Navigant Research Blog

Feeling Blue Is Sometimes a Good Thing for Batteries

— January 31, 2013

This is the first in a series of three blog posts about promising laboratory experiments that might show up as products in the battery industry in the coming years.

There are plenty of spectacular experimental battery cathode materials that have excellent voltage, cycling, or cost specifications.  There are none (yet) that boast all three.  That is what is so promising about a new technology out of Stanford.  If the battery can successfully be made into a mass manufactured product, it holds the promise to be high-powered, durable, and cheap.

This paper is out of the Stanford laboratories of Robert Huggins and Yi Cui; Cui is famous for being one of the most prolific battery scientists alive.  His lab has been described to me by a battery scientist as “a factory of useful patents.”  Huggins is also well respected in the materials science community as an innovative and rigorous researcher.

The problem that Huggins was trying to solve when he began his research was how to make an aqueous electrolyte that worked without any of the expensive and toxic solvents that are required to make traditional battery electrolytes work.  He stumbled upon an odd candidate for a cathode that would work with a water-based electrolyte: Prussian Blue.  The compound’s true name is hexacyanoferrate, but it’s better known to lab technicians as the dye you use to turn an iron-rich culture into a deep blue that’s easier to view under a microscope.  The compound works so well as a dye because it has such a rigid crystalline structure that consistently bends light in the proper direction to make the color blue.  For a battery cathode the color doesn’t matter, but a rigid porous structure does.

It’s the cost requirement that sets the Prussian Blue battery apart: most exotic cathodes cost a fortune to make.  Battery scientists often wave away the business strategists who question the economic viability of a technology by saying, “Someone will come up with a way to make this material cheaper.”  Huggins and Cui don’t have to make that argument.  I can buy a metric ton of Prussian Blue on the Internet for the equivalent of $2.60 per kilogram (kg).  That results in about $5 in cathode costs per kilowatt (kW) of power capacity, assuming that the end product can match the hypothetical specific power of 100 W/kg of the battery (the initial paper showed a maximum of 45 W/kg).  Compare that to the cathode cost of a Nissan LEAF  lithium manganese spinel battery, the cheapest large format battery in production today, which Pike Research estimates to be at least $58 per kilogram. Likewise, the material inputs for a lithium titanate battery, which better compares to the high power capabilities of the Prussian Blue battery, are probably upwards of $500 per kilogram.

The initial results of the Prussian Blue battery aren’t all so rosy.  The data for the initial experiments shows that the battery has a specific energy rating of only 5 watt-hours (Wh) per kilogram (versus more than 100 Wh/kg for most currently mass produced lithium ion batteries).  This is not a great long-term energy storage vessel. However, the authors expect to improve on that number as the ingredients are fine-tuned. Even incremental gains in that area will allow the chemistry to compete with ultracapacitors, which are extremely expensive.

The scientists behind the Prussian Blue battery have already formed a company to develop it commercially called Alveo Energy.  That company has already scored a major grant: a $4 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) project to develop the Prussian Blue battery.  While it’s still the early days for the technology, this is certainly one to keep an eye on.


Weak Supply Chain Commitment Undermines Climate Change Efforts

— January 31, 2013

Hurricane Sandy, which brought devastation to New York, New Jersey, and large sections of the East Coast, resulted in significant losses to businesses in the area that are home to 85 Fortune 500 headquarters experiencing power outages for many days, if not weeks.  The total number of business establishments was nearly 750,000.  With more severe storms, flooding, and droughts predicted, companies are taking steps to reduce their own carbon emissions.

According to a recent supply chain study by Accenture in collaboration with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), about 51% of the respondents in the study of 2,415 companies stated that extreme weather is already having an adverse effect on their business or is expected to in the next 5 years.  Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the companies that have implemented carbon emissions programs believe that climate change presents a risk to their operations.  This sense of business risk is a major catalyst for businesses to take action to mitigate their carbon footprint –a much stronger driver for carbon emission reduction than any government policy and regulation.

What’s most disturbing about the findings of this research, which focuses on corporate supply chains, is the significantly lower level of commitment among suppliers to reduce emissions compared to their clients or purchasing companies.  For example, only 38% of the suppliers have adopted carbon emission reduction targets, compared to 92% of their purchasing organizations.  Although 69% of their clients have taken action to reduce their carbon footprint, only 27% of the suppliers  have done so.  Similarly, only 29% of the suppliers versus 63% of their clients have been able to achieve year-over-year carbon reduction results.

This chasm between companies and their suppliers highlights the challenge of being able to manage climate risk in the global supply chain.  Unless businesses can influence their suppliers to follow their example, they will not be able to achieve their overall emission reduction goals.  As Accenture points out in this report, it’s essential for businesses – like Starbucks and DuPont, which have already embarked on programs to reduce carbon emissions across their products’ full lifecycles –  to actively engage suppliers in a discussion about climate change and the potential risks it entails. With increased awareness and understanding of these risks, suppliers are more likely to implement carbon reduction.


A Breath of Fresh Air for the Hybrid Vehicle

— January 31, 2013

While hybrid technology has recently taken a back seat to plug-in and all-electric vehicles, it is nice to see the spirit of innovation is still alive in the automotive industry.  On January 22, 2013, PSA Peugeot Citroën held an Innovation Day at its Automotive Design Network R&D center in Vélizy, France.  Among a number of other announcements, PSA unveiled its Hybrid Air technology, the result of a 2-year secret project with strategic partners Bosch and Faurecia that has resulted in the filing of more than 80 patents.

The system works in a way that is very similar to most parallel hybrid cars on the market today, such as the Toyota Prius.  Instead of an electric motor/generator there is a hydraulic motor/pump, and the battery storing electrical energy is replaced by a tank that stores the energy as compressed air.  The system can capture kinetic energy via regenerative braking and reuse it to supplement the conventional engine, thus maintaining vehicle performance while allowing the engine to run in its most efficient mode.  The system should be capable of moving the vehicle from a standing start, but the energy capacity of about 150 kilojoules (kJ) will not allow prolonged driving on air storage alone.  PSA estimates that the vehicle can be driven 60% to 80% of the time in zero-emissions mode, on average, in city traffic.

Hydraulic hybrids (using liquid rather than air) have also been under development for many years, though so far only heavy truck applications have been put into service in small numbers, mainly in refuse collection trucks.  A demonstration SUV was shown at the 2004 SAE World Congress.  The size of the pump and storage tank has always been a challenge for installation in smaller vehicles, with the efficiency of the motor typically lower than its electric competition.  PSA has clearly managed to overcome these issues, and announced that Hybrid Air technology will be fitted on B-segment models (potentially the Citroën C3 or Peugeot 208?) starting in 2016.  Undoubtedly the historic expertise of Citroën engineers with hydropneumatic systems was invaluable.

The big challenge for hybrid and electric vehicles is currently the cost of battery energy storage, and the air hybrid offers a low-cost alternative.  However, this approach will only work in a hybrid; the required size of an air tank to store enough energy for significant zero-emission driving will be prohibitive, making a pure air-powered vehicle impractical.  In that sense, the pressurized air cylinder is really more of an alternative to an ultracapacitor than a battery.  In addition to being lower in cost, the system should be much more robust than a battery and not suffer from any performance degradation over time.


EV Telematics Bring the Cloud to the Car

— January 30, 2013

One reason why plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) haven’t sold as quickly as originally projected is that, to date, they have failed to distance themselves from traditional cars with telematics features.  As we discussed in Pike Research’s Electric Vehicle Telematics report, you can see how many estimated miles you have left on a battery charge and get driving tips to increase your energy efficiency – but that’s about it.  The possibilities for connecting an owner with their PEVs’ unique capabilities are virtually limitless.

The automotive industry designs in 3 to 5 year cycles and has always lagged innovations in software development and information technology, which adhere to 12-month or less development cycles.  The automotive industry’s relatively slow pace of innovation is understandable given the emphasis on safety and the sensitivity to driver distraction issues.

The recent announcements of new vehicle software platforms and the advances in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, however, pave the way for PEVs to take a clear lead in telematics applications.  This month both Ford and GM opened up their development platforms to third parties.  Agero Connected Services recently announced a developer kit to enable telematics apps to talk to the cloud and to continually update vehicle software platforms.

Smarter Than a Smartphone

In his talk at the recent Consumer Telematics conference in Las Vegas, Agero’s Frank Hirschenberger challenged the auto industry to make vehicle applications “safer and better than what is on a smartphone.”  While he was primarily referring to so-called “infotainment” apps, the same can be said for apps that help drivers get the maximum value from their PEVs.

Hirschenberger correctly pointed out that communicating with the cloud enables the data to be aggregated and processed outside the vehicle, so that the amount of code stored under the hood can be kept to a minimum.  As connected vehicles, PEVs are a great arena for software jockeys to let loose their imagination in manipulating big (and small) data.

People (especially guys) love to brag about their gadgets, and adding apps that would (for example) calculate the amount of greenhouse gases eliminated by driving electric, or calculate the total energy cost, would result in lots of bragging to the neighbors.  Privacy must be protected, as Brian Inouye, National Manager of Advanced Technologies, Toyota , noted during the same conference.  Marketers and auto makers are looking forward to siphoning information off the vehicle, Inouye said, but consumers are understandably wary.

It is time for PEVs to carpe data.  Optimizing vehicle performance, understanding vehicle health, maximizing fuel savings, and reducing emissions are just a few of the kinds of information that could be made accessible and useful for drivers, while making PEVs the most advanced telematics vehicles on the planet.


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