Battery Breakthrough Lasts Longer


Longer lasting, better performing batteries that can be recharged more frequently than those currently in use are about to become a reality thanks to the persistence of two electrochemists at Massey University.

Dr Simon Hall, a chemist at the MacDiarmid Institute, and his former student Dr Michael Liu are among a small group of only about 10 New Zealand-based electrochemists. They began research in 1997 on ways to build a more potent and yet stable zinc rechargeable battery.

Dr Hall had previously studied the lead anode in lead acid batteries and from his first meeting with Dr Liu, a researcher from Wuyi University in China, it became clear there were important synergies.

Their research and tireless experimentation paid off when they developed zinc batteries withrechargablility and with “30 per cent more power” than typical cells and won financial backing from a group of US investors.

They not only documented all the research to substantiate their claims but actually developed a series of batteries in the laboratory, making their project virtually market ready. That achievement is now set to significantly disrupt the $US200 billion global battery market.

For 200 years zinc has been recognised as an ideal metal on which to base batteries. Although cheap, easily mined and efficient it is also unstable meaning the resulting batteries have a short life span. Once they short out that’s it.

Strip out the clutter

Some developers have added numerous materials to zinc cells witheverything from plastic to carbon to prevent instability, but when Drs Hall and Liu looked at the root cause they decided to strip out the clutter.

After eight months they had developed a zinc electrode that was stable, didn’t change shape or short out. “We realised we had achieved something unique when we were able to continually repeat the charge, discharge cycling through a greater number of cycles and keep improving on this process in the lab,” says Dr Hall.

Over six years, the last three as part of the Nanomaterials Research Centre at Massey University, they began to perfect their discovery. More recently this research was supported with the help of a New and Emerging Energy Technologies grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and by the MacDiarmid Institute.

Ultimately they managed to produce nickel-zinc prototypes that could be recharged through 1200 cycles while other zinc-based anodes failed within 30 cycles. Their silver-zinc battery technology lasted four times longer than existing silver-zinc batteries – the nickel-zinc version they came up with had a life two-and-a-half times that of nickel metal hydride and four times that of lead-acid batteries.

It was clear that their breakthrough could significantly extend the life of rechargeable batteries used in cell phones, PDAs, laptops, cameras, MP3 players and countless other mobile devices and that continued research would reveal further improvements.

Rather than publishing details of their scientific breakthrough in academic journals the two electrochemical engineers decided they’d get a better charge out of transforming their research into a commercial product.

The pair were encouraged by Massey University to think outside the square. “The freedom to explore all the options rather than being constrained by the parameters of corporate or specific government funding projects was a big factor in what we achieved,” says Dr Hall.

Research embargoed

The research done by Dr Liu, who was Assoc. Prof. Hall’s student, earned him a PhD in chemistry. However, the thesis remained embargoed as part of the process of securing the intellectual property ahead of seeking a commercial deal.

Along with Massey University, efforts were made to find the right kind of partners to licence the process and take it to market.

Chris Officer, a Massey University graduate and former staff member now operating in the venture capital field in San Francisco, learned of the breakthrough in 2003 when visiting his brother David, director of Massey’s Nanomaterials Research Centre.

He saw the technology was almost market ready and would be extremely attractive to investors. He began investigating how to licence andmarket it to international battery manufacturers.

Through contacts he met at a Silicon Valley KEA (Kiwi Expats Association) meeting Mr Officer pulled a team together to work on a strategy, raise funds and form a company to negotiate with Massey University.

Massey granted the company which was called Anzode, an exclusive global licence for the zinc battery technology. Anzode, now backed by a band of New Zealand, Australian and US angel investors, spent more than $US100,000 gaining patents in over 30 countries and territories.

The company appointed a core management team and began investigating potential customers. To date there’s been strong interest from the US military, a major US consumer electronics firm and the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic components for cellphones and laptops.

Global electrochemical centre

As part of the licensing deal Anzode arranged to fund the establishment of the Massey Anzode Research Centre, at the Palmerston North campus as a global centre for electro-chemistry. The centre headed up by Dr Hall was opened on March 25th.

Within months the centre was on itsown growth path having appointed Robert Xiao as a Research Technician and more recently, Giovanna Moretto, a former PhD student of Hall’s, and employing a former mentor of Hall’s, who was his industrial supervisor when he studied for his PhD in 1986.

Assoc. Prof. Hall says he joked over the years with Ian Mawston that when he got back into battery work he would one day employ him. ”He has 30 years experience in the battery industry at a very senior level so it was a no brainer.”

Mr Mawston now employed at the Anzode Research Centre as a production consultant, worked for battery company Lucas Industries (now Yuasa) and has run test laboratories, looked after production, designed production lines and worked on industrial standards for Australia, New Zealand and Asia. “He knows a lot from a lead acid point of view so he’ll be very handy to have around.”

Dr Hall cannot speak about other ongoing work at the laboratory other than to say it’s likely to have a practical value within five years. “We’re focussed more on development than research but that will change over time.”

He says much of the work is about finding ways around obstacles. “You run into walls, hope they’re thin and make your way through. What looks like a hurdle one day can be solved the next. Knowing equipment exists to do the job can be a great help.”

Mr Hall is confident there’s a great opportunity ahead to advance the patented battery technology and continues to receive encouraging words from the US-based investors and market development people about commercial manufacturing arrangements.

As well as refining and expanding on Dr Hall and Dr Liu’s breakthrough the Massey Anzode Research Centre will provide the new company and potential manufacturers with the added confidence of ongoing development and support.