Building a Better BatteryWednesday, January 02, 2019
Next-generation batteries will power the future of renewable energy, say the founders of Singapore-based ultracapacitor startup Involt.
Although cheap and clean, renewable energy remains at the mercy of the elements. A scorching hot or gusty day could see solar and wind farms flooding the grid with a supply of electricity that outstrips demand; meanwhile, on cloudy or still days, energy grids may have to draw on fossil fuels to make up for the difference.
A major reason that the intermittency of renewable energy supply isn’t better managed is that there is currently no cost-effective, safe and durable electricity storage technology on the market, says Dr Rostislav Doganov, co-founder of Singapore-based startup Involt, an SGInnovate portfolio company.
“Fossil fuels like petroleum and gas in barrels are intrinsically a storage medium for energy. A solar panel, on the other hand, gives you the means to generate electricity, but nowhere to store it,” he explains. “Energy storage is becoming a huge problem for energy infrastructure as it moves towards renewables.”
To close this gap, Involt is developing next-generation batteries based on ultracapacitor technology that can be used at the grid level to make energy infrastructure more reliable, as well as on a smaller scale to power devices such as electric vehicles. “We see a lot of potential in ultracapacitors, and we’re sure there is significant room for improving their performance,” says Dr Doganov.
Leading the Charge
After completing an undergraduate degree in physics in Germany, Dr Doganov moved to Singapore in 2013 to pursue his PhD at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Centre for Advanced 2D Materials, then known as the Graphene Research Centre.
Inspired by Singapore’s strong emphasis on commercially viable research, Dr Doganov decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. He found a like-minded co-founder in Mr Natarajan Srinivasan. The duo were fellow researchers at NUS, and further cemented their working relationship through the Entrepreneur First (EF) Singapore programme, out of which Involt was founded in 2017.
The energy storage market is now dominated by chemical batteries, including lead-acid and lithium-ion systems, says Dr Doganov. But as any mobile phone user can tell you, such batteries—which work through chemical reactions—eventually degrade, holding on to less and less charge over time.
As an alternative, Involt is betting on ultracapacitors, which store charge when electrolyte ions adhere to the surface of electrodes.
Ultracapacitors are a slightly different energy storage technology—there are no chemical reactions involved. So they have a lot of inherent advantages—they charge much faster, they’re based on environmentally friendly materials like activated carbon, and you can easily charge and discharge them 100,000 times and their cycle life performance will not degrade.
A Material Improvement
But ultracapacitors are not without issues of their own. A major drawback is that they currently don’t store as much energy per unit of weight as chemical batteries do, says Dr Doganov—while lead-acid batteries can hold 30 to 40 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, today’s ultracapacitors can only put away five to six watt-hours per kilogram.
Drawing on the founders’ research expertise, Involt is getting ultracapacitors up to speed by building in new, advanced carbon materials with superior energy storage properties. “There’s been a great body of research focusing on new carbon materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene, and these new materials have actually quite amazing properties to build ultracapacitors with,” he explains. “But there is still a gap between what’s being done in the lab and what is being produced on an industrial scale.”
From an initial prototype shaped like the coin cell batteries found in wristwatches, Involt is now developing cylindrical cells similar to the lithium-ion batteries found in today’s electric vehicles, says Dr Doganov. Such cells offer great modularity and versatility across many industries, he adds. “You can put one cell in say, a cordless appliance such as a mixer; 20 to 80 in an electric scooter; several thousand in a car; and many thousands in a big utility-scale [energy storage] facility.”
With a final ultracapacitor prototype scheduled for early 2019, the company’s technology has already generated strong interest among clients in the automotive industry. As more utility-scale energy storage projects—such as Tesla’s lithium-ion battery, paired to a windfarm in South Australia—get off the ground, Dr Doganov also anticipates an uptick in demand for battery technology at the grid level.
Energy and Entrepreneurship
Coming to entrepreneurship from an academic background, Dr Doganov credits EF and SGInnovate with providing valuable assistance at different stages of Involt’s development.
EF was extremely helpful in the earliest few months, they help you to focus on the right things—how do you turn [your idea] into something real… SGInnovate then helps you in scaling it—they can help you with areas such as hiring, intellectual property protection and establishing stronger partnerships, especially in Singapore.
An R&D-oriented company, Involt wants to keep pushing up the energy density—the amount of energy stored per kilogram—of its ultracapacitors. “The better [the energy density], the more markets open up to you, and the lower your costs get. This is going to be a continuous R&D effort,” Dr Doganov explains, adding that Involt is also developing its own manufacturing tools and processes to ensure that the ultracapacitors can be manufactured at scale.
In the long run, Involt wants to develop truly new ultracapacitor innovations, rather than simply making incremental improvements, says Dr Doganov. The company is also thinking long term about the environment—energy storage should not turn out to be “the next oil and gas”, with non-recyclable batteries piling up and causing environmental problems, he adds.
Our industry almost dictates that we need to think long term —if you look at energy startups in general, it takes a few years at least to get going… [ultracapacitors] have enormous long-term potential, and we want to stay at the forefront of this technology.
We have recently announced our investment in Involt on our 2nd anniversary. The investment is expected to help them expedite the development of its storage technology, which will accelerate the adoption of green technologies such as electric cars as well as solar and wind power generation and distribution.
More about Involt and our other portfolio companies’ journey here.
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