Nanoscale Catalysts Launch Battery R&D Efforts

Dec. 8, 2009

In October of 2008, QuantumSphere Inc. announced technology designed to increase the performance of today’s lithium-ion batteries (see “Improved Nano-materials Extend Li-ion Battery Life Five-fold”). Despite this achievement, the company put that work on hold to pursue a new avenue.

QuantumSphere is now focusing on the use of its manganese nano-materials for metal-air disposable and rechargeable batteries. It will resume its Li-ion battery development with the right partners once the right market opportunities emerge. That’s not surprising, since major hearing-aid manufacturers used its zinc-air (Zn-air) catalysts for battery electrodes, resulting in a 320% increase in power delivery.

According to QuantumSphere, metal-air batteries such as zinc-air (Zn-air), manganese-air (Mg-air), and lithium-air (Li-air) have tremendous potential to deliver breakthrough advantages in both system weight and size (Fig. 1). For example, the theoretical energy density of a Zn-air battery of 1370 Wh/kg is significantly higher than the energy density level of average Li-ion batteries of about 200 Wh/kg for applications beyond hearing aids like portable electronics and light electric vehicles.

Power and capacity demands by next-generation electronic systems exceed the improvement rate of today’s battery technologies. Improvements in traditional Liion and nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries have stalled, and alternate technologies have not yet provided the performance needed for many applications.

QuantumSphere has developed a high-performance gas-diffusion electrode, incorporating a high-surface-area manganese catalyst in the size range of 5 to 30 nm (Fig. 2). The integration of high-surfacearea nanoscale catalysts has also been shown to benefit existing rechargeable battery technologies, particularly NiMH. Known for their safety and reliability, NiMH batteries are used in a variety of portable power applications as well as hybrid electric vehicles.

By incorporating a small amount of nanoscale nickel catalyst into the hydride electrode of the NiMH battery, QuantumSphere has increased capacity by up to 50% relative to commercial batteries. This significant value-add provides manufacturers of mature battery technologies greater flexibility as they address the need to make their batteries smaller, lighter, and more competitive.

QuantumSphere believes Li-ion technology still needs significant innovation to improve capacity while remaining stable for this market to continue to increase. Strides have been made in the hybrid vehicle market, but capacity suffers as a result of tradeoffs for safety. The company says that NiMH batteries will continue to be the mainstay for hybrid electric vehicles for the next five to seven years. In the long term (15 to 20 years), metal-air batteries will play a key role in electric vehicles.

“The demand for longer-lasting portable power is driving our sales of metal-air battery electrodes and direct methanol fuel-cell membrane-electrode assemblies in both the consumer and military markets,” says Kevin Maloney, QuantumSphere’s CEO. “On the automotive side, our developments in emissionscontrol catalyst manufacturing technology are being validated by some of the largest emissions-control systems manufacturers.”

Maloney also says that the company’s goal remains the same: to continue leveraging its core skills in advanced catalyst materials, unique process chemistries, and key technology platforms that can be translated into a broad range of power and cleantechnology applications. QuantumSphere’s proprietary products, available in high volume, are used by industry-leading companies to reduce costs and enable breakthroughs in multi-billion dollar growth markets such as batteries, fuel cells, emissions reduction, industrial inks and pastes, and ammonia synthesis for food production.

QuantumSphere plans to expand its R&D activities to include new electrochemical (e.g., copper-indium- gallium-selenide) solar inks and industrialscale chemical synthesis. With an installed base of eight chemical reactors capable of producing $50 million worth of products annually at current prices, the company claims the largest-volume capability of any nano-metal catalyst manufacturer. Each additional reactor requires less than three months of lead time to install and be up and running and a modest capital expenditure.

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