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New chemistry cell battery tech set to diversify, disrupt sectors: From electricity storage to EVs

While policymakers in the NITI Aayog and the Power Ministry maintain that the established lithium-ion ecosystem is likely to continue to be the mainstay for the projects that are on the verge of being rolled out, there is now a fresh impetus to examine these new technological breakthroughs from an improved viability and end-use perspective while drafting new project proposals.

Written by Anil Sasi | New Delhi |
Updated: August 9, 2021 5:40:02 am
Electric vehicleThe suitability of some of these frontier battery technologies are likely to be evaluated based on the end-use application of the battery storage projects in the works — electricity storage for the grid or their use in electric vehicles (EVs). (File Photo)

With at least three energy storage-linked projects of scale being planned in India, new advanced chemistry cell battery technologies that could potentially enable battery storage ecosystems to diversify away from the established Lithium-ion formula and scale up the viability threshold offers an array of potential options to policymakers. The suitability of some of these frontier battery technologies are likely to be evaluated based on the end-use application of the battery storage projects in the works — electricity storage for the grid or their use in electric vehicles (EVs).

While policy makers in the Niti Aayog and the Power Ministry maintain that the established Lithium-ion ecosystem is likely to continue to be the mainstay for the projects that are on the verge of being rolled out, there is now a fresh impetus to examine these new technological breakthroughs from an improved viability and end-use perspective while drafting new project proposals. The new technologies include a novel rechargeable iron-air battery developed by a US-based start-up for electricity grid storage that promises to deliver power at less than a tenth of the cost of lithium-ion batteries, alongside solid-state batteries that use alternatives to the aqueous electrolyte solutions — an innovation that could lower the risk of fires, sharply increase energy density and potentially take only 10 minutes to charge a battery, cutting the recharging time by two-thirds — is being explored by mobility.

The Indian government has already commenced work on a blueprint for a project of up around 4000-megawatt hour (MWh) of grid-scale battery storage system at the regional load dispatch centres (RLDCs) that control the country’s power grid, primarily to balance the vagaries of renewable generation. Apart from this, Reliance Industries Ltd has recently announced plans to set up an Energy Storage Giga factory while state-owned NTPC Ltd has floated a global tender for grid-scale battery storage project.

The Union Power Ministry’s large grid-scale battery storage project is being envisaged as an intervention mechanisms aimed at counterbalancing any sharp fluctuation in grid frequency because of renewables, with part of the envisaged capacity set to be reserved as an ancillary for the grid controllers, and part to be made available to the project developer to be leveraged on a commercial basis by storing energy during off peak hours and drawing from it during peak hours. Mega battery storages are expected to add to the stability of India’s electricity grids, given the intermittent nature of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind. Posoco, India’s electricity grid operator, manages the grid through the National Load Despatch Centre and a combination of five RLDC and 33 state load despatch centres. The storage is planned at the level of the RLDCs to manage the growing share of renewables in the country’s electricity generation mix, which now accounts for a capacity of 142GW — or about 37 per cent of the country’s total installed generation capacity.

Besides this project, there are other wings of the government that are active in this area. The Department of Science and Technology has launched a “Materials for Energy Storage” and “Materials for Energy Conservation and Storage Platform” programme, and set up centres on Batteries and Supercapacitors with Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and Indian Institute of Science respectively, for developing energy materials for efficient electrochemical energy storage devices. This is in addition to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy supporting a broad-based Research and Development Programme on energy storage.

Among the new breakthrough technologies globally is one announced in July by US company Form Energy Inc. — a rechargeable iron-air battery capable of delivering electricity for 100 hours at a claimed system cost competitive with conventional power plants and at less than 1/10th the cost of lithium-ion. According to the Massachusetts-based company, its front-of-the-meter battery — a utility scale or grid-scale battery storage that can be connected to a distribution or transmission network or power generation assets directly — can be used continuously to ensure round-the-clock operations of a renewable electric grid. “We conducted a broad review of available technologies and have reinvented the iron-air battery to optimize it for multi-day energy storage for the electric grid,” according to Mateo Jaramillo, Form Energy’s CEO and co-founder. “With this technology, we are tackling the biggest barrier to deep decarbonization: making renewable energy available when and where it’s needed, even during multiple days of extreme weather or grid outages.”

The battery leverages the concept of ‘reversible rusting’ — the battery uses oxygen from the air and converts iron metal to rust while discharging, and while charging, the application of an electrical current transforms the rust back to iron and the battery releases oxygen back into the air. But the problem with the tech pertains to the battery’s size and weight, which makes its application impractical in electric vehicles, one of the biggest use areas of batteries. In case of grid storage, though, it works well as the battery size is not a major issue — each of Form Energy’s battery unit is about the size of a small refrigerator, which is then filled with a water-based, non-flammable electrolyte. Inside of the liquid electrolyte, stacks of between 10 and 20 meter-scale cells that include iron electrodes and air electrodes, are placed. To create a full-scale storage system, Form Energy says it hopes to group together thousands of batteries in modular megawatt-scale power blocks, which are to be installed in environmentally protected enclosures. Among its backers are ArcelorMittal’s XCard innovation fund, while the Wall Street Journal reported in July that Form Energy also has Breakthrough Energy Ventures – a climate investment fund whose investors include Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos – backing it.

The other really promising technology involves solid-state batteries that use alternatives to aqueous electrolyte solutions — an innovation that could lower the risk of fires, sharply increase energy density and potentially take only 10 minutes to charge an EV, cutting the recharging time by two-thirds. These cells can extend the driving distance of a compact electric vehicle while maintaining legroom — a quantum leap in battery tech, especially for mobility-led applications. Despite the improvements in lithium-ion batteries over the last decade, long charging times and weak energy density are still barriers. While the Li-ion batteries are seen as sufficiently efficient for applications such as phones and laptops, in case of EVs, these cells still lack the range that would make them a viable alternative to internal combustion engines.

The alternatives are being fostered globally to achieve more optimal options include:

# Toyota’s solid state battery: Among the 1,000-odd global patents involving solid-state batteries, Toyota heads the list. The Japanese automaker is attempting to wrest back the lead from the Chinese, who are current Li-ion battery pack leaders — with the Nigde, China-headquartered Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd the world’s largest supplier of lithium ion batteries and Shanghai Energy dethroning Japan’s Asahi Kasei in battery separator material. Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an EV equipped with a solid-state battery and will unveil a prototype this year. Nissan too is in the fray.

# Apple battery tech: In the last fortnight of 2020, Apple Inc said it’s moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle. While the rumours were abuzz for a while, the subtext held out a clue — Apple’s own “breakthrough” battery technology would be a vital cog in its goal of building a personal vehicle for the mass market. Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a person quoted by Reuters who was privy to Apple’s battery design.

# QuantumScape’s solid-state battery: Californian battery start-up QuantumScape Corp. is being seen as another extremely bright prospect. Founded by Stanford University scientists a decade ago, and with financial backing from Volkswagen AG, QuantumScape is one of the leading developers of solid-state lithium metal batteries for use in EVs.

Earlier efforts to create a solid-state separator (electrolyte) capable of working with lithium metal had to compromise on the other aspects of the battery like the cycle life, operating temperature, cathode loading, and excess lithium deposits on the anode. QuantumScape seems to have circumvented this, and its use of a solid state separator technology eliminates the side reaction between the liquid electrolyte and the carbon in conventional lithium-ion cells’ anode.

Appreciation for the technology has come in from Dr Stanley Whittingham, co-inventor of Li-ion battery and winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who said: “The hardest part about making a working solid-state battery is the need to simultaneously meet the requirements of high energy density, fast charge, long cycle life, and wide temperature-range operation… If QuantumScape can get this technology into mass production, it holds the potential to transform the industry.” Volkswagen plans to have production running for solid-state batteries as soon as 2025 via the partnership with QuantumScape.

# Tesla’s new tabless battery: In September 2020, Tesla unveiled plans to develop a new “tabless” battery that could improve an electric car’s range and power. A tab is the part of the battery that forms a connection between the cell and what it is powering. Tesla will produce its new batteries in-house, which CEO Elon Musk predicts will help dramatically reduce costs and enable the company to eventually sell EVs for the same price as petrol-powered ones, the company announced at its much-hyped “Battery Day” event in Palo Alto, California.

These new tabless cells, which Tesla is calling 4860 cells, will give the company’s EV batteries five times more energy capacity, make them six times more powerful, and enable a 16 per cent range increase for Tesla’s vehicles.

# In July 2020, researchers at Stanford University claimed that they had developed a new electrolyte design that boosts lithium metal batteries’ performance, increasing the driving range of EVs. They said that the electrolyte solution had been one of the most significant factors holding back progress for lithium metal batteries. Researchers at Penn State University had earlier claimed to have developed a lithium-ion battery that is safe and can last up to one million miles. At Penn State’s Battery and Energy Storage Technology Center, a team of researchers developed the new battery.

# Chinese tech group QingTao Energy Development is spending over $150 million in R&D of solid-state batteries, among other areas. The investment will last for three years starting in 2021.

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