Navigant Research Blog

Musk’s Hyperloop Vision Takes Shape

— August 12, 2013

After months of speculation, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has published his plan for the “Hyperloop” – a superfast transport system that, in theory, can transport people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes and could be built for 10% of the cost ($6 billion) that the California High Speed Rail Authority is currently spending on a train between the two cities ($68 billion).  A combination of the Concorde, an air hockey table, and a rail gun, the system could also, according to the Silicon Valley billionaire, produce more energy than it consumes.

Musk’s 57 page Hyperloop-alpha plan outlines the construction, operation, safety, and cost considerations for this new form of transportation, which hurls small capsules through two elevated tubes.

Composing 40 capsules that hold 28 passengers each, the Hyperloop would transport passengers from L.A. to San Francisco for $20 one-way, based on a 20-year amortization of the $6 billion cost to build the system.  The whole system could be powered by solar arrays on the outside of the tubes.

Each aerodynamically designed capsule, or pod, contains an air compressor, a compressor motor, space for passengers, and a battery pack (among other, smaller components).  The air compressor at the front of the capsule takes in air as the capsule moves through the tube.  Most of the air is dispelled out the tail of the capsule, which helps decrease drag and air pressure at the front of the capsule.  Vacuum pumps create low air pressure within the tube to further decrease drag. Some air is compressed, cooled, and pushed out the bottom of the capsule to produce an air cushion on which the capsule is suspended.

Now Go Build It

The capsule is accelerated and decelerated by a linear induction motor; the rotor of the system is mounted on the bottom of the capsule; and a stationary component that provides power to the capsules is attached to the inside of the tube.  At cruising speed, the capsule coasts on a cushion of air.

Musk proposes that the Hyperloop be constructed on top of the I-5 corridor to minimize right-of-way issues.  The steel tubes, which could be prefabricated and welded together onsite, would be mounted on pillars 20 feet to 100 feet tall.  The whole system would require 21 MW of energy annually and would produce 57 MW with the solar panels attached to the top of the tubes.  Energy is stored in each capsule’s battery pack.  Musk’s plan also takes into account safety issues such as earthquakes, power outages, and other emergency situations.

Whether this futuristic vision will ever be realized is questionable.  For his part, Musk says he is currently too wrapped up with Tesla and SpaceX to tackle another revolutionary transportation technology.  He’s inviting others to take on the task of building the Hyperloop.


Renamed Canara Hones its Battery Monitoring Tools

— June 3, 2013

The world’s largest uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery monitoring company, IntelliBatt, has unveiled a more comprehensive battery monitoring system and announced that it is changing its name to Canara.  The San Rafael, California-based company, which has been monitoring UPS battery systems for more than 2 decades, recently completed a new round of investment that will allow it to roll out its new monitoring product ‑ and could also fund the acquisition of regional UPS installers.

The new name of the company ‑ Canara ‑ is meant to evoke the memory of canaries that would descend into the coal mines of 19th century England as an early warning system for dangerous gases.  Canara performs a similar feat (although without sacrificing birds’ lives in the process) for data center UPS battery systems.  By monitoring the batteries via a cloud-based architecture, the company can diagnose power system issues and employ predictive analytics to extend the life of the batteries and improve overall power quality in the system.  Navigant Research estimates that the overall global UPS battery market was worth $3.4 billion in 2012 and will grow to $6.7 billion in 2023.

Single to Branch

The task of monitoring and maintaining the lead-acid batteries that provide backup power in the case of a grid blackout is a notoriously unloved job among data center managers.  They tend to be computer people, not battery people, so Canara’s outsourcing model is especially appealing to them.  The company currently monitors more than 265,000 individual lead-acid cells in more than 3,000 systems throughout the world.  Most of those systems are monitored as a single circuit today; Canara is now offering a branch circuit monitoring product that will allow the company to monitor individual strings of battery cells.  By ensuring the proper functioning of the system, Canara’s service can extend battery life in a typical system by up to 40%, which usually leads to a direct savings of 40% in the battery system operating budget.

While the company continues to lead the battery monitoring industry, it also hopes to begin offering other power management services, including energy cost management and even participation in local demand response markets through Canara’s monitoring infrastructure.  In that regard, Canara is in an excellent position: few other companies can claim that they have monitored more than 1 million batteries to date distributed throughout the world.


Lessons From the Lithium Ion Leaderboard

— May 22, 2013

With the publication of Lithium Ion Batteries for Stationary Energy Storage, we launched our first Navigant Research Leaderboard report, which is the rebranded version of the Pike Pulse series.  This report looks at the landscape of lithium ion battery vendors in the stationary energy storage space.  To score each market participant, we looked at six elements of strategy and six elements of execution.  Once the results were tabulated, we ended up with a few surprises.  Here are some of the lessons learned from this report:

Entering bankruptcy is a surefire way to damage a reputation.  A123 Systems, the historical market leader in stationary storage, has placed more than 100 MW of batteries into stationary systems since its inception in 2005.  Its team of engineers, marketing executives, and senior managers is world renowned.  So how did it end up in the Followers category, the lowest quadrant of the Leaderboard?  The answer rests primarily with the fact that it entered bankruptcy after a series of manufacturing setbacks with its automotive batteries.  The company recently emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership.  Now it’s part of Chinese automotive parts manufacturer Wanxiang Group and is re-entering the business of manufacturing and marketing batteries.  As the company formulates and articulates its strategy going forward, it will likely recapture its market leadership.  But the immediate after-effects of the bankruptcy severely damaged the company’s scores.  We anticipate that A123 will score significantly higher next year.

It Only Takes One Fire

Battery fires burn more than just the battery.  Fires struck several battery makers, such as Electrovaya and GS Yuasa, driving some to the point of failure.  Unfortunately for the industry, these incidents have received an inordinate amount of media attention, leading to lost sales and severe public relations problems (luckily no deaths or severe injuries have been caused by any of the fires).  In other industries, safety breaches can be tolerated.  In the advanced battery space, however, a single fire event can lead to the company’s collapse.

China is still playing catch-up.  While Chinese lithium ion companies have made tremendous gains in the last 3 years in the consumer electronics sector, they are still market laggards in stationary storage.  ATL, Lishen, China BAK, and BYD (the four horsemen of the Chinese lithium ion industry) have all either avoided the global stationary storage market or failed to make a lasting impression with buyers.  Don’t expect this to continue, though.  All four companies have plans to develop their stationary storage businesses in North America and Europe as soon as they feel an investment is warranted.

There’s more than one way to score highly.  The two market Leaders in the Leaderboard, LG Chem and Johnson Controls, both scored much higher than any competitors.  However, they got their scores for very different reasons.  LG Chem bet the house in 2008 and 2009, building large factories on multiple continents and blitzing customers with an all-out marketing push.  The results have put LG Chem into the driver’s seat in the automotive space and made it a major competitor in the stationary space.  Johnson Controls, on the other hand, kept its powder dry.  It invested heavily in basic research into the nickel manganese cobalt chemistry that most industry participants agree will dominate the space in the next 5 years.  The company kept its scientists busy while making relatively small investments on manufacturing capacity.  Now Johnson Controls is in an excellent position to invest in manufacturing even as many of its competitors are struggling to keep factory doors open.


A Possible Energy Storage Breakthrough

— May 21, 2013

In a recently published paper, Stanford professor Yi Cui revealed a new battery design that could, if it proves durable and effective in the real world, be a significant new technology in the energy storage market.  Like many experimental battery designs, Cui’s battery uses forms of lithium and sulfur.  However, the professor’s battery uses them in a completely novel fashion, sidestepping some of the problems that normally plague lithium sulfur batteries.

To understand why this battery holds so much promise, it’s important to understand the electrochemistry of sulfur.  When sulfur is used in a battery, it sometimes produces polysulfides, which can damage the inner workings of the battery.  When polysulfides collect within the electrolyte of the battery, they cause the other parts to degrade quickly.  That’s why traditional lithium sulfur batteries have such a low cycle life, sometimes lasting only a few dozen cycles.

Cui’s design turns the production of polysulfides on its head: the electrolyte is composed of a lithium polysulfide material.  When the battery is discharging, lithium ions leave a lithium cathode and bond with the lithium polysulfide electrolyte.  When it’s charging, the ions head back to the lithium metal cathode.  The result is a flow battery that, unlike any other flow battery, needs no ion-selective membrane.  Instead, a cheap passive coating of the lithium metal allows the correct ions to pass without leading to degradation of the cathode.

Multiple Breakthroughs

The Cui lab at Stanford will be familiar to readers who have read about previous battery work done there.  He seems to have an uncanny ability to turn out several new battery chemistry breakthroughs every year, ranging from yolk-shaped encapsulants to silicon nano-rods to dye-based batteries.  It seems inevitable that an innovation from the Cui lab will eventually rewrite the energy storage history books.

There’s reason to be hopeful for this particular concept.  This battery has two features that resonate with anyone who has tried to understand why flow batteries haven’t succeeded so far: the materials involved (lithium and sulfur) are relatively cheap and the absence of a membrane eliminates another large cost factor for most flow battery designs.  If the Cui battery can be scaled up from its small laboratory prototype and can withstand thousands of cycles, this concept could lead to a much cheaper form of energy storage than currently exists.

That’s a big “if.”  Many other promising experimental battery designs have proved to be too finicky or too expensive to manufacture to become real-world products.  Cui and his graduate student, Guangyuan Zheng, have shown data that their battery can endure 2,000 cycles without any noticeable degradation, which is a good start.  But the real proof of the system’s success will be in a commercially manufactured, scaled-up model.


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