In recent weeks, it is hard to have missed stories on a Bengaluru startup that has developed a car that runs on air and water. The real story, however, is not the car — it is the battery under its hood.
Log9 Materials, the startup with digs close to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is, in fact, poised to enter the multibillion-dollar energy sector that’s on the cusp of a change towards cleaner sources of power.
“It’s better than Lithium Ion batteries and, of course, fossil fuels,” says Akshay Singhal, 25, who co-founded the company in 2014 with college mate Kartik Hajela. Singhal, a material scientist from IIT-Roorkee, tried his hands at building a few other product lines like PPuf, a cigarette filter that uses graphene, the wonder material.
There continues to be a graphene connection but now the team wants to take a poke at the energy sector.
Unlike Li-Ion batteries, these systems use aluminium as an anode, oxygen as the cathode, and water as an electrolyte. A porous membrane made of graphene lets the air pass into the electrolyte chamber where a chemical reaction between aluminium, water and air (oxygen) takes place to release energy.
The idea is to not only use these batteries to power cars but also to replace diesel generators that are used to power cellphone towers, ATM kiosks, and often meet household energy demands in India. The Indian cellphone tower industry, second only to the Indian Railways as a consumer of diesel, is estimated to burn some 20 billion litres of diesel every year.
For the auto sector, the pitch is simple. Electric vehicles that run on Li-Ion cells need specialised charging infrastructure sorely lacking in India which has only recently achieved 100% electrification. The current breed of EVs can’t cover long distances without being charged frequently. They promise a range of about 100 km to 200 km per charge with exceptions like the expensive Tesla cars that deliver over 500 km a charge.
Log9’s metal-air batteries can go up to 1,000 km at a stretch — just water needs to be topped up every 300 km. “There’s no need to use heavy charging infrastructure,” says Singhal. The aluminium – used in the form of a cassette – needs to be replaced after 1,000 km.
By Log9’s estimates, it could cost up to Rs 4 per km to run cars on its system. “The cost can go down further as we make these batteries better,” says Singhal. The total cost of ownership – this includes maintenance and fuel costs over 10 years and 250,000 km – is the same for a petrol car and one that runs on Log9 batteries. At the same time, the cost of running a car on Li-ion batteries is 1.5 times more than Log9 cars, says Singhal.
There’s also a strategic advantage switching to metal-air batteries. India does not produce lithium and cobalt, the raw materials that go into making Li-ion batteries.
“At a macroeconomic level, the benefits of using materials that can be broadly sourced locally to create energy solutions will directly impact GDP, fiscal deficit, and energy security and, thereby, national security,” says Bharani Vasudev Setlur, a partner at early stage venture fund Anthill Ventures. India is the third largest producer of aluminium in the world and at about about $2,200 per metric ton, it is nearly ten times cheaper than lithium.
To be sure, laws of free market dictate that aluminium prices will also go up if its demand grows as much as it has grown for lithium since the advent of Li-ion batteries. Only that aluminium is the third most abundant element on earth and lithium is the 25th on that list. Also, laws of thermodynamics dictate that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred from one form to another. In this case, when you mine aluminium from the earth, it comes in the form of aluminium oxide. It’s then converted to aluminium metal using a process which takes energy. This energy is released inside the battery when it reacts with water and the metal goes back to its oxide form.
Log9 Materials is working on improving the efficiency of its batteries so that it can deliver a range of 1,500 km per charge and reduce the size of the battery three-fourths. The battery currently takes up the entire backseat of a Mahindra e2o microcar and the aim is to shoehorn it into the boot or take it under the car. “We’ve already come up with a design which is half the current size. In the next 8-10 months, we’ll reduce it to one-fifth of the size,” says Singhal. The batteries cost up to Rs 3 lakh.
Why hasn’t the technology become popular yet? The concept of metal-air batteries is relatively new. The use of aluminium metal anode was proposed first by Solomon Zaromb in the 1960s. It has then undergone improvements over a few decades and until recently the tech couldn’t deliver the power efficiencies required for most applications. With the coming of nanomaterials like graphene – it is thin, light, strong, and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity – that has changed since 2010. So far, only a handful of companies around the world have developed metal-air batteries for commercial applications: Phinergy from Israel and Canada’s ZincNyx Energy Solutions. Phinergy recently signed a joint venture with China’s Yunnan Aluminium. The JV, called Yunnan Phinergy Chuang Neng Metal Air Battery Co Ltd, has a registered capital of $128,97 million and plans to produce aluminium batteries for the booming electric vehicle market in China. ZincNyx which uses Zinc instead of Aluminium was acquired by Vancouver based MGX Minerals Inc in November last year.
Smart car maker Tesla is also developing metal-air technology. In 2017, it was granted a patent by the USPTO for a fast-charging system developed for metal-air batteries. Way back in 2010, it had patented powertrains that run on metallic batteries. “But companies like Tesla are deeply invested in lithium-ion technology and it won’t be able to move fast enough,” contends Singhal.
The company has also developed a diesel generator replacement, considering a growing demand for cleaner solutions in many Indian cities. Delhi, for instance, has banned new diesel generators from being installed. “This is emission-free and recyclable,” says Singhal, as he shows us a metal-air battery system about the size of a bus which can replace a 5 KVA diesel generator. Size is obviously a problem here. “We have already made design improvements to halve the size. We’re working on cutting it further and even fit it into a suitcase,” says Singhal holding up a newer version of the cell.
Current metal-air batteries use a polymer packing to prevent water from leaking out thereby increasing the cost of the system and also reducing its life expectancy. By replacing the packing with graphene, which is hydrophobic, Log9 Materials is able to create more efficient batteries. For the startup, diesel generator replacements are also easier to take to the market.
Log9 has raised close to $1 million from angel investors in three rounds including from IIT-Roorkee and GEMS, a New Delhi micro venture capital fund. Singhal is in talks to raise a larger round of funding but isn’t betting the house on that. “We want to stick to the battery play with the spill containment business earning us the bread and butter,” he says. The company sells spill absorption pads made out of graphene at about a dollar a piece. A 10-gram pad can absorb around two kilos of oil and finds takers in the shipping industry. Log9 will face competition from giants like 3M and others such as New Pig and Kemtex as it sells these pads. This year, the company of 34 people expects a revenue of Rs 2 crore.
The technology being developed by Log9 Materials plays into the larger trend of decentralisation of energy across the world. Such micro power plants will likely cover energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and, now, metal-air energy. “Decentralised energy creation should lead to an energy internet that could create an entirely new class of opportunities for economic growth and innovation,” says Setlur, who early in his career worked on the Simputer, a high profile India-rooted project of its time.
The technology still has a few hurdles to overcome before it can replace Li-ion batteries in mainstream applications, though. For instance, once they are switched on, metal-air batteries can quickly lose charge. Some of these challenges are being addressed. (Suggested reading: A comprehensive review on recent progress in aluminum-air batteries.)
“There’s a lot of R&D that is going in but we’ll be in the market soon,” says Singhal. Entrepreneurs are nothing, if not optimistic.
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Updated at 10:59 am on January 24, 2019 to change the graphic titled "Aluminium Air Battery Timeline" to suit our design language.
Updated at 02:01 pm on January 24, 2019 to correct the spelling of battery.