Battery breakthrough puts NZ on the map
Two electrochemists at Massey University in Palmerston North have come up with a formula that could rock the foundations of the $200 billion global battery market, bringing hope to the millions who curse the brevity of mobile power supplies. Keith Newman backgrounds a new 'disruptive technology' with the potential to fundamentally change the way things are done.
Their breakthrough is a claimed longer-lasting, more powerful rechargeable battery technology that has resulted in a venture with US-based investors who have established a company specifically to ensure that their discovery makes it to market.
Archaeological remains in Iraq suggest that a primitive battery was used for electroplating 2500 years ago - long before Liugi Galvani began making dead frogs kick with iron and brass connections to their legs and Alessandro Volta's experiment with zinc and silver plates in the 1780s.
In 1866, Georges Leclanche, a French engineer, patented a battery system and within two years 20,000 of his 'wet' cell batteries were being used in the telegraph system. They were the forerunners of the world's first widely-used battery, the zinc carbon cell.
For 200 years, zinc has been recognised as an ideal metal on which to base a battery because it is cheap, easily mined and efficient. However, it is also unstable, and batteries using it have a short life span. Once the batteries short out that's the end.
The story that may change the picture started in 1997 when two Massey University electrochemists began exploring a common interest - building a stable, rechargeable zinc battery that would outperform all others.
The research and knowledge of electrochemical engineer, Dr Michael Liu, from Wuyi University in China, jelled perfectly with the aspirations and academic expertise of associate professor, Simon Hall, who had previously studied lead-acid batteries.
Both were keen to see a real-world application through a commercial manufacturing process rather than simply publishing their work in academic journals.
"Our goal was always to develop a better, longer-lasting battery technology." When a zinc anode discharges, the zinc oxide dissolves in the electrolyte. In recharging, the zinc anode acquires a radically different shape, forming spikes (dendrites) which can penetrate the wall of the battery.
"We were aware of all the other research in the public domain, and that some developers had wrapped their zinc cells with everything from plastic to carbon to prevent instability," says Dr Hall.
He and Dr Liu looked instead to the root causes of batteries' short lives and began stripping out the clutter.
The Eureka moment came after eight months when they realised they had developed a zinc electrode that was stable - it didn't change shape or short out - and had a greatly improved recharging process. They knew they were on track as the number of repeat charge-discharge cycles the battery could sustain improved steadily in the laboratory.
[image] Dr Michael Liu
Over six years, the last three in the Nanomaterials Research Centre at Massey University, they worked to perfect their discovery. More recently, the research was supported by a New and Emerging Energy Technologies Grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
While other zinc-based anodes fail within 30 recharging cycles, the Massey prototypes go the distance for up to 1200 cycles. The silver-zinc battery lasted four months longer than existing silver-zinc devices, and the nickel-zinc version they came up with had a life two-and-a-half times that of nickel hydride and four times that of lead-acid.
It became clear that research would yield continued improvements if they could get the funding to keep pushing the envelope. The research was patented and earned Dr Liu his PhD. His thesis remains embargoed as part of the process of securing the intellectual property ahead of seeking a commercial deal.
Massey University encouraged the team to explore all the possibilities and think outside the square.
"The freedom to explore all the options rather than being constrained by the parameters of corporate or specific government funding projects was a big factor in what we achieved," says Dr Hall.
He believes their process, which enables batteries to be recharged more frequently, last significantly longer and deliver 30% more power than typical cells, can be classified as a 'disruptive technology'. This term was coined by Harvard business professor, Clayton Christensen, to describe new, low-cost, often simpler technologies that challenge and displace mainstream technology, forcing flow-on effects that transform the market.
Previous disruptive technologies have resulted in the printing press replacing handwritten manuscripts, railway systems replacing canals, digital photography replacing film, mobile phones displacing landline phones and DSL displacing ISDN.
[image] Massey University's Deputy Vice Chancellor Palmerston North, Professor Ian Warrington (left), Chris Officer, Dr Simon Hall and Dr Michael Liu at the opening of the Anzode Research Centre at Massey University in Palmerston North
Now Drs Hall and Liu may have created a new standard that will displace existing battery types across a broad range of requirements.
Dr Hall believes the batteries will make a world of difference in an age where mobility is the key word, with people using everything from mobile phones to PDAs, laptops, cameras and MP3 players on the move.
He's very cagey about how the technology might be used, other than to say that the applications are wide-ranging. For example, cordless power tools, which currently take up to 15 hours to charge, may be re-powered more quickly and for longer. Even a new type of car battery might be conceivable. Dr Hall wouldn't be drawn on specifics, such as whether the technology might work for non-rechargeable batteries.
Efforts were made with Massey University to find the right kind of partners to licence the process and eventually take it to the commercial market. Early discussions ran into difficulties, but the doors began to open once Chris Officer became involved.
Mr Officer, a Massey graduate and former staff member, operates in the venture capital field in San Francisco. He learned of the breakthrough in 2003 when visiting his brother, Prof David Officer, the director of Massey's Nanomaterials Research Centre.
Recognising that the technology was almost market-ready and would be extremely attractive to investors, Mr Officer began investigating what might be involved in licensing and marketing it to international battery manufacturers.
He admits it was outside his field of expertise but at a meeting of Silicon Valley KEA (Kiwi Expats' Association) he met a team of people who helped him piece together a strategy and form a company.
"I talked to a wide range of experienced and connected New Zealanders who helped shape my thinking. At the end of this process I had enough funding to get through the negotiation process with Massey University and secure the technology."
The new company is called Anzode. Massey granted it an exclusive global licence to the zinc battery technology. Anzode spent more than US$100,000 patenting it in more than 30 countries and territories.
As part of the licensing deal, Anzode arranged to fund the establishment of the Massey Anzode Research Centre at the Palmerston North campus, headed by Dr Hall, to focus on further research into battery technology.
Mr Officer, who attended the opening of the Centre in March, applauded Massey University for its willingness to enter into a commercial partnership.
"This partnership is proof that Kiwis can have great ideas and make them work. The result is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The university has a world-class research centre and we have the opportunity to take Simon and Michael's discovery to the world."
He says universities are often reluctant to enter into commercial arrangements.
"This is a challenge for academics, who have to decide not to publish their work if they want to take it to market." Dr Hall and Dr Liu put their academic careers on hold to protect the intellectual property of their discovery.
It's clear there is more life yet in the upstart technology from Massey with the potential to upset the status quo in battery technology. The new Massey Anzode Research Centre will not only be the home for continued research and development in the area of battery life, but also reassure any partner signed by Anzode to manufacture end products as it continues to refine and extend the technology's capabilities. Director of Commercialisation at Massey, Dr Gavin Clark says the signing of the contract with Anzode is the biggest such deal the university has embarked on, and the new centre opens the way for Massey to become the global centre for electro-chemistry.
Reprinted with permission from e.nz magazine, New Zealand.
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