriptive photos and a video of the anode undergoing the charging process.

[3/27/2012 - updated to reflect that Leyden "has developed" and add corrected "imide"]

Energy Conversion Devices: the other story

For many years of its history, Energy Conversion Devices had more cleantech and related business going on than this blog has categories for. The 51 year-old company filed for bankruptcy on Valentine’s Day, after having failed to generate sufficient revenues from its main business, United Solar Ovonics.

Tech writers are focusing on the Solar part of the tale, which is understandable because it neatly fits into a pattern of high-cost solar makers taking a tumble in the face of low-cost Chinese competitors. But what I found fascinating about the firm is the part referred to as Ovonics.

The word Ovonics was coined by ECD’s founder, Stanford R. Ovshinsky. He took the first two letters of his name and added the end of electronics to create a sort-of blanket term describing the way a bit of energy can convert amorphous and disordered materials into structured crystalline materials. It also covers the reverse process. The various energy and information applications that Ovshinksy put his inventive mind to include nickel-metal hydride batteries, LCD screens, read-write CDs, amorphous silicon thin-film solar material (and a nifty machine to make it), hydrogen fuel cells, and phase change electronic memory. It would be hard to imagine American life without many of these technologies – and some are still to come.

He is considered a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. At 88 years old, he is still inventing at his new company Ovshinsky Innovations (he left ECD in 2007). The curious part of the tale is that Ovshinsky is self-taught – he didn’t go to college or graduate school. And his inventions began with research on energy and information that he pursued in the 1950s and 60s.

ECD started out as a laboratory – founded in 1960 – before it became a company. Even as a business, it ran more like a stand-alone research laboratory – think Bell Labs or Xerox labs without the rest of the corporation. The company brought in money by doing everything other than making and selling products - it had equity investors, research grants, and many collaborations along with a bit of licensing revenue.

It seemed to be always on the cusp of the big time, but it was ahead of its time. In some ways it was both ahead and behind at the same time. It had already licensed  the nickel-metal hydride rechargeable battery years before it powered the Toyota Prius. Now electric cars will have lithium-ion batteries. ECD made thin-film solar that would find a niche in building integrated photovoltaics, but that niche still is not large enough to save the solar business. Yet its cost structure still belongs to the solar industry of five years ago.

Ovshinsky was also ahead of his time when he focused his work on renewable energy to break the world’s dependence on petroleum.

I don’t know ECD intimately but as an outsider, it seems that the company likely lost its driving force when it lost Ovshinsky five years ago. The management wanted to concentrate on making the company profitable – so it focused on solar energy, which was experiencing a boom. That was a bet that did not pay off.

A Microhybrid is Not a Tiny Car

This week’s issue has C&EN’s update on what’s going on with the Obama-touted advanced battery industry. In short, the U.S. can make many, many big batteries for various flavors of electric vehicles. More batteries, in fact, that the U.S. has electric vehicles.

One flavor of vehicle that may be a new one to many is a microhybrid. These are not tiny cars, nor are they like the all-electric Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. Rather, a microhybrid system is part of a less radical design intended to help gas-powered cars use less gas. They use some version of what are called start-stop batteries. Andy Chu, vice president of marketing & communications at battery firm A123 Systems explains:

“With start stop batteries, also called micro hybrid batteries, the primary function of the system is that it turns the engine off when you stop. And it turns the engine back on automatically. Just by turning off the engine at a stoplight you can save a few percent on fuel economy. Some of the batteries just crank the engine. But when you ask it to do other things – like launch assist – or move the vehicle from a stopping point – that is the hybrid function. This is great because the battery can respond instantaneously.

You need something beyond typical lead acid, like for regenerative braking. The A123 solution has higher charge capability, then you don’t waste braking energy as heat. Also, it extends the life span – you use the battery much harder – with A123 you don’t need to replace the battery as often as with a lead acid. Weight is another advantage that helps with fuel economy savings. Compared to a lead acid version, we expect 50% better fuel economy gain. If you gain 10% with lead acid, you’d gain 15% with our battery. It is very difficult to save weight in vehicles. A lead battery is very heavy – so its easy to take weight out there.

Automakers, especially in Europe, are really moving to microhybrids. They require very little design change; the battery and alternator are a little bigger, lighter, and provide better fuel economy. They are easy to integrate. So microhybrids are part of our message – though electric vehicles are the sexy topic, advanced batteries can be used across a wide variety of vehicles.”

Lux Research analyst Kevin See says the hybrid-you’ve-never-heard-of will be responsible for the bulk of future growth of energy storage technologies for vehicles, along with batteries for electric bikes. “Although battery prices for all-electric and hybrid passenger cars are dropping, they’re not dropping far enough or quickly enough to fuel the sort of broad adoption that advocates expect,” says See. “Instead, the substantial growth we see for vehicle-related storage technologies will be powered mostly by e-bikes – which are shifting from lead acid to Li-ion battery technology – and microhybrids, which offer a more incremental, low-risk way for automakers to improve fuel efficiencies.”

A Lux Research report states that microhybrids “ are set to surpass these other passenger vehicle types in terms of both total storage and dollars in 2016, growing from 5.1 GWh and $495 million, to 41 GWh and $3.1 billion –  CAGRs of 52% and 44%, respectively.”