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Posts Tagged ‘batteries’

Photo: Barry Chin/Globe.
Alolika Mukhopadhyay, senior research scientist at Alsym Energy, validating a battery reaction in a testing room. “Alsym has developed a new kind of rechargeable battery that doesn’t use lithium. Instead it relies on cheap, plentiful minerals,” reports the Boston Globe.

Oh, I wish so much luck to this startup in Massachusetts! Some of you may remember the 1960s line “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Right? Well, I am part of the lithium problem, and this startup is trying to obviate the need for that blood mineral in batteries. As we turn more and more to electric, lithium mines are damaging the environment and the human communities nearby. I feel guilty every time I think about it.

But Hiawatha Bray reports at the Boston Globe that “A small startup in Woburn called Alsym Energy is working on one of the world’s biggest problems — the need for better, cheaper batteries for cars, electric utilities, and even seagoing ships.

“Alsym’s founders, veteran entrepreneur Mukesh Chatter and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kripa Varanasi, say they’ve built a new kind of rechargeable battery that delivers the performance of lithium ion cells at half the cost.

“That’s largely because the batteries don’t contain lithium or cobalt — scarce and expensive metals mostly controlled by China. And Alsym says they will never burst into flame like lithium batteries, because none of the ingredients are flammable.

“Now, the 47-person startup is striking deals with shipping companies and an automaker to prove its claims in real-world use. The company is just one of many worldwide that are scrambling to find practical alternatives to lithium ion batteries. …

“Alsym has been in stealth mode since its founding in 2015. In some ways, it still is. The front door of the company’s offices displays the name of a dance academy. And Chatter is extremely secretive about the chemistry that makes his battery work. He hasn’t even tried to patent it, because that would require revealing the formula. Instead, it’s a trade secret, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

“But Chatter did offer a few hints. The electrolyte — the material that carries energy between the two electrodes — is water mixed with some solvents that Chatter won’t identify. One of the electrodes is mostly made of manganese oxide, but Chatter wouldn’t say anything about the composition of the other — just that there’s no lithium or cobalt involved, and that all the materials are nonflammable, non-toxic and inexpensive.

“The company has gained the trust of investors, who’ve poured $32 million into the project, with Helios Climate Ventures leading the way.

Chatter, who previously founded a pair of networking hardware companies, began Alsym as a way to provide reliable electricity in developing countries.

“ ‘About 2 billion people in the world either don’t have electricity or have it only part of the time,’ said Chatter. … Solar cells and windmills can help, but they must be backed up with batteries to provide consistent power. Lithium cells are too expensive and unstable; Chatter claims his company’s batteries are much safer and cheaper.

“Chatter says he’s landed $2 billion in pre-orders for Alsym batteries. A small factory at the Woburn headquarters has begun cranking out prototypes. Alsym batteries can be made using the same equipment found at any lithium ion battery plant; only the materials inside the batteries are different. That means existing battery plants could quickly switch over if and when the Alsym batteries prove their worth.

“The first buyers will be Singapore-based cargo ship manager Synergy Marine and Japanese cargo ship owner Nissen Kaiun. The two companies plan to equip up to 100 of their seagoing ships with Alsym batteries as an auxiliary power source.

“Alsym has also signed a deal with one of India’s biggest carmakers to provide electric car batteries, though Chatter won’t say which company. It’s a big test for Alsym, because the typical new car in India costs about $10,000. In US electric cars, the battery alone can cost more than that. …

“Alsym is also in negotiations with a utility that’s interested in using batteries to store power from solar and wind farms, and then release the electricity as needed to the local power grid.

“But Shirley Meng, a materials science professor at the University of Chicago, is very dubious. She said that laboratories worldwide are trying to find alternatives to lithium batteries, so far without much success. ‘Lithium has such great performance,’ Meng said. …

“Alternatives to lithium have been invented, Meng said. But so far, they’ve only worked reasonably well on a small scale. In addition, any new battery chemistry would require the development of a new global supply chain for all the chemicals and components needed to make it work, and that could take years. …

“We should find out in a few years. Synergy Marine and Nissen Kaiun plans to conduct three years of real-world testing starting in 2023. Meanwhile, Alsym plans to begin full-scale production of its batteries in 2025.”

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Otherlab via the Smithsonian.
Saul Griffith’s latest venture, Otherlab, is a research company reminiscent of the “invention factory” created by Thomas Edison.

Here’s an Australian inventor who aims to stop global warming. I especially like his ideas about a substitute for lithium batteries — not just because it could save money but because lithium and other rare minerals are the new “blood diamonds.” Mining them is bad for Nature, bad for communities.

Rachel Pannett writes at the Washington Post, “During a TED talk, Australian inventor Saul Griffith wanted to show his audience how much a person’s individual choices can affect the planet.

“The person, in this case, was himself. And so, the tall engineer with tousled brown hair pulled up a chart on a big screen behind him on the stage.

“On display was an exhaustive audit of his personal energy impact, calculating the carbon footprint of every action in his life down to his underwear, toilet paper and taxes.

“The founder of a wind power company and a dedicated bicycle commuter, Griffith was ashamed to discover that he was consuming much more power than the average American. In short, a planet hypocrite, he told his audience. …

“Since that TED talk 10 years ago, Griffith’s San Francisco lab has attracted $100 million in capital from investors and spun out a dozen companies.

“The 47-year-old, who won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2007 for his prodigious inventions ‘in the global public interest,’ from novel household water-treatment systems to an educational cartoon series for kids, has spent the past decade working to solve climate change through technology. His solution: mass electrification.

“While most environmentalists have taken aim at the fossil fuel industry, Griffith wants to decarbonize each American household — replacing every gas cooktop, furnace and hot water heater with electric devices. Otherwise, he says, efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions will fall short.

“Most of Griffith’s tinkering happens in a nearly century-old former factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. … From every available space on the ceiling and walls, Griffith’s team has hung bicycles — from cargo bikes to a four-seater electric model.

“Otherlab, which Griffith co-founded more than a decade ago, is where the Australian and two dozen other scientists are trying to find a way to stop global warming.

“One of the lab’s current projects aims to radically redesign offshore wind platforms. Another team is designing a solar-powered scooter set for launch this year. They also designed a tracker system that helps solar panels follow the sun’s path through the day.

“ ‘Things don’t stay on paper very long,’ said Joanne Huang, Otherlab’s special projects lead, who joined the company in 2019. ‘It is like a build-it-and-see kind of place. It’s very fun in that way.’ …

Griffith believes climate change is solvable, and he imagines a cleaner future that looks better than what we have now. …’There is every reason to believe the future can be awesome.’

“In the first-floor workshop, Huang and Hans von Clemm, an engineer, were recently working on modular cubes designed to stack neatly in the corner of a person’s garage to store excess energy from rooftop solar systems. The heating and storage systems are being tested in several homes in California, including Huang’s. Their hope is to store electricity from rooftop solar panels for far less than the cost of a lithium battery — making the technology accessible to more people. …

“For the task, Griffith has assembled an eclectic team. Von Clemm is a former ski instructor; Huang was a competitive snowboarder.

“Von Clemm, who joined Otherlab as an intern in 2016, remembers the day he interviewed for the job. Griffith asked to see his hands, which were calloused and covered in cuts. The week before, von Clemm had been building a knife drawer for his mom. ‘All right,’ Griffith said approvingly.

“He then handed the young engineering student a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to draw a working bicycle in 60 seconds. Von Clemm said his hands were shaking. When he finished, Griffith declared: ‘Okay, you can start tomorrow.’

“Griffith’s vision for addressing the devastating impact of climate change bucks tradition. Instead of just focusing on shutting down coal and gas-fired power plants and polluting industries and switching to renewable power generators, he wants to also focus on suburban life. … There is little use in having wind or solar power if your stovetop, furnace and water heater are powered by gas.

“Griffith acknowledges this could be a tough task — furnaces are not easy to swap out like appliances such as refrigerators: Typically, you replace them only when they are broken. …

“ ‘We need a Cambrian explosion of local experiments of how to locally solve the problem,’ said Griffith, whose book, “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,” will be published in October.”

More at the Post, here.

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Well, here’s a new concept in energy production: braking regeneration.

Diane Cardwell writes at the NY Times, “Along Philadelphia’s busy Market-Frankford subway line, the trains behave like those of any transit system, slowing to halt at the platforms and picking up passengers.

“But more is happening than meets the eye. In an experimental system that is soon to be more widely adopted, every time the trains pull into certain stations, they recover the kinetic energy as they brake and channel it as electricity to battery banks at one of two substations.

“The batteries, managed by software, can then use that power to push the trains back out or to help modulate electricity flows on the grid.

“The system is unusual because the batteries are being used for more than just powering the trains, said Gary Fromer, senior vice president for distributed energy at Constellation, the power provider that will own and operate the system for the transportation authority.

“The electricity savings alone do not justify the battery costs, he said, so it was important to find another source of revenue, which comes from selling energy services to the grid. …

” ‘We don’t have to front the money and we’re reaping both savings and actually money coming back our way,’ said Jeffrey D. Knueppel, general manager of the transportation authority. The base technology of the system, known as regenerative braking, was one of the breakthroughs that allowed for the development of hybrid and electric cars like the Prius.” More here.

This reminds me of my 2012 post on inmates in Brazil who bike to create electricity — and reduce their sentences. And this post from 2013 about lighting schools by playing soccer. All hail to human ingenuity!

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
The Market-Frankford subway line in Philadelphia is part of a regenerative braking experiment.

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From a NY Times article by Stephanie Strom June 12:

“A few companies have taken some small steps to bring lost manufacturing jobs back to American soil, driven sometimes by declining labor costs in the United States, other times by dissatisfaction with the quality of goods made abroad.

“General Electric, for example, has created almost 800 jobs by building plants in Schenectady, N.Y., and Louisville, Ky., to make sophisticated batteries, some of which were previously made in China. NCR is making automated teller machines in Georgia that had also been made overseas. Last month, Starbucks announced it would build a factory in Augusta, Ga., that would employ 140 people and make the company’s Via instant coffee and the ingredients for its popular Frappuccino drinks. About half of Starbucks’s new employment overall will come in the United States, the rest internationally. …

“The effort is not all altruistic. Chinese labor has become more expensive, and Starbucks and other companies are looking at their supply chains more holistically. American Mug can deliver to Starbucks in four days, while Chinese suppliers may take three months.

“A Chinese supplier is also likely to require an order in the hundreds of thousands, increasing the risk that Starbucks will get stuck with inventory. And then there is the difference in shipping costs. ‘No doubt the cost of doing what we’re doing in East Liverpool [Ohio] at least in the initial stage will be more expensive for Starbucks, but the investment we’re making in this is about the conscience of our company and recognition that success has to be shared,’ [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz said.” Read more here.

We will probably never have the massive manufacturing we once had, but do send me what you hear about manufacturing picking up, even a little. For example, I recently heard about a new company in Massachusetts, 1366 Technologies, which makes silicon wafers for solar applications and has a manufacturing pilot going in Bedford. I mentioned this to a colleague who added that he knew of a new gin distillery in South Boston, which wasn’t really what I meant by manufacturing, but whatever floats your boat.

Photograph: http://www.1366tech.com/

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