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Archive → July, 2010

Flow Batteries: Coming to a wind farm near you?

A year ago while I was refreshing my knowledge of lithium-ion batteries, I started to hear chatter about other, newer types of batteries that were attracting attention and funding. One was a rather yoga-sounding technology: flow batteries.

I was reminded about flow batteries when I read that the last set of Recovery Act funding from DOE’s ARPA-E program would go to energy storage technologies. Three of the projects will be working on flow batteries, one of which will be led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But what is a flow battery? Basically, it’s a battery where the voltage differential is stored outside the cell in two separate tanks of electrolytes. Pumps circulate the two fluids into a cell chamber where they come together separated by a membrane that prevents them from mixing, but does allow select ions to pass through. Electrodes in the cell convert the chemical energy to electric current.

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Breaking News! Gulf Oil Spill: New ACS Symposium Announced

The BP oil spill saga in the Gulf has occupied scientists, policy-makers and citizens since April 20th, making this the summer of Deepwater Horizon. It seems only fitting then, that ACS will convene a line-up of speakers and panel to discuss what we know about the science of oil spills.

On Tuesday, August 24 at the ACS Boston National Meeting there will be a full-day symposium titled “Gulf Oil Spill: Tackling the chemistry and food science implications.”

Scientists from government, academia, and non-profits will review what is already known about the impacts of past spills on marine ecosystems and economically important seafood industries. The afternoon sessions will look deeply at the science of characterizing the components of crude oil as it breaks down in the gulf. After the talks there will be plenty of time for discussion.

The symposium is being cosponsored by the ACS Committee on Science, Multidisciplinary Planning Group, and the Green Chemistry Institute. A schedule has been posted to the ACS Community Network website: https://communities.acs.org/docs/DOC-3106

Too Many Batteries?

The Chevy Volt's electric drive train will be powered by LG Chem batteries produced in Holland, MI

The U.S. will soon be awash in lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. But how many are too many?

The other day I observed a rush-hour traffic jam of Toyota Prius’ on a major artery that leads into Washington, DC. The particular stretch of road is restricted to high-occupancy vehicles and hybrids. So Prius-driving commuters have an edge getting to work in the mornings. Seeing hybrid after hybrid, I mused on the likely demand for the first generation of mainstream electric vehicles like GM’s Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Federal and local government incentives and restrictions, like the rush-hour one, really muddy the waters when experts try to forecast how many of these cars will be sold.

One whopping market-muddier is the Federal government’s support of U.S. electric-car battery manufacturers.

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama visited the site of what will be an LG Chem manufacturing facility for lithium-ion car batteries in Holland, MI. The plant has received a $151.4 million Department of Energy grant as part of the Recovery Act of 2009.

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Verenium Goes Back to the Future

Today the cleantech firm Verenium announced that it was not, after all, going to be in the cellulosic ethanol production business. Instead, the publicly-traded firm has agreed to sell its cellulosic biofuels business to partner BP, giving the oil giant a much-needed non-oil-spill press mention.

At first this news seemed a bit odd as Verenium was formed to make cellulosic ethanol. But it’s not really that surprising.

In a conference call with analysts this morning, the company outlined its plans to move forward as a specialty enzymes company. This means it will not need to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars in capital that would be required to set up and run a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility. Verenium has been generating revenue selling enzymes for a few years now.

In fact, cleantech followers would not need too long of a memory to note that Verenium, prior to its 2007 merger with Vinod Khosla-backed cellulosic ethanol firm Celunol, was called Diversa. And Diversa was… a specialty enzymes company.

Before this announcement,  Verenium’s big claims to fame compared to its renewable fuels rivals was its valuable (in more ways than money) partnership with BP, the fact that Verenium is a public company, and perhaps most important, its plans (with BP) to open a commercial-scale plant in 2012 (a 36 million-gal-per-year ethanol facility in Highlands County, Fla.)

Rather than stick around for the plant opening, Verenium will cash a check worth  $98.3 million for two facilities; the pilot and demonstration scale plant in Jennings, LA and the R&D facilities in San Diego. It also sold  intellectual property relating to cellulosic biofuels generally and cellulosic enzymes in specific.

Verenium’s change of heart could be seen to illustrate two themes I’ve been seeing in industrial biotechnology (both fuels and chemicals). Firms that have leading-edge technology as their competitive advantage are not eager to be in capital intensive businesses. And, as the bio-based fuels and materials industry grows, many will find there is more upside (i.e., higher margins and less effort) to being  a supplier to the industry, rather than as a manufacturer of the end product (in this case, ethanol).