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Exclusive interview with Rob Haslett, Business Development Director at Nanotecture

28 July 2011

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Nanotecture specialises in the production of nanoporous materials and the development of highly efficient electrical storage devices based on those materials. During the Electric Vehicles Land, Sea and Air conference that took place at the end of June in Stuttgart, took the opportunity to talk to Mr. Rob Haslett, Business Development Director at Nanotecture, to get insights into nanoporous technology and its consequences for the market. When did Nanotecture become involved in the EV sector? 

Rob Haslett: Nanotecture started creating the core technology in around 2002-2003, but has only been involved in the energy sector for the last 3 years. Thereafter Nanotecture became involved in energy storage, and in particular supercapacitors. In the first half of this year, Nanotecture and OptiXtal announced important advances in supercapacitors. Can you tell us what these advances are and how they will impact on EV development?

Rob: This year, we have produced a demonstrator applying our unique patented technology. More specifically, starting with an asymmetric supercapacitor configuration which has battery-like storage on one electrode and capacitor-like storage on the other electrode, we have applied nano-porous technology to the Nickel Hydroxide electrode. This yields dual benefits: high power from the capacitor side and high energy from the battery side.

What we have done by making it nanoporous is to improve the power capability, which translates in the final product into much lower construction costs. We proved that the technology works and we have demonstrated that we can produce it with a low cost production technique.

I think that the use of our nanoporosity to demonstrate low cost capability represents a breakthrough. Do you see supercapacitors working with all electric vehicle technologies or would they instead fit either pure electric vehicles or plug-in technology?

Rob: At the moment, we have very good visibility in a number of niche sectors. I talked earlier on about micro-hybrid-type applications. Start/stop technology is a great application for supercapacitors, because when the engine starts it needs very high power very quickly and in urban areas you have a lot of start-stop cycles. Supercapacitors are a robust component with very high reliability and very long cycle life so they will deliver very high current reliably for a long period of time.

With regard to supercapacitors we are specifically entering a couple of sub-niches sectors, one of which is engine starting for trucks and the other is military vehicles and off-road vehicles.

The whole market right now is very focused on energy density. All the lithium-ion people are battling against each other to try to position themselves. It will therefore take another 12-18 months before we can really begin to understand how the high-power capability of supercapacitors could be deployed in more mainstream applications, such as EVs or mild hybrids. A few weeks back we talked to Dr. Eckhard Karden, technical expert at Ford Europe, and he seemed to doubt that supercapacitors would be a good fit for EVs. He said that “while they offer high specific power (W/kg), their energy content is still quite low when compared to competing advanced battery technology.” How do you counter such arguments?

Rob: Dr. Eckhard Karden is absolutely right. The main players will go through a first level of competition, but will then start to fine tune what they are offering, improving for example power performance.

I think in the end there will be hybrid technology offers. You will have lithium-ion working together with supercapacitors. What percentage of the system will consist of supercapacitors and what percentage of lithium-ion, I do not know, these are things that still need to be understood.

So, the statement of Dr. Karden does not surprise me because as I said, everybody is focusing right now on lithium-ion energy storage. Can you give us an inclination of supercapacitor prices vs. EV battery prices? How do you see prices for both developing in the near to medium future?

Rob: For the moment we are comparing ourselves to lead-acid applications for engine starting. A basic set of lead-acid batteries would cost you $200 (€140) versus about $700-800 (€498-€570) for our solution. However, if we compare the lifetime cost of both solutions in business applications such as trucks for instance, for lead-acid batteries it is a lot higher because the battery will probably have to be replaced three times during the life of the truck. Additionally, you have to factor in call-outs to trucks that won’t start and we know that the industry average is between 5-10 call-outs during the lifetime of one truck. Based on these figures, the lifetime cost for a current lead-acid system adds up to around $4,000 (€2,847), while you will only have to buy one supercapacitor, giving it a lifetime cost of less than $1000 (€711). Talking about lifetime, how do you manage supercapacitors’ end of life?

Rob: Recycling the nickel technology we are using is a very straight-forward process because the materials are easily recyclable compared to other technologies such as lithium-ion and lead-acid which are quite difficult and messy to recycle. That is certainly one of the major benefits that our supercapacitor has to offer. What kind of developments do you expect in the energy storage market in the short-term, say over the next 6-12 months?

Rob: At Nanotecture we have two hats on because we are also involved in the lithium-ion side. There are some niches where in fact we can offer two solutions. Thanks to our nanoporous technology, the volumetric energy density is increased since we put lots of little holes into the materials..

However by applying nanotechnology to lithium battery materials we can give better power density and better in low temperatures performance, so now there is a possibility to tune both power and energy performance to fit different applications and/or optimize all parts of the operational demand curve.

Again, I think there will subtle changes in the next 2-3 years time when people progress to the next level of development. If they want more power, people will consider supercapacitors or a mix of materials such as nanoporous materials, which can be optimised to different applications. How do you evaluate this in light of the discussion surrounding the shortage of rare earth materials that EVs depend on?

Rob: We are using nickel, which is an expensive metal but very easily recyclable, and carbon. Those are pretty much the only parts of the batteries. There are no rare earth materials in the supercapacitors we are producing. If you were asked to formulate a global action plan for a rapid introduction of electric vehicles, what would be your top 3 points for the agenda?

Rob: Well, infrastructure clearly has to be on top of the agenda. Getting infrastructure in place so that the user feels able to opt for electromobility is something that should be favoured.

My second point would be user education. I think we are in a very peculiar situation right now where the industry is spending huge amounts of money building new pieces of technology and the consumer has no clue of what an EV is and what the pros and cons are.

So getting the consumer to go through this transition is a big deal. It took a very long time for the consumer to understand the pros and cons of internal combustion engines. Interest grew through car magazines and thanks to the people pushing the ICEs to the limits etc. For Evs public education is yet to happen, and in any case we cannot expect the rapid introduction to happen in a couple of years only.

My third point on the agenda would be related to governments, because I think they have to play a role. Widespread EV use is going to make huge changes to the amount of electricity that needs to be produced, and to the way in which materials are consumed and recycled. We will need to have standards in place and methods of dealing with these issues, especially as high volumes will soon be reached. What are your impressions from the Electric Land, Air and Sea that took place 28-29 June in Stuttgart, Germany?

Rob: It is interesting that there are some key people missing. For example, there is nobody from the American or Asian car-makers here. But going to these events, I find that this is how it works. You go to America, and you get predominantly Americans; you go to Asia and you get predominantly Asians; and the same here in Europe.

On the other hand, there are some really great people here. I was also surprised by the broad scope of light electric vehicles and the various solutions that people are coming up with. Very interesting for me was also to see the air and maritime applications. Many thanks, Mr. Haslett!



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