NiZn Batteries Are the Right Way Forward for Hybrids

A Toyota Prius Powered by PowerGenix Batteries
A Toyota Prius Powered by PowerGenix Batteries

Exclusive interview with Dan Squiller, CEO of PowerGenix

Although the public has gradually learned to accept hybrid technology; and thousands of hybrid vehicles are sold worldwide every month, there are still many different challenges to overcome in order to make the hybrid technology more efficient, and – what’s important to consumers – get those prices down. Batteries are one of the challenges – we’re not sure that those Li-ion batteries currently powering our hybrids are safe enough, they are expensive and take carbon-intensive processes to produce and they weigh a lot.

It appears, however, that PowerGenix – an American company that so far has been well-known for making rechargeable finger batteries – has managed to solve a century-long problem of Nickel Zinc batteries not being able to withstand a decent number of discharge-recharge cycles. There are some exciting times ahead for PowerGenix – later in the summer they’re starting real-life tests with several hybrid car producers in Europe and the U.S. I had the pleasure to speak with Dan Squiller, CEO of PowerGenix and to learn more about his vision of batteries that would be perfect for supporting hybrid drive.

Arvid Linde: It seems that you are concentrating on batteries that are suitable for hybrid vehicles. Why is NiZn good for hybrids but not suited for all-electric cars?

Dan Squiller: Talking about application, NiZn is a different kind of battery compared to the Li-ion technology. We make high-power batteries while Li-ion being high-energy is under another category. When we talk about all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla, you need high-energy applications to offer a good range. With hybrids it is different – high-power batteries are needed to help the internal combustion engine work more efficiently and to execute the start/stop function.

Our batteries can deliver specific power of over 2,000 watts/kg. Specific power of an average Li-ion battery is generaly under 2,000 watts/kg. There are several other benefits:

Firstly, from the cost point of view – with just 50 cents per Wh – a NiZn battery is half the cost of an equivalent Li-ion battery.
Secondly, our batteries are significantly safer. Our electrolyte is water based and no matter how hard you try, the battery won’t explode, which you cannot say about a Li-ion cell. Its electrolyte is petroleum based and there have been situations when the lithium batteries explode. NiZn batteries are environmentally friendly and with its materials over 90% recyclable.
Thirdly, it’s the weight. We can make a battery that is 35% lighter and 30% smaller than Ni-MH. In hybrids every kilogram and cubic centimetre counts.

A.L.: On previous occasions scientists have abandoned the idea of developing a Nickel Zinc battery due to the fact that it’s capable of only a few hundreds discharge-recharge cycles. You have obviously solved the problem.

That's What a NiZn Battery Looks Like
That's What a NiZn Battery Looks Like

D.S.: If only that. The old battery was capable of maximum 50 cycles. We’ve found a way to make the chemistry work for us and our battery can provide 250,000 HEV cycles, meaning it will last the life of a vehicle. In the charge acceptance, we significantly outperform alternative technologies.

A.L.: Putting all eggs in one basket surely takes a lot of courage. What about those who say that electric cars are the right way forward and that the hybrid technology is only a transition phase?

D.S.: People saying that are surely in the minority. We’ve done market research and the data shows the exact opposite. According to the data provided by Ricardo Consulting, AABC and Deutsche Bank, the hybrid sector is going to expand rapidly. It is estimated that by 2015, out of 49,000,000 cars sold worldwide, 14,600,000 will be hybrid electric cars and only 1,100,000 – electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

In 2020, 54,000,000 cars will be sold and 32,000,000 will be hybrids. It is estimated that 7,000,000 electric cars and plug-in hybrids will be sold. The numbers speak for themselves and show that we’ve chosen the right direction.

A.L.: Have you approached some of the car manufacturers? What was the reaction? Have the new batteries been tested already?

D.S.: Two years ago, we built a custom battery pack and installed it on our own Toyota Prius. It covered 16,000km in a year and the battery pack performed brilliantly. We are now expecting a sampling program involving several major auto manufacturers in Europe and the USA. They will test the batteries on full hybrids and start/stop hybrid vehicles.

We haven’t approached any of the Japanese manufacturers because, as you might know, both Toyota and Nissan are in a long-term joint venture with their battery suppliers. We don’t believe anyone could get them to buy batteries outside of their joint ventures.

A.L.: Do manufacturers have to change anything in the production process to accommodate your NiZn batteries?

D.S.: Because it is a developing market, there are no set standards for hybrid cars. If we can save the space and weight, it will give the designers more space to play with. When it comes to start/stop hybrids, we will have to use the same space that a conventional lead acid battery would take. It’ll just be 50% lighter, will have a much longer service life, and support better fuel economy. A lead acid battery has a 2-year service life with deteriorating effectiveness in stop/start vehicles. Ours will last for 5 years, maintaining steady performance.

A.L.: I’ve heard that you’ve moved the production to China. Is there a reason for that? What about the quality issues that many of Chinese products suffer from?

D.S.: Yes, there were a few good reasons for that. First of which was a lack of specialists. China has a great number of experts and electro-chemical engineers; the facilities are better and there’s a much more favourable situation with grants and subsidies. The amount of subsidies given out to battery developers by the American government is not comparable to grants offered in China. Besides, China is the world’s biggest battery market. There were quality issues some 10 years ago but during the last few years, they’ve made huge progress. Billions of Chinese batteries are used everywhere. They are in your cell phones, iPods and other gadgets. There are challenges but the world is changing dramatically and for us China is the right place to be.

A.L.: So, what is your next milestone and how do you see PowerGenix developing?

D.S.: Sampling with the large European and American auto manufacturers in June this year is the next big milestone. There will also be testing programs with auto manufacturers in China. Our NiZn batteries will be ready for large-scale production in 2013. We are confident and very focused!

A.L.: As a side-note, the aforementioned market research carried out by Ricardo Consulting, AABC and Deutsche Bank is not the only document suggesting that hybrid cars are set for a steep growth. If these predictions are to come true, the hybrids have to evolve and become more efficient. Upgrading the batteries is a great way to achieve a better efficiency. Let’s wish PowerGenix best of luck and keep a close eye on the future developments.

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