Battery innovators charging ahead
Given current advances, consumers and businesses are going to get a real charge out of batteries in about two years, energy experts say.
Or perhaps even sooner.
Engineers and entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are perfecting technologies that will give batteries more capacity and a much longer life. That will be good news for consumers sporting laptops and other electronic devices, electric car makers and operators of solar- or wind-power plants on and off the nation's electrical grid.
"For portable devices to electric cars, everybody right now is working feverishly to come up with a more-efficient battery system," said Alan Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center, South Oakland. It supplied a total of $160,000 in seed grants in 2010 to advanced battery entrepreneurs in State College and Lancaster.
Some newly engineered batteries will weigh less, a key to electric cars' viability. Other new batteries are heavy, but can easily be scaled up so utilities or anyone generating electricity from solar or wind can efficiently store energy while the sun or winds are down and discharge it when needed.
For instance, Aquion Energy Inc., Lawrenceville, is developing -- and soon expects to commercialize -- what's called an aqueous electrolyte sodium ion battery. Each is slightly larger than a bread box and weighs about 50 pounds.
"By the end of 2011, we should have solid purchase orders," said Jay Whitacre, founder and chief technology officer. He expects to sell to utilities, hospitals, military bases and other customers.
A quick primer: Batteries use a medium -- known as an electrolyte -- to shuttle charged ions between the positive and negative electrodes inside. The electrolyte in Aquion's battery is salt water. Lithium ion batteries -- commonly used in personal computers and other consumer electronics devices -- are based on an organic solvent. It is flammable (remember all the laptop PC battery recalls in 2007) and costly to make and package.
Salt water vs. a flammable organic solvent. "That's the cornerstone for us being able to keep our costs down," Whitacre said.
The up-front cost of a lithium ion battery is between $300 and $1,000 per kilowatt hour. Aquion's battery will cost between $150 and $500 per kilowatt hour, Whitacre said. That's about the same as the cost of a conventional lead-acid battery, such as those found in most cars.
And Aquion's battery should last about 10 times longer than a lead-acid battery, which might need to be replaced after just a few months, depending on the application and other factors.
Whitacre founded Aquion in 2008 at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is on leave as an assistant professor of materials science, engineering and public policy. The company had a half-dozen workers a year ago, now employs about 30 and should grow to nearly 50 by mid-2011, he said.
Aquion received a $5 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2009. It was seeded with about $8 million from a venture capital firm in California, where Whitacre formerly worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Other companies are concentrating on advancing lithium ion battery technology.
"The Holy Grail is to improve battery capacity of electric cars," said the nanomaterials center's Brown. "The main thing limiting electric cars is the battery (because) no one is going to buy a car that will only go 30 miles on a charge."
The center provided Penn State University researcher Donghai Wang with $30,000 last year to find a solution. He is experimenting with a new material, graphene, which is a super-thin layer of carbon. Used in conjunction with a silicon electrode, the technology should double the charge capacity of a lithium ion battery -- a promising advance for powering portable devices and electric cars.
"We are still trying to demonstrate its success in the lab, so we'll still need two to three years," said Wang, a Penn State assistant professor of mechanical engineering in State College. "But if this is commercialized, the silicon-based battery will last at least two times longer."
The nanomaterials center funded Lancaster-based Illuminex Corp. with $130,000 last April to develop another way to increase lithium ion battery capacity. The company is working on nano, or minute, copper wires coated with silicon. That bonding strengthens the silicon, similar to reinforcing bars in concrete.
"By coating the copper wires with silicon, you create a much larger surface area," said Joe Habib, CEO of Illuminex. "So by holding that all together, you get more capacity when you charge (the battery)."
Habib estimated the technology will result in 10 times the charging capacity of a more conventional graphite lithium ion battery and weigh about half as much. The technology should reduce the time and cost to charge up, though he is not ready to quantify those advantages.
"If things go well, commercialization could be two years away," Habib said.
Illuminex, which employs nine people, is working with a company in Harleysville to develop a prototype battery. Consumer electronics would likely be the first target market, followed by electric cars and even the nation's electrical grid, he said.