Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Possibly Too Much Coffee at Tek Park

I just love saying & writing Tek Park.  Isn't it futuristic-sounding?  It's where the monthly public meetings of the MAREA are held, just outside of Kutztown -- there's always a speaker, and afterwards planning sessions for the annual Energy Festival to which all are welcome to stay and contribute.   This year's festival will feature a return to a more educational focus on Friday with schools, including colleges, being encouraged to attend. Mark the dates and if you can't wait, come and meet the all-volunteer crew who put it on and get in on the fun behind the scenes. 

So tonight I got to hear from Bill Yalen of International Battery.  He started by describing their 92,000 sq ft facility in Allentown as having state-of-the-art lab & testing facilities.  In production since 2008, IB spent the last 3 years building and developing their innovative water-based manufacturing process, which eliminates the use of toxic organic solvents -- the main negative environmental effect of lithium-ion batteries, as the lithium itself can be recycled and used again just as the lead in lead-acid batteries is today . 

Lithium itself is far less toxic than lead.  Metallic lithium requires careful handling, but International Battery imports the lithium for its cells in safer powdered lithium iron phosphate form.  And that's all they import: in a process Yalen likes to call "powder to power," all IB's cells and battery systems are built completely in the Lehigh Valley. 

The power in the "true prismatic" or large-format cells IB has developed is considerable: they have up to ten times the energy capacity than standard lithium-ion batteries.  Because the cells themselves are larger, there are fewer connections to fail and the battery is more efficient.  Furthermore, the ferrous phosphate formulation utilized inherently stabilizes the cell's response during an overcharge or short circuit condition.  (Translation: does not blow up when overheated.)

The cells are not sold to anyone else, but are used in IB's up-and-running production line of modular batteries, many of which are now out there in the real world being used or tested.  Yalen presented a variety of applications for their battery systems:
  • distributed energy storage
  • utility scale bulk energy storage
  • renewable energy power regulation
  • ups & telecom
  • military tactical vehicle 
  • soldier auxiliary power unit
  • underwater vehicles
  • NATO 6T replacement (6T = the vehicular battery used across the U.S. and NATO militaries. "The 6T size is used in 95 percent of military vehicles, and the military bought about 700,000 of the batteries in 2008, the latest figures available."   a rather interesting read which throws nickel-zinc chemistry into the mix, who knew?  but I digress, this was not in Mr. Yalen's talk!)
  • PHEV's and EV's - current applications are larger than a typical passenger vehicle, focusing on hybrid buses and, interestingly, on boats, including submarines!
  • utility & specialty platforms
  • auxiliary power units for where the grid is unreliable (these could also be mobile emergency units for disaster relief)
It was easy to see how IB's batteries could qualify for all these applications: they are scalable, modular, and exist in two different chemistries to meet different energy density needs.   Their other cell is lithium nickel cobalt manganese.  This was a brand new formulation to me and extremely pleasing to the ear (like a jump rope rhyme or a line from a poem).  I look forward to getting to deploy it in conversation -- and I think it very smart of IB to have two battery chemistries going at the same time, meaning they're not dependent on just one supply stream.  

Though delicious-sounding, lithium nickel cobalt manganese batteries do not seem applicable for EV's.  They're suitable where energy density is at a premium, but display a tendency under stress to exhibit what Mr. Yalen delicately referred to as "a tendency towards thermal runaway."  

Those inherently stable lithium iron phosphate cells, on the other hand,  can be drawn down nearly 100% without sustaining damage.  I noted a cycle life of 200 cycles, which gave me pause when I compared it to an expected 300 cycle life span of an AGM PbA, but then from the same great lead-acid battery primer where I had looked up that fact I learned  that only 30% of PbA batteries last the expected 4 years.  That's a pretty low number to cross the finish line!

So: PbA is fussy among its other drawbacks, whereas lithium phosphate is cool, efficient, has a rapid response time, and is 50% smaller and lighter.  Because it's highly scalable and can be incrementally modulated, it's basically super-customizable.  International Battery is at the point where it is rolling out production and actively seeking growth in that laundry list of applications above.  Seems like a huge prospective market!

Some applications were more visionary than others.  I got kind of excited over the concepts of migratory power and community energy storage.  "Migratory power" replaces stepping power up and down through transformers and high-tension wires with a central processor, substations, & then community energy storage stations, all linked together.  This is a very cool vision for what would basically be a battery-powered civilization, which we are certainly evolving towards already considering how accustomed we've already become to plugging in to charge our laptops, cellphones & soon cars!   I think this migratory power scheme would work.  

 It does feel like I'm living in the future already, a little bit.   International Battery's presence in Allentown is an authentic manifestation of what I, and the folks at the MAREA meeting, and all the EV owners and would-be owners I know, have been saying for quite some time : listen up!  Renewable energy creates jobs in technology & development as well as manufacturing.  Electric vehicles and renewable energy have a synergistic effect on demand for batteries and residential solar power.  Rapid adoption of EV's powered by distributed, local sources of energy could easily wean this country off its oil dependency and free us of the terrible costs of war hidden in our cheap gasoline.  We have the opportunity to begin rebuilding our own shattered industrial base and restore our domestic economy, city by city, town by town.

Businesses like International Battery create "green jobs" everywhere they grow: jobs that aren't about being exploited by some big box store but worthwhile, real work in a business that's committed to the community.  Globalized corporations have been about damaging the environment, wasting irreplaceable resources, and risking people's health for present gain.  Local businesses grow other local businesses -- and that puts money in everyone's pocket.  Which is another reason why I like the term "green jobs" -- though they are making the money in funny colors these days, have you noticed?

Bonus photos for reading through the whole thing:

My new camera goes beep! every time i press a button oh no

Proof that I did not summarize every slide

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