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Outlook 2013: B.E.S.S. seeking to improve battery technology

Saturday, February 16, 2013
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More power to the engineers who build a better battery.

Fernando Gomez-Baquero and his colleagues believe they are those people.

“The need for energy storage is there,” said Gomez-Baquero, co-founder and chief executive officer of B.E.S.S. Technologies, a component design and engineering firm started in 2010 by graduate students at the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. “It’s a huge need. Even in a bad economy, that doesn’t go away.”

Last fall, B.E.S.S. — Battery Energy Storage Systems — signed a licensing agreement with the nanocollege and became its first student spin-off company. Gomez-Baquero and Isaac Lund, the company’s chief technology officer, are working to improve battery systems for product assemblers and manufacturers.

B.E.S.S. is using nanotechnology — engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale — to do it.

The five-person company (two are part-time) is developing battery anode technology, so B.E.S.S. is working on only one component of a battery. Batteries have three parts: The anode is the negatively-charged portion, the cathode is the positively-charged section and electrolyte is the third part, material capable of conducting electric current.

Successful applications of the new anode technology will allow customers to increase the capacity, lifetime and charging rates of their batteries. It will make an economic difference for people who use batteries daily and make an impact in the future, when people are using portable power sources in larger devices and machines.

“Energy storage, in particularly lithium-ion batteries, has not improved as much as we would really hope they would,” Gomez-Baquero said. “There are big limitations right now in a lot of electronics. You can see it takes a long time to charge your cellphone, to charge your iPod. While everything else is getting smaller and smaller, the battery just seems to get bigger and bigger. So there is a real need for better technologies for energy storage.”

Gomez-Baquero and Lund believe they have a powerhouse on their side: The nanocollege’s resources are invaluable to a fledgling company.

“A company like B.E.S.S. doesn’t have to go and just raise millions and millions of dollars,” Gomez-Baquero said. “We get a lot of help from the college, and maybe that’s how we’ve been able to thrive. Part of it obviously is investors, but part of it is being able to use all the great equipment that you see here.”

Pradeep Haldar, a nanocollege professor and vice president for its clean energy programs, said the college is nurturing the new company.

“What we have successfully been able to do is get our hands on a lot of grant-type funding opportunities,” Haldar said, “from the National Science Foundation, from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) and places like that, so you’re not giving away a lot of your equity in the company. At the same time, you’re making really good progress.”

Haldar added: “If they had to duplicate the capabilities that we have here at the college already — the equipment, the tools that are available in terms of being able to demonstrate proof of concept for whatever they’re trying to do, show their idea really works — it would cost them millions and millions of dollars.”

Those resources include furnaces, deposition equipment and measurement tools. Investment, legal and insurance contacts and mentoring are other perks that have come with the college and company team-up. To date, B.E.S.S. has already obtained more than $800,000 in funding.

Batteries, Gomez-Baquero said, are everywhere. “The largest part of the market is consumer electronics,” he said. “Smartphones, all types of cellphones, all types of cameras and gadgets. Then you have portable computing, laptops, iPads and there’s some movement now toward electrical vehicles. The Chevy Volt already uses lithium-ion batteries; Tesla, both the Roadster and the Model S, uses lithium-ion batteries. Some of the hybrids are either using them or switching to lithium-ion.”

People who shop for batteries may be familiar with older versions such as nickel-cadmium and metal hydride. Haldar said lithium-ion models come with several advantages.

“The key benefit of lithium-ion batteries are their light weights,” he said. “On a per-weight basis, the amount of energy you can get out of it is significantly more than you can get out of any other type of battery.”

The problems with past versions of lithium-ion models have been reliability and charge problems — the batteries did not hold their power for very long.

“Those improvements have been made slowly but incrementally over a long period of time,” Haldar said. “The Holy Grail for energy storage, including batteries, is to be able to do storage of power at a large scale, electric grid-scale storage. That technology is too expensive yet.”

Gomez-Baquero said the hope is that future lithium-ion batteries

will revolutionize transportation.

Some people may balk at electric cars, wondering how many miles they’ll be able to travel on each charge. They may also be concerned about long charging times.

“That is exactly our challenge,” Gomez-Baquero said. B.E.S.S. is developing battery material that holds more energy in the same weight and will yield longer drive times. The company is banking on silicon and getting rid of graphite.

“That’s the same material that’s in your pencil; it’s used right now in 97 percent of the lithium-ion batteries out there,” Gomez-Baquero said. “Silicon actually can give you all that extra benefit — higher energy, better charging rates, a much better performance of the battery.”

Challenges come with the new composition.

“You need to know how to do a nanostructure with silicon in order to actually get those benefits,” Gomez-Baquero said. “This place is one of the few places in the world that actually has that knowledge ... we’re enabling the power of technology and silicon to improve the performance of the battery.”

Improvements in charging rates are another mission.

“This is really what nano can do that other technologies cannot do,” Gomez-Baquero said. “You can design a material that can withstand faster charging. Usually, you don’t charge very fast because if you do, you might destroy or burn the battery.”

B.E.S.S. technology will also increase battery life.

“Has this ever happened to you?” Gomez-Baquero asked. “You have a battery and when it was brand new it charged very well. It discharged very well. Then, maybe after a year or two, you had to replace it because it wasn’t charging anymore — the memory effect. That is pretty common in batteries, after 100 or 200 times, they just die on you, so you have to buy a new one.”

New battery tech will save people money: “It may not be that important for your cellphone if you change it every six months,” Gomez-Baquero said. “But wait until you have to replace a whole battery in an electric vehicle. That’s not a lot of fun.”

People buying batteries in the future may have to start thinking about them in different sizes. The toaster-sized blocks of power in a car engine will have different sizes — and different locations in the vehicle — under B.E.S.S. plans.

“You don’t need to have this big structure block in the middle,” Gomez-Baquero said. “You could have a lot of batteries distributed all over the vehicle — in the car doors. With the technology, we’re going to reduce the size of the batteries, but at the same time, we’re going to give the opportunity for batteries to be integrated in other places.”

B.E.S.S. isn’t trying to put Duracell and Eveready out of business. Gomez-Baquero has a quick answer: “We’re actually hoping to help them,” he said. “We hope for them to actually say, ‘Take a look at B.E.S.S. Technology, how can we improve our batteries?’ We want to sell it to them.”

Telephones, computers, cars and airplanes are just some applications. Haldar and Gomez-Baquero can consider the future of lithium-ion battery applications and a future with a science-fiction flavor.

“Jet packs,” smiled Haldar.

Gomez-Baquero won’t rule it out. “At this point, I’ve seen so many fascinating things with nanotechnology, I never say, ‘No, it can’t happen,’ he said.

To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.

 
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