It is no secret that the energy delivered by batteries has failed to keep pace with the growing demands of power-hungry consumer products. We all deal with the inconvenience of batteries and plugging in to recharge!
Meanwhile, the multi-billion market for batteries will continue to grow exponentially in the years ahead as more people around the globe cling to advanced consumer electronics. This means more people will be dependent on cords, plugging in and recharging batteries.
The winning combination of qualities in micro-power systems is simple: low cost, long-life, high energy density, quick recharge or refill, non toxic, and safe (e.g. chemical stability and heat management).
Today, portable power means one source- lithium ion batteries (Li-ion). Unfortunately Li-ions suffer from bad chemistry. As manufacturers try to cram more energy into lithium-ion batteries, more heat is generated and the device runs a higher risk of a runaway reaction and fire. The good news is that nanoscale science and engineering is expanding the list of potential solutions to Li-ions problems.
There are a number of promising start ups innovating around nanoscale electrodes, separation membranes and new compounds that could allow lithium ions to grow their market leadership position. Boston-Power Inc, ActaCell, and Lion are start ups with impressive academic institution foundations. So their science seems strong!
Then there are the rapidly rising stars of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. and A123 Systems who might skip over portable power applications for a potentially more lucrative role for Li-ions in automotive applications.
But let’s think beyond lithium ions. What options exist beyond today’s highest performing consumer batteries? And is there a chance that we might go ‘cord-free’ someday?
How about Silver-zinc batteries and methanol-based micro fuel cells?
January 30 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2010 Rating: 7 Hot
Most new technology platforms must walk up the stages of the 'Hype Cycle', and confront our tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
Fuel cells are this decade's poster child for failing to meet expectations of the Hype Cycle. But there are positive signs of progress.
PC World is reporting that Toshiba plans to release its first commercial version of a Direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery recharger by the end of the first business quarter.
Micro Fuel cells help you unplug
Micro power applications are widely considered to be the first market application for fuel cells. Dozens of startups and incumbent energy companies are developing micro methanol fuel cells as portable power solutions that help us 'unplug everything'.
Rather than carry around a charger+cord, you could carry a small fuel cell to recharge. Of course the idea of a fuel cell battery recharger is still a strange concept to consumers, and could remain an early adopter niche product.
The inevitable step for micro fuel cells is to replace batteries entirely. To arrive at this future, hardware makers must integrate MFCs into products, and consumers must be able to buy small fuel cartridges (e.g. liquid methanol, solid hydrogen) on every retail shelf. Until that day, the 'recharger' concept is the industry's best option.
Batteries & Fuel cells are like Peanut Butter and Jelly, not Oil and Water
US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced $41 million to support the 'immediate deployment of nearly 1,000 fuel cell systems for emergency backup power and material handling applications (e.g., forklifts) that have emerged as key early markets in which fuel cells can compete with conventional power technologies. Additional systems will be used to accelerate the demonstration of stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power in the larger residential and commercial markets.'
The funds will also support micro-power applications being advanced by innovative startups like Jadoo, Plug Power, Nuvera, MTI, PolyFuel, and Delphi Automotive (auxillary power systems for trucks!).
Fuel Cells (Power Stations) vs Batteries (Storage)
Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity without having to be 'plugged into' the grid. As 'refuelable' power generators, they offer some key advantages to a pure energy storage offering of batteries (e.g. Batteries depend on 'grid access', while fuel cells need fuel and serve as a portable/stationary power station. You just need to add fuel!)
US Energy Visionaries Sense Global Opportunity
The key to advancing fuel cells is to lower the costs of nanostructured catalysts (that release electric charges) and membranes (allow positive ions to pass) used in all applications (e.g. stationary, portable). It is a materials science strategy based on nanoscale science and engineering.
While the battery supply chain has long been established, there is a unique opportunity for the US to leap frog into more commercially diverse applications based on fuel cell systems used in everything from distributed power, micro-power, transportation and utility scale power generation.
More posts on Fuel cells at The Energy Roadmap.com
VIASPACE's fuel cell subsidiary Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Corporation (DMFCC) will deliver disposable methanol fuel cartridges to Samsung for integration into portable electronics like notebook computers, mobile phones and small portable power stations.
The agreement is an early indicator of a new category for the energy sector based on a simple, but disruptive alternative to 'plugging in' - Refillable Packets sold over retail shelves that offer a real cost and performance alternative to the grid.
The Disruptive Power of High Density Storage
Electron Economy via 'Streams vs Packets'
In the years ahead, we could see the emergence of a new form of 'packet' based energy distribution that could undercut the grid's last mile, and the notion of 'plugging in' objects to a wall socket connected to a 'stream' of electricity.
The future of electricity depends on chemical storage. Batteries require us to 'plug in' and recharge. Fuel cells keep the 'fuel' (e.g. hydrogen/methanol) and oxidant separate offering a 'refill' platform. One is a storage device dependent on the wall socket, the other is its own 'power plant' that requires businesses to supply 'fuel' rather than direct access to the grid.
High density refillable packets based on advanced chemical storage (e.g. methanol, solid hydrogen) represent a classic 'low end disruption' strategy popularized by Clayton Christensen.
Instead of massive market populations around the world waiting for the electrical grid to arrive via a wall socket, why not sell them power packs next to bars of soap at the retail level. Imagine disposable batteries on steroids.
It is a simple but disruptive idea to the notion of end point grid access. What if Walmart could sell you a 20-pack of energy cartridges to fuel all of your home appliances and gadgets? Or electric vehicles (via solid hydrogen bricks)?
Why push for energy Packets?
Learn from 'Streams' of Water vs 'Packets' of Bottled Water
General Electric is taking another step into the growth sector of energy storage by investing $30 million in A123’s $102 million Series E financing, making it the battery manufacturer’s largest single cash investor – at 9 percent ownership. The investments were made by GE Commercial Finance – Equity and GE Energy Financial Services, bringing GE’s combined total investment in A123Systems to $55 million.
What does GE see in storage? A way to manage production?
GE is already one of the world’s leading power generation equipment providers, so why invest in batteries and storage?
GE’s executives must see clear growth ahead around demand for storage to support growth in wind and solar power generation, utility companies trying to build more robust ‘smart grids’, and to help the automobile industry as it moves the world’s fleet away from liquid fuels and the combustion engine.
If GE is able to expand alternatives for energy storage through better batteries, fuel cells and capacitors- it could expand growth around its own wind turbines, solar panels and hydrogen production appliances.
In a decade GE might be a leader in emerging classes of distributed ‘energy appliances’ involved in on-site storage and power generation, not too mention a potential brand name for powering electric vehicles expected to hit showroom floors after 2011.
A123 Mixed Week of News
A123 has had a lot of recent press coverage around its nanostructured rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that provide power density, low weight, and low cost without sacrificing safety issues caused by overheating. But the startup must figure out a way to compete against strong incumbents in the energy storage sector.
Earlier we covered General Motor’s decision to skip A123’s batteries for a Detroit based unit of LG Chem to provide batteries for the Volt.
GE’s investment could help to balance out this weeks’ bad news.
GM Volt will not use A123 batteries
Solid hydrogen storage
US firm buy Korean battery maker
Materials and Image sourced from GE Press Release
Becoming 'energy efficient' goes far beyond changing light bulbs. Our greatest gains will come from moving beyond today's 'combustion' energy systems that burn fuels in large power plants and under our hoods.
Central to this 'post-combustion era' strategy is the fuel cell- which converts chemical energy of hydrogen or hydrogen rich fuels (e.g. natural gas, methanol) into electrical energy. Fuel cells are modular, have no moving parts, offer higher efficiencies, lower maintenance and are ideal for distributed applications.
One of the major roadblocks has been the high costs of platinum catalysts that are peppered on fuel cell membranes (MEAs). To scale up in the decades ahead, fuel cell researchers need to find non-precious metal catalysts.
Can Carbon outperform Platinum?
Now a research team from the University of Dayton has found a way to create a carbon nanotube based catalyst that might outperform platinum and dramatically drop the costs of fuel cells.
Shape helps speed up reactions
The research team, led by Dr Liming Dai, synthesized carbon nanotubes using an iron base and doped nitrogen particles to change the shape (and properties) of the nanotube cathode, resulting in a faster reaction / higher efficiency.
New Scientist reports Dai's claim that "They are even better than platinum, long regarded as the best catalyst," as they avoid problems with carbon 'poisoning' that leads to lower performance.
We have written extensively on the disruptive role of nanoscale science and engineering in all energy applications (old and new), and the importance of 'shape' in determining molecular system performance in catalysis. We cannot simply extrapolate our assumptions of what is possible or impossible with carbon or hydrogen based on a microscale era of scientific knowledge.
Giving Carbon a New Image
(Nanotubes, Nanoparticles & Graphene Sheets)
Sony product managers must be loving the blogosphere buzz around its demonstration of three unique fuel cell products at Japan's 5th Annual Hydrogen and Fuel cell Expo.
Geek.com has a nice snapshot of the three fuel cell models including a hybrid lithium ion battery charger.
Many 'gadget' bloggers love to hate fuel cells because of missed 'hype' expectations. But the appeal of hydrogen's 'clean molecules' is hard to escape. And business leaders with foresight see a nice path to growth around micro-fuel cells and packet-based refueling sales.
Ironically the first commercial applications for micro fuel cells are likely to be 'battery rechargers'! A number of startups have early products already on the market, and analysts expect Toshiba to release its first generation product this year.
Portable Power Systems: Enabling a 21st Century Energy Solution
December 11 2008 / by John Heylin
Category: Gadgets Year: 2010 Rating: 1
MTI MicroFuel Cells, a division of MTI, has a prototype portable fuel cell battery which it hopes to release by the end of 2009. "This compact and light weight fuel cell charger comes with a removable cartridge that can be swapped for a new one when depleted. Each additional cartridge gives consumers another 25 Watt-hours of power." 25 Watt-hours of power translates to 10 cellphone charges or 100 hours of video on a portable video player like the iPhone.
The device itself runs on 100% methanol fuel which isn't surprising since you can buy methanol for .47 cents a gallon. The Mobion chip used in the device has a new design architecture that "embodies a reduction in the size, complexity, and cost of fuel cell construction." With fuel cells currently available at astronomical prices, it will be interesting to see how much they've cut the cost off their product.
Full MTI press release here.