The day may arrive, eventually, when consumers will not have to worry about their devices constantly running out of charge. But probably not anytime soon.
It’s not for a lack of effort or interest on the part of scientists and inventors. Those communities have long recognised that better batteries are a critical step in the path to renewable energy. Today, the global conference circuit is overflowing with discussions about the issue, and there are a bewildering number of start-ups promoting potential solutions that range from the routine to the bizarre.
To name but a few: There are microsupercapacitors and miniaturised solid oxide fuel cells. There’s graphene polymer, aluminium-graphite and gold nanowire technology. There are batteries that can be charged by water, skin, sound waves, urine and plants. There are even devices based on salt, and foam.
And yet despite this flurry of innovation, none of these new ideas has come remotely close to achieving real commercial success, and the biggest obstacle seems to be a lack of funding.
According to technology research company Lux Research, of approximately 4 billion dollars of investment into energy research over the past decade, just one per cent of it has been directed towards the development of “next generation” battery technologies.
The American Energy Innovation Council (which counts Microsoft founder Bill Gates and General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt on its board) says the world’s largest economy is spending less on research and development of energy solutions than it is on chips. Not computer chips, but chips of the potato and tortilla variety.
Not only is the US woefully behind the curve on meeting its own future energy needs, says the AEIC, it’s in danger of losing economic competitiveness and energy technology leadership to China.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the Trump administration disagrees. Having declared that such matters are private sector concerns it recently decided to eliminate the country’s principle institution for the research of disruptive energy technologies, ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy).
Its decision may help explain why cutting-edge innovators like Fluidic Energy are turning their attention east as they scale up their development.
If I was in coal, despite what Mr Trump says, I would be very, very worried.
Dennis Thomsen, chief marketing officer, Fluidic
In search of commitment
Fluidic is one of the success stories of ARPA-E. Helped by US$3 million of government funding, Fluidic developed and patented promising new storage technologies for sustainable energy grids, and has been testing and deploying them around developing countries for the past 5 years. But the company is still in need of continuing investment to help it achieve scale.
“We’re at the stage where we’re going from crawling to walking, and now we’re about run,” says Fluidic chief marketing officer Dennis Thomsen, speaking at Temasek’s Ecosperity conference in Singapore. “We’re here looking for partners who can help us run really, really fast.”
Thomsen believes storage technology has reached “a tipping point“ which will change the entire landscape of sustainable energy solutions, and there’s a 50 billion dollar market out there waiting to be claimed.
“This going to be huge,” he says. “If I was in coal, despite what Mr Trump says, I would be very, very worried.”
Fluidic’s potential tipping point has been achieved not through the invention of moonshot technology but incremental innovation, and the better use and application of existing materials.
Its initial breakthrough was in taking existing zinc-air batteries and making them rechargeable, longer lasting and affordable. Fluidic says its cost of production is one-seventeenth of the cost of lithium batteries, mostly because zinc is plentiful and cheap. That means Fluidic batteries can deliver consistent, long-term power at a cost that makes them economically compelling.
“There’s a magic price point when you talk about big time renewable integration,” says Thomsen, and that’s 100 dollars per kilowatt hour. Fluidic’s product has now managed to reach that price point.
The next critical insight was the realisation that this technology is not an alternative to lithium at all. Its direct competitor is the diesel generator, not cellphone batteries.
Lithium batteries are best at delivering high power in short bursts, which makes them ideal for gadgets, cars, even home use, where the power requirement is unlikely to last more than a few hours at a time. Thomsen’s analogy is “marathon versus sprint batteries.”
The company’s initial strategy, therefore, was to target applications that needed reliable long-term power. The telecoms industry proved to be a perfect target, particularly in developing countries where cellphone towers are in remote locations and grid electricity is unreliable. “If their grid doesn’t work and their site is down they don’t make any money, so their willingness to bet on something new was much higher.”
Having installed tens of thousands of batteries in such applications, the company was able to refine and perfect its offering, bringing costs down to the magic $100 kw/h mark and opening up new application possibilities – specifically micro-grid systems in small communities.
“In a power plant that’s powered by solar, and there’s no sun for two days, what are you going to do?” says Thomsen. “You can’t use a power battery, you need an energy battery that gives long discharge.”
Last year the company committed to rolling out turn-key generation and storage facilities to provide power to hundreds of villages and communities in rural Indonesia, Madagascar and South Africa, and longer term the hope is to integrate their product into ever-larger grid systems. Thomsen says even the big guns are showing an interest.
“There’s an awareness and an understanding now that there is a business model here that can be something. Utilities are not first movers, but when you come to them now you are talking to people who can put it into context.”
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Electricity generation accounts for almost 50 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions today, but with better generation and storage technologies coming on stream there’s reason to hope that developing countries will have the means to rebalance that equation as they grow.
But despite the achievements made so far, and the future potential, for companies like Fluidic, the path to long-term viability remains uncertain, not least because the really big players are still under-investing in disruptive technologies.
“We’re probably in a better position than anyone right now,” says Thomsen, “but one should not underestimate the impact an LG or a Panasonic could have. They are formidable competitors.”
It may well be that when the industry giants invest at scale, some of the fringe technologies now in their infancy might blossom into viable products that provide long-term power in cellphone-size batteries.
And given the global political trends, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Asian companies and governments will be play a major role in driving that progress.