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Batteries! Batteries! And more batteries!

Reports from back-to-back advanced battery conferences


January 2011 offered a unique opportunity for those tracking energy storage for the electric vehicle (EV) industry. In one month (and in one State), two conferences occurred that provided the latest information on the current EV battery production and a look into the next decade. The look forward came at the 10X Advanced Battery R& D Conference held in Santa Clara, California, January 10 – 12.

The 10X Advanced Battery R&D Conference was organized and ably administered by Infocast out of Canoga Park, California. Infocast is a very professional conference planner that aggressively seeks the leading researchers and pulls together a comprehensive agenda. They also provide professionals who administered the conferences on-site very effectively. The goal of the 10X Conference was to look out 3 to 10 years at all the promising battery storage chemistries. The technologies presented covered improvements to current Li-Ion battery technologies through ultracapacitors and fuel cells.

There was a panel dedicated to Lithium Air and Zinc Air electrochemistries. These Metal-Air batteries offer some phenomenal energy densities (hence the 10X conference title) that could significantly increase the range and bring down the cost of on-board energy storage for future electric vehicles. An example was presented of a 100kg battery pack that could provide enough energy for a 700km range. The challenge with this technology appears to be in the power density required for normal vehicle operation. To this author there appear to be some real opportunities for a hybrid battery system (battery/battery) with a power battery for acceleration and Metal-Air battery for range.

In the Alternative Electro-Chemistries session there was a very interesting presentation on a new look at "hot" batteries. Dr. W. Grover Coors, from CERAMATEC, Inc., showcased a recent development in a sodium sulfur battery that functions at a lower operating temperature (~ 300 degrees C vs. the previous versions that operated at 600 degrees). The performance numbers were very attractive and Dr. Coors indicated that his company was looking at both mobile and stationary applications for the technology.

Having been an observer in the battery field for more than 25 years I was still enthused by the promises of future technology. Mobile applications of Metal-air batteries are very attractive as they come close to the energy density that petroleum products currently provide. I have always observed that the best battery technology was the one that was the most number of years away from commercialization. I recommend serious energy storage professionals stay in touch with Infocast and this annual review of advanced battery research and development.

Back to the Present

The week of January 24-28 provided an excellent update to the current state of the electromotive battery industry. The Advanced Automotive Battery Conference (AABC) was another in the series of looks at the near-term energy storage technologies. This conference was organized and very professionally run by Dr. Menahem Anderman and his excellent staff from Advance Automotive Batteries. I have attended several of the AABC conferences and am very impressed with the global nature of the participants and details of the technical information provided. AABC is expanding internationally with their next conference in Spain later this year. This is a key conference for those interested in the practical aspects of energy storage.

The conference included two tracks: The Advance Automotive Battery Technology, Application and Market (AABTAM) Symposium; and the Large Lithium Ion Battery Technology and Application (LLIBTA) Symposium. The real value of this conference is the comprehensive nature of the content. The presentations covered everything from computer modeling tools for battery design and manufacturing to the latest techniques for test and evaluation of finished products.

Although this conference is entitled "Advanced Automotive Battery", there was significant content on stationary applications of energy storage. This included applications such as power quality enhancement, back-up power supplies, load leveling and several other electric grid level opportunities. The financial reality of driving the cost of energy storage down is to achieve the economies of scale that come from high volume manufacturing. The mantra of those who oppose electric transportation is "the energy storage is too expensive!"

When market forecasts are made they assume high volume production and wide usage to drive the costs of mobile energy storage into an acceptable range. Several analysts have speculated that the slow adoption curve for electric vehicles will keep the battery electric vehicles (BEV) too expensive to compete with internal combustion engine vehicles. The addition of a robust stationary energy storage market offers the opportunity to drive down the unit cost for mobile energy storage. This is a trend that encompasses two different market areas (automotive and electrical power) that could be mutually beneficial.

Another trend I noted from the presentations and the displays was the increased participation from the equipment and materials supplier infrastructure. Twenty five years ago I was involved in a detailed look at the semi-conductor industry. There was serious concern that the US was losing its edge in the development of semiconductors to Japan. After much rhetoric in the press and numerous Congressional hearings, the government authorized the formation of SEMITECH. This was a $200M/year effort to accelerate semiconductor technology. The details and accomplishments are well documented, however, one of the key lessons learned was the fact that most of the innovative technology needed to succeed came from the smaller material and equipment suppliers. I believe the same is true for advanced electric vehicle battery development.

From an informal count of the attendees I estimated there were over 500 at this conference. I think the increasing numbers are a testament to the importance of the subject and the quality of the conference. When you look at the economics of the global energy storage market it is imperative that serious companies stay up to date on the latest developments. AABC is a key way to stay ahead of the curve.

Written by Sam Smith