Nanobatteries power China’s energy drive

Other applications could benefit from same dynamic

By David Forman

If a Chinese nanotechnology firm and its American partner are successful, they could have a profound effect on the next summer Olympics. The two companies could improve the air quality, reduce the noise pollution, and increase the – well, overall energy – of the 29th edition of the modern Olympic Games.

The companies are working on nanostructured batteries that aim to be the holy grail of electric transportation: batteries that charge up rapidly, hold a lot of energy, and can expend their energy at the varying rates required by an automobile, all the while being lightweight, safe and rugged.

It’s a tall order for any technology. It also happens to be an area where Chinese nanotech research has firmly connected with a commercial energy application. Much has been made of both China’s impending energy crisis and its position as an up-and-coming leader in nano and other areas of emerging technology. Experts say the country is beginning to connect the dots between nano-enabled energy research and its applications.

Batteries are at the forefront of those efforts toward real commercialization. “Our materials can run right down the manufacturing line without changes,” said Alan Gotcher, president and chief executive officer of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc., a U.S. firm that is providing its nanostructured electrode material to Advanced Battery Technologies Inc. of Harbin, China.

Advanced Battery, in turn, is integrating the material into batteries for a variety of applications. It recently announced two milestones. Late last year, tests showed that its batteries met the U.S. Council for Automotive Research FreedomCAR specifications for energy storage in hybrid electric vehicles. And in early 2006 the company announced it had started shipments of its rechargeable polymer lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries to Aiyingsi Co. Ltd., a Taiwanese maker of electric bicycles and motorcycles.

Gotcher said his company’s crystalline material has a high energy density but at the same time can move energy rapidly, both of which are desirable attributes for battery applications but which are often mutually exclusive. “The more surface area, the more the ions are moving faster and faster,” he explained. Historically, he added, the problem with using crystalline material was that the very nanoscale crystals that made the performance possible would fracture under the stress. However, “Our crystals aren’t breaking,” he said.

Advanced Battery is building prototype buses for completion by the end of the second quarter to compete for selection for the 2008 Olympics. The Chinese government has said it wants to use at least a thousand electric buses as part of a fleet for ferrying people around the Games.

Advanced Battery is hardly the only Chinese firm commercializing nano-related battery innovations. China BAK Battery Inc., a Shenzhen, China, manufacturer of li-ion battery cells, announced earlier this year that it had signed agreements with Lenovo Group of Hong Kong and A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass.

Lenovo is the Chinese company that bought IBM’s computer division in late 2004, making it the third largest personal computer manufacturer in the world. China BAK has been supplying Lenovo with batteries for cellular phones since last August. The intent now is to supply batteries for laptop computers.

A123 is developing nanophosphate li-ion batteries using technology licensed from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It and China BAK have been working together since early 2005 and recently announced starting volume production to make batteries for power tools, medical devices and hybrid electric vehicles.

Such academic collaborations are not surprising. Advanced Battery contracted with Harbin University of Science and Technology in China to make the electrical controls and other systems for an electric car project using Altair’s nanomaterials. It also has a cooperative agreement with the Beijing Institute of Technology in China to develop and test the four buses it is building as prototypes for the Olympic electric bus program.

On the other hand, what may be surprising is that there is not more of such commercial collaboration between nanotech research and energy applications.

There is no doubt that Chinese nanotech research is ramping up, according to Mike Roco, the senior adviser to the U.S. National Science Foundation who tracks international nanotech development closely. By Roco’s count, China has moved up impressively, ranking second behind the United States as measured by the number of academic papers published on nanotechnology in a year.

However, warned Roco, prolific papers do not necessarily equal superiority in research. “If you look at the citations index they are not in the top-five cited,” he said. He argues that successive researchers citing previous works is a stronger indicator of the quality of research than the sheer number of papers produced.

“I like to get people to be more realistic,” Roco said. There is a perception of “China going from nothing a few years ago to a superpower (in nanotech research) …but it’s not the same level of quality.” Give it at least another decade, he said.

But perhaps more importantly, a community of corporate executives, engineers, entrepreneurs and academic researchers committed to connecting nanotech innovation to energy solutions has not yet congealed.

“Hydrogen storage, solar, fuel cells, thermoelectrics. These are all using nanotechnology,” said Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who retains close ties with researchers in his native China.

“But generally speaking, nano for energy is still a ways off,” said Chen, whose research focuses on energy transfer and conversion and who recently organized a conference on energy and nanotechnology. “It’s not making a big wave when people are thinking about nanotechnology.”

Chen points out that China’s national research program includes projects for both energy and nanotech research, such as high energy battery development and solar power for hydrogen generation. But there is no Chinese version of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative explicitly linking the two developments. And, he said, “Chinese corporate research is not at a scale of a GE or IBM.”

However, a facet of Chinese academic funding could help make up the difference. Chen said that in China, when the government funds a science project – even a basic science project – there is generally an application focus and a physical result.

“Every project they have,” he said, “they ask you to deliver some hardware after one to two years.”

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“Sometimes there are rumors about China which are exaggerated,” says Mike Roco, the senior adviser to the U.S. National Science Foundation. He says China is coming on strong but is still far from competing head-to-head with the U.S. in nanotech research. Photo courtesy of Peter West/National Science Foundation

Click here to enlarge image

“Our materials can help them make a distinctive product,” says Alan Gotcher, CEO of Altair Nanotechnologies, which supplies nanostructured materials to Advanced Battery Technologies Inc. for use in batteries fabricated in Harbin, China. Photo courtesy of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc.

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