Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Death of Fuel Cells; Al-Air

What if you could get a range extender like the Rx on the BMW but with one key difference? This one runs on stored electricity.  What if you wanted a fuel cell like the Toyota Murai but did not live a reasonable distance from the Hydrogen refueling station (assuming your state has one that is)

That day might be less than two years away.  Last Summer Nissan announced they were partnering with a small Israeli tech company for battery technology that they hoped to start manufacturing in 2017. Phinergy had developed the Al-Air battery which uses stored electricity of refined Aluminum and water to produce electricity and heat. Later that year they successfully tested a prototype that was able to go 330 km on a battery pack weighing just 55 kgs (121 lbs) . They also tested a car with an 1800 mile range using a pack that weighs "as much as" 440 lbs.

Now, I say as much as because half the "battery weight" is actually water that can be added at any time by the user.  The formula is one kg of Al plus one kg of water makes 8.1 Kwh of energy.  Half electricity, half heat. With 4 kwh of power for every 4.4 lbs of "fuel" we are now seeing a power output of nearly one kwh per pound.  Needless to say, this is a "bit" of an improvement over the 90 miles we can get out of the 660 lb 24 kwh LEAF traction pack.

So with this truly slack jawed performance, why isn't everyone running head on into this? Well, that is actually a very good question that I don't really have an answer for.  So, what do we know?

Al-Air is not new technology. In fact,  it was "the best hope for energy storage for the future." Now that statement was made in the 1970's!   So why isn't it?  Well the big problem was maintaining the environment within the battery which is difficult to do because... Oh wait! forgot to mention that there is a 3rd component to the technology and that is Oxygen. It also needs a Kg of O2 to work and Phinergy's Al-Air battery will simply suck that out of the air. Sounds convenient? well, in the previous 50 years, no one has been able to figure out how to get the O2 out of air and only the O2.

Now, our atmosphere is basically 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen, so there is plenty of O2 there but the problem is there is also other junk (that we put there) that messes everything up.  CO2 completely screws up the chemical reaction of Al-Air reducing its effectiveness and reliability but Phinergy has figured out a way to suck up the O2 without getting any of the CO2.  So its possible that the science is still in question.  Prototypes are one thing but mass manufacturing will not work if the we cannot reproduce the performance in bulk reliably at a reasonable cost.  Phinergy estimates a manufacture-able  production ready pack by 2017-2018.

The other thing is the end user adding water.  Any time the customer is involved, that opens up the possibility of messing things up.  Even something as simple as adding distilled water.  We still don't know how sensitive this new technology will be to outside contaminants so adding water carelessly could leave you stranded unexpectedly.  The same goes with the Aluminum.  Phinergy's solution would be having service stations where packs can be swapped out. Now, we already know that Better Place did not work but would people do it for 500 miles of range instead of 80? Definitely something to think about.

There is also the 50% efficiency factor.  Aluminum is very energy intensive to produce and some might not be too happy with a 50% return on the energy invested.  Due to its very high power demands, Aluminum plants can only be placed near very large power sources.

Finally, there is a cost of infrastructure that needs to be investigated. Phinergy only says it will "be much cheaper than current options" which could mean just about anything.

But there is also an up side; a very big one!

**Aluminum is the most abundant metal on the planet. Unlike lithium which is common but not nearly so,  there is a nearly endless supply and no worries about dealing with resistant countries with unstable governments or countries with weird World views. We and our allies have plenty Aluminum right here.

**Yes, it takes a lot of power to make Aluminum out of Bauxite (the rock that mined to make the Aluminum)  but Aluminum is one of the most recyclable metals on the planet and unlike plastics or paper, it can be recycled endlessly and the recycling process uses 95% less power than Bauxite.

**Did I mention weight?  Imagine a sealed unit light enough to carry that would add 50 miles of range. Phinergy does not mention any scale-ability but what if they could package them in 50 mile units? What if Nissan could create a "plug and play" interface that could allow one, two or more of these 50 mile cells to be plugged in?  Range customization as easy as stopping at 7-Eleven to drop off the spent cell for a new one. Simply add water and drive.  Besides its exactly this kind of supply side marketing that will get the big money behind it.   The thought of getting your electricity from the Sun was never in "their" wheelhouse.  But this is an easy way to sell marked up convenience for a fee. But the real benefit is nearly no infrastructure build up required.  Very large packs would need to be done professionally but those could be done several days in advance of a big trip, which all means...

**Flexibility is unparalleled here. Al-Air has no time sensitive storage issues. Unlike Hydrogen, it will not leak a single electron over time. Unlike Lithium, it can remain at full charge for years without losing a single foot of range.  It is simply there when you need it and only when you need it. A smart move would have the LEAF bump the range to no more than 120 miles or so. Add an expandable Al-Air pack that can add up to 300 miles of range. Remember half the expected weight is water. Something you can pick up at any store (guessing Al-Air will mean a LOT more distilled water purchase options) so a 300 mile range extender could be as little as 150 lbs. No more weight than an extra passenger. Sitting there, perhaps for years waiting for that occasional need to arise.  This could mean a single 300 mile range extender could last some people years. Others might have to get replacements a few times a month.

**PUDs. If this does not make their wallet tingle, nothing will!  Here would be nearly unlimited power storage in the form of pure Aluminum. This insures that there will never be a single electron wasted because it had nowhere to go.  Super Sun? No problem, just crank out a few Al ingots and put them in the vault for a cloudy day.  Power outage?  Truck mounted Al-Air cells would be enough to light up the neighborhoods until the power was restored.   With the ability to queue up power in the form of these Al-Air cells, the utility could greatly maximize its efficiency. Power plants would be scheduled to run at peak efficiency only with the extra power diverted.

**Finally, its truly a major major break thru in power storage technology. Right now, its a 50% efficiency keeping in mind its 50% plus heat in Winter.  Right now, its not reversible but in the future it very well could be.  Phinergy is also working on Zinc-Air batteries which basically work the same as the Al-Air batteries except they are rechargeable. If they make some break thrus in that arena, I think they have a pretty good chance of passing Apple to become the first Trillion Dollar company.

Oh!! almost forgot about fuel cells, but then again... oh, never mind, they are NO LONGER IMPORTANT!!

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