Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Battery Technology from Oregon to the Isle of Man

A few weeks ago I wrote about lithium oxygen batteries that use air. In that battery, porous carbon is the key. It turns out there is another battery being developed that also uses air. The zinc-air battery is featured in Technology Review:
Zinc-air batteries, which use zinc metal as the anode and an alkaline paste as the electrolyte, are simple, inexpensive, nontoxic, and long- lasting. But engineers haven't been able to figure out how to recharge them. Cody Friesen, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University, solved the problem by using a porous electrode and a liquid solution of zinc ions and additives as the electrolyte.

There's an article in Business Week about a company in Switzerland that's about to build a plant in Oregon that will make zinc air batteries:
A Swiss company developing zinc batteries for electric cars has chosen Portland as its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing center.

ReVolt Technology LLC also announced Tuesday it's applying for $30 million in research grants from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Now notice that the Business Week article doesn't mention that the batteries are "zinc-air" batteries. The whole point of such batteries is that an important element of the battery doesn't have to be carried by a vehicle; oxygen can be drawn from the air. So I looked up ReVolt (interesting name) and confirmed that they are indeed zinc-air, though there is no mention of Cody Friesen. Maybe this means there is more than one way to create zinc-air batteries. That would be good for competition. I just wish Americans would get their projects moving a little faster.

Technology Review has another article on an Oregonian connection to the battery industry. For the first time, there has been a race of electric motorcycles on the Isle of Man. The field of electric bikes are not going to match the speed of the gasoline-powered bikes but it turns out at least two of the entrants were from Oregon. Oregon is going green maybe faster than California. Here's a key paragraph on the point of the whole race:
As the day arrives, everyone watching knows that the TTXGP will be slower than the "real" motorcycle race, the TT, because the TTXGP is an energy-limited race. In effect, the "gas tank" of an electric bike is minuscule, so to win the TTXGP the bikers must mind their energy consumption. In contrast, the gas bikers in the TT run with their throttles wide open. However, batteries' energy density has been improving at a rate of about 8 percent a year, which means that even without any other technological progress, electric bikes should run head to head with gas in about 20 years. The TTXGP is intended to make the future arrive sooner.

Let's hope battery technology gets moving a lot quicker than twenty years. For me, the highlight of the story was that the underdogs won. They had the lowest budget and the fastest time (the engineer, admittedly, was an expert on battery technology—but he kept it simple). Maybe the age of the garage inventor is not over!

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