The US continues to play catch up to Asia in manufacturing advanced energy storage solutions used in electric vehicles and 'smart grids'. But a more organized US energy storage industry is starting to emerge.
Last month a group of battery makers formed a coalition to seek federal support. A week later a group of fuel cell makers petitioned Congress for its share of cleantech funding.
Now lithium-ion battery start up A123 Systems has submittedan application to qualify for $1.84 billion in direct loans to support the construction of new world-class battery plant in Michigan. At full operation, A123 expects the combined plants would occupy as much as 7 million square feet and create over 14,000 jobs to supply battery systems for five million hybrid vehicles or half a million plug-in electric vehicles per year by 2013.
Should the US leapfrog batteries into fuel cells and capacitors? (Continue)
What if Barack Obama said in his first State of the Union address: 'America must invest in high surface area materials...' ?
Most people would be puzzled. Some minds would probably close down after hearing something slightly intimidating and 'scientific'.
Why surface area? Why not say 'invest in better batteries, cleaning up fossil fuels, solar and hydrogen'?
Energy is about Interactions Surface area enables better interactions between light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, metals, and bio enzymes. (At least, that's the short answer.)
The real road to a 'New Energy Economy' is paved at the nanoscale of material science.
What types of applications can we expect?
1) High surface area materials - Trap Molecules & Light Imagine being able to 'trap' harmful molecules that are byproducts of coal or oil. Or solar cells that hold photons longer to produce more energy!
2) Solid state storage of energy - High Density Packets Imagine billions of people buying high density 'packets' of energy at retail stores. We 'refill' instead of 'plugging into' wall sockets. Or electric vehicles that can be refilled by swapping out 'bricks' of energy in the form of solid Hydrogen.
The Evolution of MOFs Chemical Engineering & News is reporting on progress in a very promising class of high surface area materials that can absorb hydrogen and carbon: Metal Organic Frameworks or MOFs.
MOFs are highly ordered interconnected 'lego' like structures that have open pores that can selectively absorb molecules. It is a 'sponge' with the highest surface area of all known materials- estimated at several football fields per gram.
The problem? Clogged pores.
Now, a team led by UCLA's Professor Omar M. Yaghi, who synthesized MOFs in mid 1990s at Michigan, has developed a technique using supercritical fluids that essentially clean out the material leading to a vast network of open holes.
What to do next? Somebody tell Barack Obama to make Molecular Surface Area a National Priority
One of the biggest business opportunities of the next few decades will be enabling the convergence of Energy and Information systems to lower costs and improve efficiencies.
Companies such as Johnson Controls and IBM have been very vocal about their vision of a 'smart infrastructure' future. And there are a number of 'Smart Grid' startups offering utility-scale and building/home energy management solutions.
Cisco: 'Smarter' Energy Networks Cisco Systems is widely associated with the hardware 'backbone' (e.g. routers) of the Internet, but the company is expanding into new web-based services like video collaboration and energy management.
Cisco has a very simple vision of the future of energy efficiency: If it is on the 'network', then we can make it more efficient. Why is this important? Because within a decade or two most everything that produces and consumes power will be integrated into an information (web) network.
The company has announced its new Cisco EnergyWise [PDF] technology platform that will help its customers reduce energy consumption of Internet Protocol (IP) devices such as phones, computers, and digital access points. The next step for Cisco will be offering software solutions to help manage building systems (lighting, air conditioning and heating).
The offering puts Cisco in a strong position to compete in a fully 'embedded' world where all objects and devices are on the web and energy is never wasted.
Charlie Rose recently hosted a conversation [35 min.] with United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. The conversation covered a wide spectrum of ideas being explored from the 'low hanging fruit' with energy efficiency and new building design tools, to evolution of Smart Grid and anticipatory management of energy flows, new tranmission lines for renewables, emerging carbon pricing markets, cleaner coal systems, regulatory framework for nuclear, and next generation liquid fuels.
And ended with Rose stating 'that the convergence/merger of our scientific know-howand energy' will determine our future. On that note, I wish Chu would have uttered something about 'nanoscale' engineering, and bioenergy (algae/bacteria, and synthetic biology) just to seed these emerging concepts with Rose's audience. But baby steps, I guess!
Energy Revolution Rises from Materials Science and Bio-science, not Geo-Engineering Chu arrived at the right time! The first half of this Industrial Age was based on us being smart geo-engineers, not necessarily smart energy materials scientists. And that is our future- growing and storing our own energy supplies! I am just very thankful that we have a DOE Secretary who recognizes that the 'green revolution' will arise from science, not shopping!Oh, the places we'll go!
Hydrogen fuel cells, which produce electricity, are an evolution to modern day batteries. If we can store hydrogen efficiently as a solid, we can expand the use of energy from intermittent solar and wind power. We can also lower the costs and improve performance of electric vehicles. Two recent research announcements hint that cost effective storage could be much closer to reality.
Nanoscale science & surface area
One of the key enablers of storing hydrogen as a solid is high surface area. How much? Can you imagine holding a gram of material with surface area equal to several football fields for storing hydrogen molecules?
Nanoscale (billionth of a meter) material design means high surface area ratio to volume. We can also tap nanotechnology to create storage materials able to bind and release hydrogen molecules at low pressure and low temperature.
Carbon scaffolding for storage
There are a number of ways to store hydrogen as a solid, and also as a liquid. Earlier we featured a look at metal-organic frameworks or MOFs as a viable long term storage material. Today we’ll look at two other carbon-based hydrogen storage systems.
Carbon is a controversial storage medium since it is ‘sticky’ and can often bind hydrogen too tightly. But mixing (or ‘doping’) carbon with other elements can leverage the benefits of carbon’s high surface area and its Lego-like structural design.
‘Doping corn cobs?’
The Department of Energy has awarded $1.9 million to researchers at the University of Missouri and Midwest Research Institute (MRI)
The Missouri team has found that carbon briquettes (derived from corn cobs) then “doped” (or mixed and layered) with boron, have a unique ability to store natural gas with high capacity at low pressure.
While corn cobs hydrogen storage sounds a bit far fetched, one gram of this carbon material has a surface area comparable to a football field. The boron additive to carbon creates binding energies with H2 molecules that might make this a viable storage medium.
Carbon Graphene Layers
Another carbon based solution was announced last week from researchers in Greece using stacked thin sheets of carbon doped with lithium.
The color of solar is black, not green. And the future of the solar industry depends largely on our ability to produce and re-purpose this black piece of ‘polycrystaline’ material at a low cost.
China is now expanding its polysilicon production capacity with the hope of becoming a low cost manufacturing base for the global solar energy industry.
3 Types of Solar
The solar industry can be divided into three growth areas. ‘Solar thermal’ taps the power of the sun to heat liquid filled tubes that generate steam for electricity producing turbines. ‘Thin film’ solar is based on flexible, durable strips of plastic solar cells that can be integrated into materials used in buildings and products. And then there is the familiar (higher efficiency) ‘solar panel’ based on glass modules that convert photons into electricity. The key ingrediant in these ‘crystal’ solar panels is black polysilicon.
Chinese-Italian contract for solar wafers
The industry’s growth depends largely on the ability to expand polysilicon materials that go into solar wafers at a low cost. The key for solar panel makers is to sign long term, fixed price contracts.
For the past decade, GM's Burns has been testing a very disruptive idea - the car of the future looks like a skateboard. When he talks about the 'skateboard' chassis, he is not outlining GM's plan for 2010-15. Burns is too smart to know that there is no quick fix. He is talking about how to radically transform the vehicle and driving experience!
What does GM really need to do? Reduce the number of factories by shifting to modular platforms, focus on design and driving experience, shift profit streams from selling new cars to aftermarket sales and mobility services, connect cars around software and energy. How? First, kill the combustion engine.
GM's skateboard vision centers around it's 'Autonomy' concept car and three major components: 1) Wheel based electric motors (which Michelin has built) - modular manufacturing systems 2) Drive by wire systems (well under development) - digital, replaces mechanical systems 3) Energy storage- primary fuel cell systems with support from batteries and capacitors
What do CEO's from the Auto and Utility Industries (or 'Big Grid'), Enterpreneurs involved in Solar/Wind production and gadget loving consumers all have in common?
They need major breakthroughs in energy storage.
Forget about incremental improvements. We cannot get excited over 'better' batteries. It's time for a leap in cost and performance.
These industries need fundamental breakthroughs with batteries, hydrogen and capacitors.
What's going to be the source of innovation?
Nanoscale materials science that transforms low-cost abundant materials into viable platforms for storing electrons and hydrogen. And Disruptive Business Models that scale technologies, create new growth opportunities, and overcome the resistance of deeply rooted incumbents who see energy storage as a threat to their way of business.
What to watch: Energy Storage solutions for Electric Cars & Utility companies
“It ('dry water') looks like a powder, but if you wipe it on your skin, it smears and feels cold” says Andrew Cooper University of Liverpool, UK
What happened? Chemists at the University of Liverpool have developed a reliable way of converting methane gas into a powder form in order to make it more transportable.
The researchers use a white powder material made of a mixture of silica and water to soak up large quantities of methane molecules.
Liverpool researchers believe that instead of shipping methane as a 'gas' or 'liquid' (LNG) we can transport it as a powder. It is also possible to use solid natural gas storage being used for electric vehicles that use fuel cells that convert natural gas (on board) into electricity.
Easier method to make store methane in a powder
It does not make sense to store all natural gas as a solid, but the market opportunities are significant. The challenge of methane gas hydrate has been that it is formed at a very slow rate when methane reacts with water under pressure. "To counteract these difficulties we used a method to break water up into tiny droplets to increase the surface area in contact with the gas. We did this by mixing water with a special form of silica – a similar material to sand – which stops the water droplets from coalescing.
This 'dry water' powder soaks up large quantities of methane quite rapidly at around water's normal freezing point."The team also found that 'dry water' could be more economical than other potential products because it is made from cheap raw materials.
Why is this important to the future? Storing gas as a solid?
Advanced energy storage and portable power solutions continue to grab attention from energy investors.
Massachusetts-based startup up Boston Power has announced a $55 milllion Series D funding round to scale manufacturing, sales, marketing for its Sonata Lithium-ion batteries. This infusion of cash follows an announcement in December that Boston Power would supply HP with batteries for a coming line of laptops.
Boston Power's solutions are most relevant to supporting the continued growth of high performance portable electronics. But the company expects to be involved in first generation electric vehicles powered by batteries. Its branding effort has been to promote itself as a 'cleantech' company with high standards for its sustainability practices and partnerships with Asian manufacturers.
The Evolution of Energy Storage - Batteries, Fuel cells & Capacitors
Next generation energy storage solutions (e.g. batteries, fuel cells, capacitors) continue to gain attention from investors and energy forecasters who see significant growth ahead beyond typical production side investments.
The report updates Lux Research's analyses of eight thin battery manufacturers and draws on nine additional interviews with application developers downstream to assemble a comprehensive perspective on thin battery technologies, companies, and markets.
Thin batteries appear to be following a classic 'low end disruption' growth strategy of avoiding direct head to head competition with current 'coin cell' batteries in favor of growing around new applications. Lux describes potential growth across a range of sectors including healthcare (e.g. drug delivery patches), media (e.g. video displays), and information systems (e.g. RFIDs/Sensors)
Lux expects opportunities for investors able to find opportunities in later stage funding rounds but stress the inevitability of shake out in emerging markets. "By 2014, there simply won't be enough space in this market for ten thin battery companies to sustain a healthy business," said Jacob Grose, an Analyst at Lux Research and the report's lead author "Anyone interested in getting a seat at the table will need to identify the winners, and identify them early."