Long Life In Battery Development


The humble battery may seem a bit prosaic for an organisation called the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, but research into battery technology, and the underlying science, has been a part of the MacDiarmid Institute since its founding.

Before it’s founding, in fact, as Alan MacDiarmid himself gained a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 for the discovery and development of conductive polymers, which had lead to the commercial development of plastic batteries. MacDiarmid shared that recognition with an American and a Japanese researcher, foreshadowing the institutional and international collaborations that have characterised the Centre of Research Excellence named for him.

It wasn’t all the result of carefully planned research. A laboratory accident involving an incorrect synthesis produced a metallic-looking polymer, sparking the thought that perhaps it might conduct electricity like a metal. Then a conversation over a seminar coffee break led to further experimentation and collaborations with industrial counterparts.

Thus began the hunt for conducting polymers that were strong, flexible and – always an important factor in industrial applications – cost-effective. Patents followed, and the new field of plastic or organic electronics began to develop applications from plastic batteries to solar cells, electronic paper to molecular computers.

That sort of development can take a while, as Professor Simon Hall, MacDiarmid Institute PI and director of Massey University’s Anzode Research Centre has found. His work with PhD student Micheal Liu in 2002-3 lead to the development of a new stable, high-cycle zinc electrode for nickel-zinc rechargeable batteries. Initial angel investment by New Zealand, Australian and US supporters saw the patenting and licensing of the new technology. In 2004, US based company Anzode was established to bring the technology to market. Prototyping and partnering is under way in the hopes of taking some of the $50 billion rechargeable market, particularly in the area of telecommunications backups and hybrid vehicles.

Hybrids are also of interest to another battery development to come out of the University of Canterbury with MacDiarmid Institute collaborations. Emissions standards will see the battery market for microhybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) grow to 34 million annually in the next five years, with consequent need for cheaper, more-efficient varieties. That’s where the ArcActive lead carbon battery may well be able to step in.

It recently gained attention at the invitation-only CleanEquity 2012 conference, winning an award for Excellence in the Field of Environmental Technology Research. The spin-off has patents on the carbon nanotube-based technology, based on research initially funded by local pre-seed investment and commercialisation support from PowerHouse.

There’s a substantial lineage developing in moving fundamental materials research in the energy conversion and storage area into the commercial arena, and on-going research indicates that there’s a lot more to come.