Beijing Diary - Part 2
By Bill Moore
You know Beijing has a serious air quality problem when you wake up and look outside your hotel window at buildings only a mile or so away and they are shrouded in a brownish gray haze.
So it was my first morning in China's capital. I might have initially written off the smog to early morning haze, but it remained throughout the day. Besides, I knew better. The reason I had come more than 6,500 miles was to see how the city planned to improve its air and reduce traffic congestion in the mere six years that remain between now and the Olympic Games of 2008.
I am told there were only two occasions in the history of modern Beijing when Chang'an Street, the eight-lane thoroughfare that bisects the center of the city, was closed to traffic. The first time was when millions turned out to celebrate the repatriation of Hong Kong in 1997 and the second time was this summer when Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Games on July 17th of this year. Clearly, China takes this honor seriously and is planning to not only organize the best games yet, but to use them as an opportunity to showcase to the world the progress it has made in last twenty years since it opened its proverbial doors to capitalism.
One manifest sign of Beijing's coming of age in the modern world has been the proliferation of the private automobile. There are currently 2 million cars and trucks registered in the city, 600,000 of which belong to private individuals or companies. As Ed Lai and I drove south on the 3rd Ring Road towards the Beijing Technology Development Zone, we wove our way through bumper to bumper traffic. Meanwhile the northbound lane was ground to a standstill, just like you'd expect at morning rush hour in any major Western city. This is hardly progress.
We eventually entered the Development zone, a 15 square kilometer track of land set aside by the government to attract high tech businesses, including Beijing Continental Battery Company, Ltd., a 120 person start-up that is developing large, vehicle size lithium ion batteries in the 100 to 150 Amp hour range. Co-founded by Yang Dongping, the chairman and Zhao Shan, the president in 2000, the company presently employs 120 scientists, technicians and support staff. Thirty of these are PhDs or engineering graduates from some of China's top universities. By Chinese standards they are well paid and part of a company with a mission. It is Beijing's intention to order the largest number of hybrid-electric and battery electric transit buses yet.
In addition to adding another 18,000 clean fuel city buses to their already sizeable fleet, Beijing -- with the encouragement of the central government -- also plans to buy as many as 1,500 hybrid, battery electric, a possibly fuel cell buses. This would give them the world's largest clean fuel transit fleet. [See the EV Buses of Beijing]. Beijing Continental Battery's role is to provide an efficient, powerful, reliable and above all, affordable battery storage system.
The company's Research and Development labs are located on the top floor of Building Number 1 not far inside the Development Zone. It is a functional, unadorned warehouse like building. You ride to the fifth floor on a freight elevator. The receptionist area is Spartan and the halls are lit only by day lighting, as are most of the laboratory rooms themselves. Coming from America where we think nothing of running huge banks of artificial electric lighting, the Chinese take energy conservation much more seriously.
One thing is quickly obvious, the company hasn't squandered its investment capital on the decor or on wanting to impress visitors with sparkling labs and paneled board rooms.
Our first stop was to greet Mr. Yang, the Chairman, who sat in his large, but cluttered office working at his laptop and chain smoking yet another cigarette. Behind him on a bookshelf sat the gold-plated statue of a bull, the emblem of a capitalistic bull market. He was surfing the web and reading an article on EV World when we met him. I would learn later that he had been twice sent into exile by the communist government.
From Mr. Yang's office we moved quickly down the hall, led by Mr. Wang, the plant manager, through a series of labs where young men and women still in the twenties or perhaps early thirties were conducting various experiments. One young man was testing various polymer formulas in an effort to come up with a suitable substitute for the plastic separator material currently used in their prototype batteries. This material, which resembles the white plastic used in common trash bag liners, has to be imported from Japan and is very expensive, comprising 25 % of the material cost of the battery. The goal is to find a low-cost way to apply this polymer to the reverse side of each electrode.
At this point, the head of research, Dr. Gu Hui, brought out a sample of the materials that make up a lithium ion battery: copper and aluminum foil and the plastic separator. The aluminum, which acts as the cathode or current collector, is coated on one side with a lithium oxide that contains either cobalt or manganese. The copper foil is also coated on one side with extremely fine, man-made carbon. These are separated by the plastic sheeting. All three are then rolled tightly together like a jellyroll. At least that's how I understood the process through Mr. Lai,
In two labs I was shown a pair of sterile atmosphere cabinets costing $400,000 each. These are glass containers with rubber gloves attached so researchers can work with various materials in a tightly controlled environment. It was pointed out to me that these cabinets could be used to make anthrax and that the company had to sign pledges that they would not be used for purposes other than battery research. Lithium is extremely sensitive to moisture and can actually catch fire under the wrong conditions, so the sterile cabinets are used to virtually eliminate the presence of water vapor in the air. A digital readout meter showed a mere one part per million of water vapor inside the cabinet.
Nearly all of the test instruments -- some costing as much as a Mercedes Benz -- are imported either from Japan, Korea, Europe or the US. They had a Chinese-made, gas-fired kilm for baking the raw materials that are used to coat the electrodes, but they said the German-made one was far better.
Not being an electrochemist, I really couldn't fully appreciate or evaluate the level of their technology. But it did seem to me that they were focusing their efforts where it counted most, on finding just the right combination of coatings and materials, and then looking for ways to reduce production costs. They have developed several types of lithium batteries using both manganese and cobalt, which are the two most widely used elements in lithium batteries. But they also hinted that they had come up with another material, they didn't say what, that would enable lithium batteries operate efficiently down to minus 40 degrees C.
From the R and D center, we drove over to a more modern, four-story building typical of any high tech industrial park in the West. The front quarter of the building was laid out in offices, while the remaining three-quarters of the building was devoted to the company's pilot battery production line enclosed inside a 300 square meter clean room.
Mr. Wang, our guide, decided to conduct the tour in reverse order, starting with a finished product: racks of finished 100 and 150 Amp hour batteries, as well as a few dozen 10 and 15 Amp hour units intended for use in electric bicycles.
One of the more interesting concepts Beijing Continental Battery is investigating is the "recycling" or reuse of battery core material. The core materials of larger batteries that might fail during quality control inspections will be recycled into smaller batteries instead of discarded. In addition to the 150, 100, 15 and 10 amp batteries, the company is also planning to build 50, 60 and 70 amp hour batteries.
According to Yang Dongping, the chairman, the company hopes to begin mass manufacturing of their batteries in 18 months time. A company in St. Petersburg, Russia has expressed serious interest in acquiring the company's technology.
One of the most impressive parts of the tour was the gigantic air filtration system that feeds the clean room, actually a complex of several rooms. Before being pumped into the room, ambient air is chilled by a York screw chiller. It is then dehumidified and finally passes through a filtration system that includes a filter 12 meters in diameter and some 15 cm thick.
For the mass production line, such a filtration system is impractical, so the company plans to create mini-clean rooms at critical points in the assembly process, instead of trying to filter and dehumidify the entire production line.
After the tour of pilot plant, we drove to a nearby restaurant to yet another incredible series of Chinese dishes, including roast duck. These folks really know how to eat well, even if some of the delicacies seem a bit strange to this mid-Westerner's palate.
Next we drove just a short distance to the offices of CEV, another Beijing-based company hoping to cash in on China's drive to take a leadership role in advanced electric drive technology. The company has built one of China's first hybrid electric inter-city buses, one powered by a single 30kW Capstone microturbine. While we were inside talking with Matt Hui, the company brought up their bus. We watched a short video on the company, drank some hot tea from a glass, and then walked outside to see the bus.
Hot air was pouring out of the turbine's exhaust and Matt Hui explained that CEV was planning to use this low-grade waste heat in a chiller system to run the bus' air conditioning system. He also said that their original design had included a second turbine, but the company found they didn't need it and it would help cut the cost of the bus. This enabled them to get a ten-bus order for Shanghai International Airport.
We took the bus out for a drive around the Development Zone. It was quiet and smooth, but then we never got above 35 or 40 mph. I asked to stop and let me take some pictures of bus with the flag of the People's Republic flying in the background. Inexplicably, the yellow-starred red flag broke free at the top and flopped upside down just moments before I took my photos. It was almost as if fate was trying to send a message of some kind.
We drove back to CEV's offices and said our goodbyes. I was growing tired and my hosts had yet another big night planned for me.
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