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?
There are many that see huge potential in windmill farms, solar fields and huge geothermal operations. And there is huge potential. Energy is a resource we seemingly cannot live without and can never get enough of. In fact, electricity may as well rank up there with water in level of importance.
But the problem facing the average consumer is that even if these huge projects are undertaken, they are still dependent on a large company for their energy needs. They are subject to rate hikes, unfair charges, and development costs the company undertakes.
How can the average person release themselves from the shackles of energy addiction?
Solar panels are a good start, but for many the idea of keeping track of battery fluid levels, the cost of the panels themselves, as well as winter months without Sun keeps floating in the back of their heads. Installing a windmill in their backyard is also out of the question, unless of course you have acres to spare and don’t mind the occasional malfunction.
One genre of products that have the potential to take the consumer market by storm is the micro wind turbine.
Toshiba recently announced that they would start producing a 16-Gigabyte MicroSDHC in January of next year. "Toshiba Corp. (Toshiba), a leading innovator in memory card technologies and solutions, and Toshiba America Electronic Components, Inc. (TAEC), its subsidiary in the Americas, today reinforced their memory card line-up with the launch of a 16GB microSDHC card offering the largest capacity available in the market." Although the smaller chip only transfers at 6Mps instead of the faster 20Mps, the fact that 16 Gigabytes can be crammed into such a small area could mean huge changes in the computer/smartphone environment.
The bridge between phone and computer has been constantly blurring with the increase of mobile internet use among smartphone users. The ability to link the phone and the computer so far has been relegated to files and applications both share. The increased space on the phone could be used for more files, but it could also be used as a back-up for your computer.
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