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Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the tag “Envia”

IBM’s Uber Battery: Can it be real?


Battery 500 Project Demo System

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the Envia company, and its claimed breakthrough in battery technology.  As you would suspect, lots of other people are working on battery technology with the aim of producing an all-electric car that will go 500 miles without needing to be recharged.  One of the most promising efforts is IBM’s Battery 500 project.

With the initial research begun in 2009 at IBM’s Almaden research labs in California, this past week IBM announced that it has built a prototype that demonstrates the efficacy of the technology.  Wired Enterprise calls it the “Uber Battery,” a descriptor I stole for the title of this post.  IBM is not doing this alone.  It is collaborating with researchers in both Europe and Asia, along with universities and National Labs in the US.  Nevertheless, IBM is the driving force, and the project is an outgrowth of IBM’s well-publicized investment in nanotechnology.

It is difficult for a non-chemist to grasp the technology, but, briefly, the system works by using oxygen drawn from the air much as it is drawn into a conventional combustion engine.  Inside the battery’s  cells, the oxygen slips into tiny spaces that measure about an angstrom (0.00000000001 meters), and reacts with lithium ions situated on the battery’s cathode. That reaction turns the lithium ions to lithium peroxide, releasing electrons, thus generating electricity.  For more information oriented to the layman, go to the following website and check out the videos.

IBM credits much of the research advancement to the so-called Blue Gene supercomputers, used to analyze electro-chemical reactions to find alternative electrolyte materials that won’t degrade the battery while recharging.  These computers, located at Argonne National Lab and in Zurich, Switzerland have rung up tens of millions of processor-hours on the project.  The computer modeling is being used to determine how the ions and molecules of different materials will interact.  The hope is to find the optimum combination of materials that will permit commercialization of the technology.

The downside is that it is not expected to be commercialized until at least 2020.  In the meantime, auto manufacturers around the world are licking their collective chops.  If this technology is successful, it will signal the end of imported oil in the US.  The geopolitical implications are enormous.

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Envia Systems: Savior of the Electric Car?


The holy grail of the electric car business is a competitively-priced vehicle that will travel several hundred miles on a single charge.  As shown in the graphic, we ain’t there yet.  One key to finding that grail is battery technology.  A little-known Silicon Valley company called Envia Systems claims to have made tremendous strides in developing a battery technology that will lead the industry directly to that grail – pass Go, collect $200.

The operative measure for vehicle battery technology is Wh/Kg, or Watt-hours per Kilogram.  Current technology, like that used in Tesla Motors‘ cars, is around 240 Wh/Kg and costs roughly $200 per Kilowatt-hour.  Envia promises to deliver 400 Wh/Kg at $125 per Kilowatt-hour.  With those numbers, a $20,000 car could travel 300 miles before it needs to be recharged.

In general, battery technology improvement appears to be advancing at a rate of 5% a year.  If Envia’s claims are valid, its technology nearly doubles state-of-the-art energy density at half the cost.  Lots of folks are excited by the possibilities, including General Motors which has invested a bunch of money into the venture.

Envia began its journey in 2007 when it licensed some patents from Argonne National Laboratory (ANL).  Although Envia execs claim that the Envia technology was developed on its own, the Argonne patents gave it a start.  Although the details of the patent agreement are secret,  apparently ANL will share in Envia’s success if and when it happens.

Envia’s batteries are Lithium-Ion. (Li-ion), the same used in cell phones and portable electric tools.  Envia’s technology is based on using unique element chemical compositions for the anodes and cathodes, notably silicon and carbon, and an electrolyte that is stable at high temperatures.  Not all the problems that need to be solved have been solved, however.  Current tests show that, although Envia batteries can be recharged to 80% capacity after 400 charges, that number needs to be 1000 to last 300,000 miles, considered to be the average lifetime of a car.

Envia’s technology lends itself to conventional manufacturing processes.  The company plans to license it rather than go into the manufacturing business itself.  Possible licensees includes General Motors and some other high-profile domestic and foreign firms.

Compared with Solyndra’s $500 million failed investment, Envia Systems looks  like a bargain basement deal.  The total investment in the company is probably less than $25 million including a $4 million grant from ARPA-e and $7 million from General Motors, part of a $17 million package.

As noted above, while battery technology is one key to mass acceptance of electric cars, it is not the only key.  Getting those great batteries charged may pose an even bigger barrier.   One only has to look at GM’s recent problems with the Volt to get an idea of the challenge.  I took my wife’s Chevy into a dealer a few days ago for service.  While there, I asked one of the sales guys how Volts are selling.  He looked at me and groaned.  He said that the tree-huggers were there in force the first few weeks, but now nobody is interested.  FYI, I live in an area heavily populated by tree-huggers!

 

 

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