Battery Start-up Gets New Name
Aug27

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,...

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iPad: Pushing the Limits of Materials
Mar26

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...

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Energy Conversion Devices: the other story
Feb15

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...

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A Microhybrid is Not a Tiny Car
Feb07

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...

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US Cleantech firms in white-knuckle mode
Dec07

US Cleantech firms in white-knuckle mode

There has been one positive piece of news this week for the cleantech sector - Solazyme is part of a $12 million grant to supply the U.S. Navy with 450,000 gal of biofuel. Solazyme's algal oil will be used along with used cooking grease to power a fuel plant run by Dynamic Fuels, a joint venture between Tyson Foods and Syntroleum. They'll be making both renewable jet fuel and marine fuel. Press releases about the deal emphasize that it is the single largest biofuel purchase in government history. Thank goodness cleantech has the government as a customer. Private industry customers haven't panned out so well lately for battery firms like A123 Systems and Ener1, as reported this week in the Wall Street Journal. Major investments in battery manufacturing - supported in large part from Recovery Act funds - have been met with disappointing demand from electric-car makers. A123 Systems has scaled back its scale-up plans because its big customer, Fisker Automotive, has slowed its own plants due to technical problems. Meanwhile Ener1's customer Think Global has filed for bankruptcy protection. When C&EN wrote about the battery scale-up, a major concern at the time was that there would be more battery capacity than cars to put them in, and that seems to be the case for now. Back to biotech, according to a Reuters report from Pike Research analyst Mackinnon Lawrence, the biofuels industry is very concerned that budget cutting in Congress will pull the rug out from programs that are helping companies bootstrap their way to cost parity with petroleum. Part of the problem is that industry's promises to have commercial-scale production on line by this year  have not panned out. Cellulosic ethanol is the biggest disappointment, and so now attention is likely to switch to drop-in biofuels like renewable gasoline and renewable diesel. Or, even better, jet...

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GM, BMW, Toyota: More Work to do on Batteries
Dec02

GM, BMW, Toyota: More Work to do on Batteries

A few days after GM magnanimously offered to give loaner cars to any Volt driver who might experience post-crash burning battery problems, BMW and Toyota announced that they would work together to develop lithium ion batteries for hybrids and all-electric cars. This is what BMW's Klaus Draeger had to say about why it was neccesary for the two auto giants to join forces: Battery technology is crucial for the future of hybrid technology  – but also for the future of individual mobility. Whoever has  the best batteries in terms of function, cost, and quality in their  vehicles will win more customers. We want to set benchmarks in the  future with both: hybrid and electric cars. It clearly makes sense for experienced and innovative companies to  pool their expertise and power with such future-orientated  technologies. Toyota and the BMW Group are perfect partners: Toyota is  the most sustainable and experienced producer in the high-volume  segment. And Japan, of course, is the country that has made hybrid  cars well known around the globe. BMW will help out Toyota by supplying it with what it calls clean diesel engines that the Japanese firm can use to improve the cars it would like to sell in Europe, where diesel engines are preferred. Draeger characterized the battery partnership as involving basic research. Generally speaking, things like range and charging times are the main targets for research but... GM's experience with the Volt suggests that safety issues are still in play. Lithium ion batteries can reach high (flammable) temperatures if the separator material between the anode and cathode is breached, causing a short in the battery. That is why the problem with the Volt seems to happen in cars after impact  (crashed on purpose for safety testing) - presumably something compromised the separator in the battery. Lithium ion car batteries come in different designs. Interestingly, no similar problems have yet been reported for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Still, they commonly feature many individual battery cells that are grouped together and surrounded by an active management system that is supposed to prevent runaway reactions that would lead to fire. I suspect that these systems are still a p0int of design weakness. Even if they work pretty well, it seems a more competitive design for a lithium ion car battery would be one that does not require an additional surrounding system to prevent disaster.  (Some would call this "inherently safer design") To read more about the safety testing that revealed the Volt's possible fire issues, check out the coverage in the New York Times....

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