By Bill Moore
Anything nano is like really, really small!
A single nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For you engineer-types, that's 10-9 meter. That's right down at the molecular level. And it's down here where grape-like clusters of man-made minerals promise to revolutionize battery technology as we know it and finally make possible a practical electric car.
That's why I wanted to talk to Altair Nanotechnologies' Alan Gotcher. His company is developing the nano-scale materials that may be the breakthrough the industry has been looking for since the days of Thomas Edison.
I met Alan briefly in Vancouver last December and since then have been monitoring Altair's activities, which took a sudden turn recently when the company announced that it was partnering with Boshart to develop a lithium-ion-powered electric vehicle.
Altair formed in 1999 to develop advanced ceramic materials based on its proprietary nanontechnology. Today the company has some 60 employees with its powder fabrication plant in Reno, Nevada and a battery prototyping facility in Anderson, Indiana.
"We've developed several nano-materials that we're bringing to market", Gotcher told me. "We're taking advantage of what many nano materials have, that's the high surface area that comes with the very small particle size. And we fuse our particles together into a nano structure and then we try to exploit some of the inherent materials and properties that come with a nano-structured material".
So, how do you make nano-scale materials?
"Altair developed a process in the late 90s that uses a nucleation technique. We dissolve a number of materials into an acidic solution, and we use salt to help nucleate the crystal growth.
"What we do is take our water solution and put it at the top of a tower, spray it into little droplets and our mixture of chemicals go to the outside of the water droplet, and we evaporate the water as it falls down the tower. That gives us a very thin film of amorphous material -- that means it's non-crystalline -- which we then heat treat at high temperatures, temperatures in the range of 500 to maybe 1,100 centigrade. And that crystallizes the materials and we'll end up with hollow spheres that have literary hundreds of nano materials -- little crystallites -- in a a hollow sphere. It's kind of loosely assembled.
"We can then control the particle size and distribution of particle size, the purity and surface chemistry. Sometimes, we'll fuse those spheres and use those as hollow spheres. Most of the time, we do a very light milling operation the breaks the dynamic spheres into smaller pieces of unassembled nano-particles and then we heat-treat them and assemble them back into these loose, nano-structured aggregates".
He observed that while this is the cheapest way to make nano-structured materials, it only applies to metal oxide materials and advanced nano-structured ceramics.
Altair is currently able to make one-ton batches of its nano materials that include two key products at the moment: thermal spray powders and electrode materials for advanced lithium-ion batteries.
Given concerns raised in Congress recently about the health and safety issues that nano-scale particles might pose to the workers and the environment, Gotcher noted that in addition to product performance testing, it is also conducting studies of the safety issues.
100 Times the Surface Area
The advantage of using nano-scale materials is their vastly improved surface area, on the order of 100 times that of more conventional materials, typically graphite, which is used as the electrode material.
In the case of lithium-ion battery chemistry, Gotcher explained, "that provides an opportunity for the lithium ions to move in and out of the electrode structure as it moves into the crystal. And because of that high surface area and fast kinetics of moving the ions in and out, we get very rapid rates of charge and discharge. The selection of the material gives us very long life and that combination is a very powerful combination because it gives us power -- that's the amount of ions you can move in and out the electrode -- and it gives you long life.
The key benefit is a battery that is tailor-made for use in hybrid-electric vehicles where power density is more critical than energy density.
"We're providing a lithium-ion chemistry that is really targeted towards hybrid electric vehicles, full electric vehicles and stationary power supplies, which would be like back-up power for telecom, UPS and so forth."
|Prototype lithium-ion battery using Altair Nanotechnologies' electrode materials.|
Gotcher estimates that a battery using nano materials will have 2-5 times the power density of a lead acid battery, 10-20 times the power density of current NiMH batteries, and be 5-10 times more powerful than conventional lithium-ion batteries used in cell phones and laptop computers.
"We have a lot of the performance characteristics of a NiMH battery, the same energy density -- actually just a tad more -- and much more power.
"We can take very rapid rates of charge and discharge," he continued. "We can charge and discharge our battery in three to six minutes. That's full charge and discharge. That's one of the reasons why we are very excited about this battery technology being applied to full electric vehicles.
"One of the problems that all manufacturers have faced with electric vehicles is the long recharge time it takes; typically four to eight hours. And now, with this battery technology, it looks plausible that we can build an electric vehicle that you can pull into a charging station and charge in six-to-eight minutes."
9,000 Cycles Or More…
Clearly, that's approaching the same time it takes to refuel a conventional car with gasoline. Of course, fast charging a battery usually shortens the already short life of a conventional battery. Gotcher is convinced this isn't a problem with batteries using Altair's nano electrode materials.
"We have test data where we've recharged ours at a 20C rate, so that's three minutes and then a full discharge in three minutes and we have data that illustrates these batteries' lifecycle will go out to at least 9,000 cycles, and probably more."
The average cycle life of your conventional car battery is 300-500 cycles.
Just as impressive, when it comes to energy density, which Gotcher said is comparable to NiMH batteries, a nanotechnology-based lithium battery has a far wider performance window. He commented that a NiMH battery can only safely utilize between 35-40 percent of its inherent energy density, whereas test batteries using Altair's electrodes can access 90 percent.
"For the same sized battery, we can go twice as far."
Now we're talking!
To be clear, Altair Nanotechnologies is in the nano powder and electrode materials business, not in battery manufacture. The powder manufacturing is done in Reno, Nevada and the rapid battery prototyping is done at its Anderson, Indiana facility.
As promising as all this is, there are concerns being raised within the industry and in the federal government about the environmental and human health implications of these very exotic materials.
Gotcher carefully explained his firm's approach that it wants to be good "product stewards" and to insure that its nano materials won't harm either the environment, its workers or the public. He said that there are a range of materials that don't appear to have any negative impacts and there are a small number that do, while in the middle, there is a wide spectrum of nano materials for which there is no data. These, especially, need to be tested.
He asserted that Altair's lithium ion electrode materials are considered in the benign class. Typically, they are aggregated into larger, "grape-like" structures on the order of 1-3 microns, which pose less of a problem from a health safety perspective. It is only individual nano particles under 20 nanometers that pose a challenge to conventional air filtration technologies and therefore may present a potential health and environmental concerns.
Beyond batteries for hybrids and electric cars, Gotcher is also interested in seeing batteries utilizing his firm's materials be used to capture and store electric energy from wind farms and solar photovoltaic panels. The firm also manufactures a material that could have promising pharmaceutical benefits and could even be used to control the grow of algae.
Gotcher says the first prototype batteries should appear late this year with commercial production likely to start in 2007 through a partnership with Electro Energy in this country and a firm in China. He expects to announce other partnerships later this year.
Altair Nanotechnologies is on the verge of a major tidal shift in how we power the vehicles of the 21st century, though its obvious the old technology powered by fossil fuels won't slip quietly into obscurity until forced by soaring fuel prices and/or something better, like those powerful, long-lived batteries envisioned by Altair.
For investors with an appetite for risk, Altair is traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol ALTI. It currently trades in the $3.50 a share range and has some 60 million shares outstanding.