Taking The Nanopulse -- Honk If You Love Nano

June 27, 2007
Nanotech-enabled car batteries move green transportation into the fast lane.

Electric cars. You see a few of them on the streets, but you also hear the naysayers grumble about their shortcomings. A lot of those grumblings revolve around the batteries. Short-lived charges. Not enough power. Even safety concerns.

Well, take a look in your rear view mirror, boys. There's someone gaining on you -- electric cars with nanotech-enabled batteries. Right now -- today -- there are cars on the road that have changed the rules on rechargeable batteries thanks to nanotechnology. The best news for industry? There's more than one way to get where we need to go. There are competing technologies proving themselves. And, there are also competing approaches in go-to-market strategies that are showing success. To me, signals we've moved from the dirt path of R&D and are headed for the multi-lane freeway of sustainable, real-world products.

Let's kick it into reverse for a minute to see how nanotech-enabled batteries got to where they are today. Lithium ion batteries have been a leading technology for electric cars -- but there's a problem. In the old-style technology, graphite used on the anode of a battery could flake off, react with the electrolyte carrying the lithium particles, become unstable and volatile, and potentially trigger a thermal runaway reaction. Obviously, not a good idea in a car.

While some manufacturers simply moved on to other technologies, a few nanotechnology visionaries saw an opportunity. Now that foresight is paying off.

In one technology, developed by a California company called Altairnano, graphite traditionally used in the anode of the battery was replaced inert engineered nanoparticles of lithium titanate spinels. Earlier attempts used larger-scale lithium titanate spinels, which could eliminate the thermal runaway problem, but delivered inadequate performance. The nano-version retained the stability, but offered more surface area for chemical reactions. That translates to more power -- and more safety. How good are the results? In road tests, the battery could deliver a top speed of 110 per hour and 0-to-60 acceleration in under 10 seconds. Safety issues were also put to rest. In one test, a nail was pounded through the cell and then it was over-charged without any problems.

California-based Phoenix Motorcars will sell about 500 nano-powered Sport Utility Trucks featuring the Altairnano technology to fleets this year. At $45,000 it's a little pricey for soccer moms. Still, highway-ready performance requires only 6 or 7 hours of recharging plugged in next to your toaster. There's also a 15-minute quick-charge option. Either way, the truck is ready for a 100-mile trip with a three-dollar fill-up cost.

Another company, A123 Systems, has taken a different route to nano-enabled car batteries. They started small -- with batteries for power tools, working with the likes of Black & Decker. While they used nanotechnology to power up tools, they were working on suped-up versions for cars. What's their technology? A123 Systems uses a nanophosphate material in their batteries. It, too, eliminates the concerns about volatile thermal runaway associated with older-style lithium ion batteries. It also makes use of the increased surface area provided by nanoparticles to generate more chemical reactions and deliver more power, more quickly. Now, the company has taken to the road working with General Motors and their suppliers to engineer the next generation of hybrids and electric cars. A hybrid prototype is expected this year bearing the Saturn nameplate.

So it's seems that when it comes to making electric cars reality, all roads lead to nano. Two different technology paths. Two different partnership routes. And, by the way, two different manufacturing avenues -- another indicator of market potential. One company chose to manufacture their own nanoparticles, ship them to Asia to be made into fuel cells, and returned to company facilities in the U.S. for incorporation into finished batteries. The other chose to keep all manufacturing in-house. The issues? Price versus control. The result? So far, their both winners.

So, are we there yet? Not quite, but the supply chain for nanotechnology is definitely in high gear. The question is: are you?

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

About the Author

Scott E. Rickert | Chief Executive Officer

Nanofilm Ltd., a privately held company with headquarters in Valley View, Ohio, near Cleveland, leverages its rich technological strengths and core competencies to capture growth opportunities in nanotechnology applications. Its portfolio includes optically clear, thin (nanometers to microns) coatings, self-assembling nano-layers, nanocomposites and surfactant products.

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