During the 2014 R&D 100 Awards event, R&D Magazine expanded the banquet to hold four technology panels during the day. The last panel of the day focused on energy/environmental solutions and the innovation behind four R&D 100-winning technologies and the complexity of bringing such technologies to the market.
Speakers of the panel included Nicolas Dube, Distinguished Technologist, HP; Qichao Hu, Founder and CEO, SolidEnergy Systems; Ty McNutt, Director of Business Development, APEI Inc.; and Edward Williams, CEO, Novinda. Each gave feedback as to the issues of creating new energy/environmental solutions and the complexity of the innovation process.
The difficult issues in creating new energy/environmental devices or processes
While energy and environmental technologies are common news today due to the government’s big push to be energy independent and to seek out renewable energy sources, many challenges are faced by companies.
For a company like Novinda that specializes in mercury capture technology, the biggest challenge is simulating the complex chemistry environment of flue gas environments, according to Williams. The company has already seen some success in this, but until they go to multiple full-scale power plants at 200,000 to 300,000 per visit, it’s fairly difficult, according to Williams, to get a valid prototype at a laboratory level.
For a large company like HP that’s a leader in information technology, the biggest challenge in building new products, materials or new processes to change the relationship of the energy environment, according to Dube, is to convince people within the company of a need. HP for years has been running with air-cooled servers and technology of like for its products; and these technologies have made a good profit for the company. For Dube, the challenge was to convince the company the path moving forward is liquid cooling for high-performance computing technology. However, what helped HP along the way was a RFP from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) calling for a liquid-cooled high-performance computer platform. Dube and his team went after the RFP and won the bid, forming a partnership with NREL that gave the HP Apollo Liquid-Cooled Supercomputing Platform, the 2014 R&D 100-winning technology, wings.
The HP Apollo Liquid-Cooled Superconductor Platform, which serves to heat office space in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, is cooled directly with warm water through a dry-disconnect cooling concept implemented with the simple, but efficient, use of heat pipes. Unlike cooling fans, which are designed for maximum load, the heat pipes can be optimized by administrators. The approach allows significantly greater performance density, cutting energy consumption in half and creating synergies with other building energy systems, relative to a strictly air-cooled system. The warm-water cooling eliminates the need for expensive data center chillers and heats the water to 113 F, allowing it to help meet building heating loads.
For Hu, whose company is a startup in energy, he compares his challenges to those of his friends who start companies in information technology making apps. Hu finds the biggest difference in their case is coming up with the idea is really hard, but once they have the idea, building the app or Website is actually really easy. For Hu, coming up with the basis of his startup and its flagship technology was easy—longer-lasting, safer batteries—but actually developing the product was hard. There’s a reason why batteries haven’t changed for 25 years, says Hu, and that reason is because the old technology works well. If a company wants to replace a tried-and-true technology, they can’t have a technology that is slightly better, they need a technology that is much, much better in every way. SolidEnergy Systems consists of an interdisciplinary team of chemists, materials scientists, physicists and engineers that all came together to develop the startup’s 2014 R&D 100 Award-winning technology, the Solid Polymer Ionic Liquid (SPIL) rechargeable lithium battery.
SolidEnergy Systems’ Solid Polymer Ionic Liquid (SPIL) rechargeable lithium battery consists of a cathode, electrolyte and anode. The cathode is a high-voltage and high-energy-density metal-oxide material such as LiCoO2 and Li-rich NCM materials with Li-ion storage capacity ranging from 155 to 300 mAh/g. The electrolyte consists of a dual-layer design with ionic liquid-based electrolyte on the cathode side and solid polymer electrolyte coating on the anode side. The ionic liquid-based electrolyte consists of a room temperature ionic liquid that is molten salt at room temperature, has high Li-ion conductivity and is completely non-flammable and non-volatile; with additive to improve solid electrolyte interphase formation at electrode-electrolyte interfaces and electrolyte wetting. The battery has a higher energy density than other conventional Li-ion batteries, by 50% compared to graphite anodes, and 30% compared to silicon-based anodes. It also reduces cost by eliminating the separator at the cell level and simplifying the cooling system at the battery pack level.
For APEI Inc. some of the biggest challenges deal with funding. According to McNutt, it was a challenge to find a funding source for their R&D 100 Award-winning technology, the High-Performance Silicon Carbide-based Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Battery Charger, as the idea the company had would leapfrog generations in power electronics. Luckily, RFPs from the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) were a funding source the company was able to tap into, like HP. McNutt explains the DOE saw the vision of wide bandgap technology and where it could go with the proper packaging. The other challenge APEI Inc. faced in developing their innovative technology was its cost out of the gate. According to McNutt, the technology was more expensive compared to legacy technology.
What drives the development of these technologies?
In the case of batteries what drives the development of the technology runs the gamut. For example, there are governments that want to solve pollution problems so they’re one move away from gasoline cars to battery-powered electric cars, which has been driving many developments of late in batteries. The other is on the consumer electronics side, as people want smaller, thinner devices. However, technology has hit a point where if companies continue with current technology, devices can’t get any smaller because the battery is the limiting factor, according to Hu. This drove the idea behind SolidEnergy Systems’ Solid Polymer Ionic Liquid (SPIL) rechargeable lithium battery.
For APEI Inc., which also delves in battery technology, the biggest drivers for the development of technology has been grid security and the ability to do things with the grid, according to McNutt. The company’s innovative High-Performance Silicon Carbide-based Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Battery Charger technology is able to put power back on the grid, allow peak shaving and things of that nature. What drove the development of the technology, according to McNutt, is the desire to have a more green focus in terms of what the company can do with electricity and making the grid more flexible.
For Novinda the drive comes from the increased focus on the environment, but not just from a regulatory context, according to Williams. In Novinda’s case they meet the regulatory requirements which create the market, but it’s also important that the public recognizes there’s a cleaner way to diver different types of products and solutions as well, says Williams.
According to Dube the drive for HP to create new energy technologies is the coal situation and the fact that most power in the U.S. is generated through coal, especially in IT. The issue, according to Dube, is the coal power in the U.S. is highly subsidized and creates very cheap electricity. If this, in turn, creates cheap electricity, then there’s less incentive to use energy-efficient system like Apollo.
The importance of ease of use
If there’s one things customers look for in products it’s ease of use. How easily can the technology be implemented? How easy is the technology to use? How readily available is the technology?
Dube sees ease of use as key to HP’s customers. Liquid cooling in the 1980s was very complex and expensive, which drove people from using the technology. For HP the revolution isn’t so much in liquid cooling for computers itself, but it’s how they democratize liquid cooling and make it into a mass market product that’s not only relevant to NASA and super high-end DOE laboratories in U.S., but that’s also relevant to a broad spectrum of customers, according to Dube. Customers that purchase supercomputers ease of use is critical and that’s why HP is showing customers the benefits of liquid cooling.
McNutt seconds Dube’s thinking in ease of use as one of the most critical factors in selling a new technology. According to McNutt, engineers that have been using silicone don’t understand—or are just beginning to understand—how to use it. Silicone becomes more like an idea switch anytime manufacturers have sharp edges in electronics and causes all kinds of EMI shoots and other things. Giving consumers a product they can have as a drop-in replacement enables APEI Inc. to manufacture systems, as well as packaging—so user can have the entire system and it can become easier for them to adopt.
There’s a slow adoption of electric cars, and those available are limited in driving range due to batteries. With current technologies, users can’t drive far and the vehicles are very expensive. According to Hu, if we can develop a technology that allows electric cars to drive further and cheaper, then we can expect a faster adoption of electric cars.
The great funding issue
Like with all technologies funding is a great issue in the development of new energy and environmental devices and processes. Part of this challenge is, as noted before, convincing parties of the technologies future worth and purpose. Once a purpose is fitted, monies can be provided.
Keeping constant refinement and competitive progress in a company’s technologies is essential, according to Williams. And in the information technology and battery sector, it’s almost lethal if a company doesn’t have enough constant innovation, which translates very quickly into critical R&D funding, according to Williams.
Overall, governments play a big role in regulations and direct funding. In HP’s case, it was NREL that purchased the first Apollo system and that was key to the technology’s development. Funding is the overall key, whether direct or indirect, as a way to move the needle forward, according to Dube.
From a small business perspective, as McNutt’s innovation was spun out from a PhD idea, it’s hard to get ramped up and have a second idea. The first idea is somewhat easy to get going with SBIR funding, according to McNutt. However, it’s the second idea and the next idea in ramping up manufacturing that poses a challenge, says McNutt, and certainly the government and DOE play a large success in R&D funding.
Also a startup perspective in the battery industry, Hu’s SolidEnergy Systems started in 2012 with the help from venture capital funding. However, according to Hu, the difference between government funding and venture capital funding is the timeline. With venture capital funding companies have a very short timeline and are expected to hit milestones in a short period of time. Overall, all panelists echoed that it’s good to see that after the economic downturn government, venture capital and other funding sources are slowly emerging and providing companies with the edge they need to succeed.