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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.”

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 fuel.

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…

BMW's all electric i3 concept car. Credit: BMW

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.

 

Why FedEx is an Early Adopter of Transportation Tech

My colleague Steve Ritterrecently attended a conference about electrofuels. Electrofuels are made by using energy from the sun and renewable inorganic feedstocks such as carbon dioxide and water, processes facilitated by nonphotosynthetic microorganisms or by using earth-abundant metal catalysts.

The conference was attended by researchers and at least one early adopter who is ready to give them a try. Cleantech Chemistry is pleased to have Steve’s report on what he learned. [Edit: You can read Steve's story on electrofuels in this week's issue]

FedEx operates more than 680 aircraft and 90,000 motorized vehicles, including delivery vans and airport and warehouse support vehicles such as forklifts. Dennis R. Beal, the company’s vice president for global vehicles gave a talk at the conference explaining why FedEx is open to many new fuel and other transportation technologies that likely would not reach the masses for years, if ever.

A FedEx all-electric vehicle pauses at the Oklahoma City airport in front of a FedEx Airbus A310. Credit: FedEx

Although FedEx is a service company, “what we sell as a product is certainty—if you absolutely positively have to get it there, use FedEx,” said Beal. Beal gave a keynote talk during the Society for Biological Engineering’s inaugural conference on electrofuels research, which was held on Nov. 6–9, in Providence, R.I.

“That means we have a very high standard for our vehicles that pick up and deliver packages,” Beal added. “We have to be very careful in making business decisions to not negatively impact our ability to deliver certainty for our customers.”

With that philosophy, about 20 years ago FedEx starting taking a holistic view at transportation options, including battery and fuel-cell electric, hybrid, biofuel, and natural gas vehicles. “If it relates to fuel in any form, or alternative engines and drive trains, we are keenly interested,” Beal said.

The company has retrofitted delivery vans itself and partnered with vehicle manufacturers, electric utilities, electric equipment providers, and federal agencies on other fronts. FedEx even teamed up with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund when pioneering the first hybrid electric delivery vehicles. Beal related that he and his colleagues have had a long climb up the learning curve searching for the most efficient transportation technologies that are safe, user friendly, meet driving range requirements, and offer a secure supply of affordable electricity or alternative fuel.

“We have tried a little bit of everything to see where these different technologies will and won’t work, Beal said. “We share the results with the rest of the delivery industry—the goal is to help advance the technology so that it will be widely adopted, not just for ourselves, but to help build scale to bring the cost down for everyone.”

FedEx has built its fleet to now contain 43 all-electric vehicles, 365 diesel hybrid and gasoline hybrid vehicles, and nearly 380 natural gas vehicles. In addition, the company has some 500 forklifts and 1,600 airport ground support electric and alternative-fuel vehicles in service.

The prototypes have a long way to go to be cost comparative with internal combustion engines, Beal said. For example, a typical all-electric delivery van costs $180,000 compared with $40,000 for a gasoline or diesel version. A consolation is that electric vehicles are 70% less costly to operate. “We believe the cost is going to come down and be economically viable in the long term,” Beal noted. “But given the logistics and needs of different regions—city versus rural and colder versus warmer climates—there is no one solution that fits all.”

FedEx plans to use a collection of approaches—gasoline, diesel, biofuel, hybrid, electric, fuel cell, and natural gas—and choose the right vehicle for each mission, Beal said. “What will drive adoption, once a technology passes the certainty test, is not that it is elegant, but that it also makes economic sense.”

What if Everyone Is Wrong About Lithium Ion Batteries?

Lithium ion batteries are one of the few segments of cleantech that a respected market research firm can say will become a world-leading technology “and achieve 350% revenue growth from 2010 to 2020.”

The 350% comes from the latest report from IHS iSuppli, written by Satoru (Rick) Oyama, and nicely summarized on the company’s website.

The reasons that figure is believable are simple and easy to understand. These batteries already exist! They already work! And soon they will be in electric cars, and everyone expects there to be many electric cars made in the next ten years.

But what if we were to take the longer view and have the technology clock start at 2020 rather than end there. Given that the average car on the road today is 10 years old, we can imagine that all the gas-powered cars being sold this year will be nearing their end-of-life in 2020, and a number of people might choose that year to finally own an electric car. (Though some folks like my mom will still be driving their 2002 Corolla).

In 2020 the auto industry can expect to sell a large number of electric cars. But it might look back to 2011 and question whether trying to optimize an arguably mature technology (lithium ion batteries) was the right thing to do. Apple did not optimize cassette technology to create the iPod, right?

Continue reading →

Getting to 54.5 MPG

If your very next car purchase had to meet the new mileage standards announced today, you’d be buying something roughly the size of a thimble. It would certainly be smaller than the petite Ford Fiesta, which gets a comparatively gluttonous 38 miles per gallon, highway.

Or, you could do away with any MPG concerns and get a new all-electric Nissan Leaf, though the range can dip down to around 62 miles.  Forget the comfy hybrid Toyota Prius – that one only gets 50 MPG overall.

Luckily for car buyers, automakers have until 2025 to get their fleet average up to 54.5 MPG. By then, the choices will be much different than today.

Today’s New York Times story on the increase focuses on plans for hybrid and electric cars. But other technologies will have to come into play. According to Sujit Das of the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, drive train changes will not be enough to meet the new standards.

There will be more electric and hybrid cars, but overall, Das says, passenger cars will also have to be made smaller and lighter. Part of the problem is that it is too expensive to make larger trucks and SUVs high mileage, and automakers still want to sell a lot of those. So, regular cars will have to be designed for REALLY high gas mileage to make the averages work out.

Oak Ridge scientists estimate that for every 10% of weight reduction in a vehicle, the gas mileage improves by 6.5%. To make that happen, they are studying how automakers can use lightweighting materials including advanced high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and composites including metal-matrix materials and glass- and carbon-fiber reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics.

Automakers have been using lighter weight materials for years, but not in a quest to increase mileage. According to a report [PDF] by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “Although technology to improve vehicle efficiency is available and is being used in vehicles now, vehicle manufacturers have directed much of the potential of the technology to purposes other than fuel economy, such as making vehicles larger and more powerful.”  That’s a strategy that they’ll have to re-think.

Still, carbon fiber is not the first choice for automakers. Not too long ago I priced a carbon-fiber bicycle, and decided it was way too expensive. A carbon fiber car would be like George Jetson’s flying car that folds into a suitcase. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, very few people could afford it. Though parking would be a snap. The cost problem is a real barrier, which is why Oak Ridge scientists are also studying ways to make lightweighting materials more affordable.

Meanwhile, an organization called the Diesel Technology Forum says more people are choosing “clean diesel” cars, and that the new standards will bring more diesel models for consumers. The new diesel cars perform well on the highway – the Volkswagon Jetta TDI gets 42 MPG highway. A fiberglass and aluminum version would likely get even more.

The new mileage standards will also likely force automakers to experiment with more efficient designs for combustion engines.  New approaches get more mechanical power from the same amount of gas, bypassing steps where energy is lost as heat.

A start-up called Transonic Combustion builds a system that heats and pressurizes gasoline into a supercritical state before directly injecting it into the combustion chamber. There, like in diesel engines, no spark is needed to ignite the fuel and move the piston. It is an efficiency improvement that the company says can increase mileage by 50%.

Renewable Energy On and Off the Grid

A couple of items in today’s scan of cleantech news invite us to compare and contrast the differences in providing renewable power for large, grid-connected energy versus local, off-grid projects.

In China, where the government has a goal to get 170GW of electricity from wind power by 2020, wind power providers are trying to figure out how to cost-effectively connect – and stay connected – to the electric grid. Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, a maker of nanophosphate lithium-ion energy storage systems will supply batteries to a Chinese  manufacturer of wind turbines called Dongfang Electric Corporation. The batteries will be capable of storing 500kW. According to the A123 press release, only about 72% of China’s wind power capacity is connected to the grid.

Energy providers in rural India do not face the grid problem. In fact, winning technologies there are designed specifically for communities that do not have access to the grid. A Bloomberg article highlights two renewables  firms that  received early funding and support from tech firm Cisco Systems and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Both have moved on from the blackboard stage and are now supplying systems to rural villagers.

Husk Power Systems builds small, 40kW biomass gasifier power plants that run on rice husks. The husks, a waste produce from rice processing is one of the few types of biomass that does not already have another use by villagers. Currently, rice millers use some of their supply, along with diesel, to power their operations. HPS’s plants can light up to 500 households and cost just under $40,000 to install. The company and its partner Shell, have installed 60 mini power plants in the Indian state of Behar.

Meanwhile, Cisco and Draper have also supported D.Light Design, a solar lamp maker that is leasing 120,000 lighting kits in homes in the southwest state of Karnataka. The price per family is the equivalent of $5-$8 a month. The lighting replaces light provided by kerosene.

More than half a billion people in India live off the grid or are connected to unreliable service. Right now, they depend mainly on fossil fuel-powered devices. Both China and India are increasing government spending for clean energy. Though technologies like A123 Systems, and creating a reliable and effective electric grid that can handle solar and wind energy have gotten a lot of attention, it’s important to realize the immense size of the market for technologies that serve off-grid populations. The technology – and social – needs for village-scale power are very different.