A Dendrite Eraser?

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, seems to have an industrious group of researchers who come up with ever-improved forms of batteries.  One of their creations, a hybrid graphite/lithium anode, was featured in this blog last year.

Now, Frances White reports from the PNNL that one of the researchers involved with that work has led another team to an innovative approach to a new electrolyte for lithium batteries.  According to Ms. White, “PNNL physicist Jason Zhang (Ji-Guang “Jason” Zhang) and his colleagues have developed a new electrolyte that allows lithium-sulfur, lithium-metal and lithium-air batteries to operate at 99 percent efficiency, while having a high current density and without growing dendrites that short-circuit rechargeable batteries.”

This is a real breakthrough because, for lithium batteries overall, the chemistries that give higher performance are generally more volatile.  This new material avoids those issues and gives top performance with great safety.


1a shows the optical image of lithium deposited on a copper substrate.  The dark grey Li deposit, called Elton’s Grey Layer, showed on the elctrode with the LiPF6-PC electrolyte, demonstrating a high reactivity with the plated Li.  1c and d show the cross-section and surface morphologies of the Li film obtained in a concentrated 4M LiFSI-DME electrolyte, as used by Zhang’s researchers.   The smooth nodules are less likely to grow between electrodes

Earlier electrolytes reacted with the lithium electrode to grow little spikes that eventually connect the lithium and graphite electrodes, shorting out the interaction between them.  The new electrolyte is made of lithium bis(fluorosulfonyl)imide salt added to a solvent called dimethoxyethane.

PNNL reports, “The researchers built a circular test cell that was slightly smaller than a quarter. The cell used the new electrolyte and a lithium anode. Instead of growing dendrites, the anode developed a thin, relatively smooth layer of lithium nodules that didn’t short-circuit the battery.”

Zhang’s “concentrated secret sauce” is not only highly efficient, but shows the potential for being extremely long-lived.  “After 1,000 repeated charge and discharge cycles, the test cell retained a remarkable 98.4 percent of its initial energy while carrying 4 milliAmps of electrical current per square centimeter of area.  They found greater current densities resulted in slightly lower efficiencies. For example, a current density as high as 10 milliAmps per square centimeter, the test cell maintained an efficiency of more than 97 percent.  And a test cell carrying just 0.2 milliAmps per square centimeter achieved a whopping 99.1 percent efficiency. Most batteries with lithium anodes operate at a current density of 1 milliAmps per square centimeter or less and fail after less than 300 cycles.”

Since many difficulties seem to lie in the interaction between anode, cathode and electrolyte, which often dissolve one another and lead to the weakening and eventual failure of the battery, removal of any of those failure-prone components would be welcome.

The new electrolyte might allow designers to eliminate the anode.   Anodes now “actually consist of thin pieces of metal such as copper that are coated in active materials such as graphite or lithium.”  These thin current collectors require this coating to make up for the inefficiency of existing electrolytes.  “But an electrolyte with more than 99 percent efficiency means there’s potential to create a battery that only has a negative current collector, without an active material coating, on the anode side,” according to the PNNL.

“Not needing an anode could lower the cost and size of rechargeable batteries and would also significantly improve the safety of these batteries,” Zhang said.

Zhang has a positive outlook for his team’s findings.  “This new discovery could kick-start the development of powerful and practical next-generation rechargeable batteries such as lithium-sulfur, lithium-air and lithium-metal batteries.”

As always with preliminary research, it may be a while before we see this efficient new electrolyte in our aerial cruisers.  Zhang and his team are working on improvements to their electrolyte, hoping to achieve a 99.9 percent efficiency level and commercial adaptation.  They’re also examining cathode materials that will work best with their electrolyte.

The team’s paper on their findings has been published in the February 16 issue of the journal Nature Communications.   The abstract gives a little more insight into their approach and apparent success, and in a rare example, the entire paper is available on-line for free viewing.  Authors include Zhang, Jiangfeng Qian, Wesley A. Henderson, Wu Xu, Priyanka Bhattacharya, Mark Engelhard, and Oleg Borodin. 

Lithium metal is an ideal battery anode. However, dendrite growth and limited Coulombic efficiency during cycling have prevented its practical application in rechargeable batteries. Herein, we report that the use of highly concentrated electrolytes composed of ether solvents and the ​lithium bis(fluorosulfonyl)imide salt enables the high-rate cycling of a ​lithium metal anode at high Coulombic efficiency (up to 99.1%) without dendrite growth. With 4 M ​lithium bis(fluorosulfonyl)imide in ​1,2-dimethoxyethane as the electrolyte, a ​lithium|​lithium cell can be cycled at 10 mA cm−2 for more than 6,000 cycles, and a copper|lithium cell can be cycled at 4 mA cm−2 for more than 1,000 cycles with an average Coulombic efficiency of 98.4%. These excellent performances can be attributed to the increased solvent coordination and increased availability of ​lithium ion concentration in the electrolyte. Further development of this electrolyte may enable practical applications for ​lithium metal anodes in rechargeable batteries.


More Power without Rare Earth Minerals

Ricardo, a long-time developer of internal combustion engines, has become a major force in the electric motor field, too.   Its latest offering is an 85 kilowatt synchronous reluctance drive designed primarily for electric vehicle traction applications, made with advanced manufacturing techniques and no rare earth minerals.

Without spilling any number beans other that the expected power output, Ricardo says that, “Using a conventional distributed stator winding, the Ricardo synchronous reluctance electric machine is a highly innovative design that makes use of low-cost materials, simple manufacturing processes and uncomplicated construction. It has a rotor made from cut steel laminations, which are used to direct and focus the flux across the air gap. By maximizing this flux linkage between the stator and rotor, performance can be optimized within a tightly packaged, low weight and rare earth element free design.

CAD model of Ricardo Rapid Switching Reluctance motor gives a hint of small size from comparison with leads

CAD model of Ricardo Rapid Switching Reluctance motor gives a hint of small size from comparison with leads

Paul Rivera, Managing Director of the Ricardo hybrid and electric vehicle systems business, explains the impetus to develop such motors. “As the market for electric vehicles grows globally, there is an imperative to explore alternatives to permanent magnet traction motors which require the use of expensive and increasingly difficult to source rare earth elements.”   Since China has a monopoly holding of most such minerals, such alternatives have strategic importance.

In a counterpoint to the announced low price for the unit, Ricardo seems to intend first use of the new motors to be in Jaguar Land Rover products.  Funded in part by the British Government, the current research is part of Innnovate UK, a larger effort to create products in many disciplines.

In real, non-rare-earth metal, style, the motor is ready for testing

In real, non-rare-earth metal, style, the motor is ready for testing

On the private side, Ricardo’s partners in this research include project leader Cobham Technical Services – which is developing its multi-physics CAE design software, Opera, as a part of the project.

Will Drury, Ricardo team leader for electric machines and power electronics, has high hopes for the new motor. “The Ricardo prototype is now built and will be rigorously tested over the coming weeks in order to validate the extremely positive results that it has shown in simulation, as a concept that provides an exceptional balance of performance, compact package, light weight and low cost.”  Let’s hope the real world numbers match up with the expectations.


Husband and wife team, Cenzig S. Ozkam and Mihri Ozkam and their graduate student, Zach Favors, have achieved another innovative approach to creating better batteries.  The blog has cited the Ozkan’s earlier effort that involving a new architecture for high-performance batteries capable of charging and discharging at much higher rates, and Favors’ discovery that beach sand in nano-sized form has some potential to increase battery performance considerably.  It’s silicon, after all.

Zach Favors will share his findings in his presentation, “Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-Ion Batteries,” at the ninth annual Electric Aircraft Symposium.

The three, working in the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering “have developed a novel paper-like material for lithium-ion batteries,” with “the potential to boost by several times the specific energy, or amount of energy that can be delivered per unit weight of the battery.”

Schematic showing silicon spinning, chemical reduction which produces porous fiber

Schematic showing silicon spinning, chemical reduction which produces porous fiber.  (b) shows as-spun fiber, (c)  etched SiNF paper, and (d) C-coated SiNF paper as used in the half-cell test specimen.  Courtesy Zach Favors

etched SiNF paper, and (d) C-coated SiNF paper as used in the Li-ion half-cell configuration.

The material can be spun on a high-speed spinneret, much like a spider’s, but revolving quickly enough to leave even Spiderman dizzy.  More than 100 times thinner than a human hair, the nanofibers “were produced using a technique known as electrospinning, whereby 20,000 to 40,000 volts are applied between a rotating drum and a nozzle, which emits a solution composed mainly of tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEOS), a chemical compound frequently used in the semiconductor industry. The nanofibers are then exposed to magnesium vapor to produce the sponge-like silicon fiber structure,” according to the University.

Usually , lithium-ion battery anodes are composed of copper foil coated with a mixture of graphite, a conductive additive, and a polymer binder.   Graphite, though, has reached its limit of conductivity in lithium batteries, so researchers are looking at lighter, more conductive materials such as silicon.  As noted before in the blog, silicon expands and contracts when charging and discharging, leading to performance degradation and eventually material disintegration.

Silicon fiber cycling data (top blue line) compared to carbon electrodes (bottom black line)

Coated Silicon fiber cycling data (top blue line) compared to uncoated fiber (bottom black line).  Note high Coulombic efficiency

Countering graphite’s life-shortening limit, silicon nanofibers from the Ozkan’s lab allow the battery to be cycled hundreds of times without significant degradation.

Favors explains, “Eliminating the need for metal current collectors and inactive polymer binders while switching to an energy dense material such as silicon will significantly boost the range capabilities of electric vehicles.”

Another limiting factor, small-scale production of free-standing, or “binderless” electrodes – seems to be solved here.  Instead of the micrograms usually created in the lab, these nanofibers can be made in grams at the laboratory level, with scalability feasible for commercial production.  Even though it may be a few years out, the team hopes to mount the silicon nanofibers into a “pouch cell format lithium-ion battery, which is a larger scale battery format that can be used in EVs and portable electronics.”

The findings were just published in a paper, “Towards Scalable Binderless Electrodes: Carbon Coated Silicon Nanofiber Paper via Mg Reduction of Electrospun SiO2 Nanofibers,” in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. The authors were Mihri Ozkan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, Cengiz S. Ozkan, a professor of mechanical engineering, and six of their graduate students: Zach Favors, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Robert Ionescu and Rachel Ye.

Part of that report puts numbers on the high performance of these electrodes: “The free-standing (i.e., binderless) carbon-coated Si nanofiber (C-SiNF) electrodes produce a capacity of 802 mAh g−1 after 659 cycles with a Coulombic efficiency of 99.9%, which outperforms conventionally used slurry-prepared graphite anodes by more than two times on an active material basis. The silicon nanofiber paper anodes offer a completely binder-free and Cu current collector-free approach to electrode fabrication with a silicon weight percent in excess of 80%.”

The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UC Riverside Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.



A frustration borne by homebuilt aircraft designers for years has been that of finding an appropriate, reasonably-priced powerplant for aircraft in the single and small two-seat range.    Early experimenters often converted motorcycle engines to their ultralight needs.  Continentals, Lycomings, and Franklins filled those needs in the 1930s and ‘40s, and other than Rotax and a few smaller manufacturer’s offerings, there really haven’t been any replacements since then.  Electric powerplants, however, can be found in the motorcycles being produced by many American and foreign companies now, with more to come from Europe and Japan.

Les Long's Harlequin engine used two Harley Davidson pistons, cylinders, heads and rods.  Long supplied crankcase, new crankshaft and camshaft for Depression-era $98

Les Long’s Harlequin engine used two customer-supplied Harley Davidson pistons, cylinders, heads and rods. Long supplied crankcase, new crankshaft and camshaft for Depression-era $98

Designers looking for available electric motors and “plug-and-play”* complete systems may want to look at the 2015 Zero Motorcycle lineup.  Since one Zero motor has flown at the Arlington, Washington Fly-in and at AirVenture 2013, we can attest to the demonstrated performance.  Zero’s newer model motors, controllers, and batteries can be found on the latest bikes from the company.

Their specifications are certainly indicative of light weight and high performance.  The least powerful unit in the Zero FX produces a maximum of 44 horsepower with 70 foot-pounds of torque, enough to accelerate this reasonably light bike from zero to 60 in only 4.0 seconds – within the range of an “average” Tesla S sedan.  Since torque translates to the ability to twist a large propeller, this capability speaks airplane language.

Some of the lightness comes from the 20-pound “aircraft-grade aluminum” frame.  Even the largest and most powerful motorcycle in their range has a 23-pound frame.  The complete bike without rider weighs 289 pounds and can carry a 341-pound load, or 630 pounds total.

Your editor called Ryan Biffard of Zero to find out how much the components weigh.  He generously shared the following:

He notes that Zero does not allow sales of components for aircraft, an understandable reaction in these litigious times.  To save Zero and other companies any heartburn in this area, some have suggested buying a complete motorcycle, stripping the necessary parts and selling the remaining bits to recoup part of the cost.  Another hint – contact a friendly dealer who can sell you replacement parts.

Zero 75-7 motor weighs only 38 pounds (compared to Long's 80 pounds).  It produces twice the horsepower

Zero 75-7 motor weighs only 38 pounds (compared to Long’s 80 pounds). It produces twice the horsepower

Ryan says “Each 2.5 kWh (nominal) battery module weighs 40lbs (give or take), so a 10kWh battery (one with 4 modules in it) weighs around 160lbs.  Each module has its own built-in battery management system (BMS).  This is roughly what Mark Beirele has in the cockpit behind the pilot seat in his e-Gull.

A triple “monolith” consists of three of the 2.5 kWh modules and weighs around 120 pounds.  Mark is flying with the equivalent of a quad “monolith.”

Motors come in two sizes.  The 75-7 weighs about 38 pounds (jibing with Mark’s numbers) and can climb at 40 kilowatts (54 hp.) for one minute, 30 kW (40 hp.) for several minutes, and cruise at 20 kW (27 hp.) indefinitely.

The 75-5 weighs about 30 pounds and can climb at 30 kW for one minute, 20 kW for several minutes, and cruise at 14 kW (18.8 hp.).

As Mark Bierele points out, though, the motors run at high speeds and thus need a reduction gear of some sort which adds cost and weight.

Ryan says the Sevcon Gen4 Size4 motor controller for the power numbers listed above weighs around seven pounds.   If less power is desired the Size2 can be used: it would save a few pounds, and is a little bit cheaper.

Now for the bad news.  Buying the complete bike is a bit pricey, but consider what you’re getting.  Besides the motor and controller, the battery management system and all the appropriate wiring harnesses, you get a battery pack which is essentially a refillable “gas tank” with the cost equivalent of about one cent per mile.   If Zero is correct on its lifetime expectations, that “tank” could last from from 158,000 miles for the largest battery pack on the smallest motorcycle to over 450,000 miles for the largest pack on the highest-performance model.

Zero’s web site lists the prices for their bikes from under $10,000 to a little over $20,000.  Compared to 40-to-57-horsepower gasoline engines and the costs for induction and exhaust systems, the motors and controllers are comparable, and it could be argued that the batteries are far more economical than even today’s cheap gas fill-ups.

Other manufacturers offer comparable equipment with comparable specifications, but the Zero motors have actually flown and demonstrated their aerial capability.  At this point, use of any electric motorcycle power system is still highly experimental and subject to some risk.  That’s what experimenters have been facing for centuries, and gladly accepting the challenge.

*“Plug-and-play” should be taken only as a term describing pre-engineered systems that would be adaptable to a project.  Plugs become too easily unplugged in severe conditions.  One should follow proven practices in connecting electrical components – practices which usually involve more structurally sound fastenings.


Beating Plants at Their Own Game

Going to medical school to learn how to use bacteria to make gasoline may seem like a complicated process, but the developers of a new way of extracting biofuels from sunlight say it’s not.  You may remember Dr. Daniel Nocera’s efforts a few years ago to create a bionic leaf, a simple way to extract oxygen and hydrogen from water when the leaf in water was exposed to sunlight.  Several other such “water splitters” have achieved newsworthiness in the last few years, but each has the impediment of not delivering hydrogen in a readily useable way.

Usually, any H2 produced has to be compressed, stored in hydrides, or encapsulated in some way to make it a viable fuel.  There is not a national infrastructure to allow hydrogen to be distributed as readily as gasoline or Diesel.  Researchers working with Dr. Nocera “at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have created a system that uses bacteria to convert solar energy into a liquid fuel. Their work integrates an ‘artificial leaf,’ which uses a catalyst to make sunlight split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with a bacterium engineered to convert carbon dioxide plus hydrogen into the liquid fuel isopropanol.”  Dr. Nocera is now the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard.

Simplified diagram of bionic leaf to fuel conversion through exposure to Ralstonia eutropha

Simplified diagram of bionic leaf to fuel conversion through exposure to Ralstonia eutropha

The combination of organic (carbon-based) and inorganic chemistry seems to work some magic here, and helps one understand the need to bring in the med school as well as the chemists.  Nocera called on the talents of Dr. Joseph Torella, a recent graduate from the Harvard Medical School Department of Systems Biology, and Christopher Gagliardi, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at HMS, terms the system a bionic leaf, referencing Dr. Nocera’s earlier artificial leaf.

When Nocera came to Harvard from MIT, he and Silver shared their interest in “personalized energy,” making energy production as localized as possible, rather than relying on the bigger centralized refining and distribution system with which we are all familiar.

The bacterium in question, capable of helping convert sunlight to ethanol

The bacterium in question, capable of helping convert sunlight to ethanol

Silver explains, “This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel.  Dan’s formidable discovery of the catalyst really set this off, and we had a mission of wanting to interface some kinds of organisms with the harvesting of solar energy. It was a perfect match.”  She points out that localized energy could be attractive in the developing world.  “It’s not like we’re trying to make some super-convoluted system.  Instead, we are looking for simplicity and ease of use.”

Scientific American explains the process this way: …”Starve a microbe nearly to death, then feed it carbon dioxide and hydrogen produced with the help of voltage from a solar panel. A newly developed bioreactor feeds microbes with hydrogen from water split by special catalysts connected in a circuit with photovoltaics. Such a battery-like system may beat either purely biological or purely technological systems at turning sunlight into fuels and other useful molecules, the researchers now claim.”

Nocera’s original artificial leaf used simple, readily attainable materials to split water, as reported in this blog in 2012.  “The ‘leaf’ is made of inexpensive materials bound onto a sheet of silicon.  One side has a layer of a cobalt-based catalyst that releases oxygen and the other side has a layer of a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy, which release hydrogen.  The device seems to be long-lasting and maintenance free, and can be used in even dirty water, often a given in poor countries.”

Nocera has held to the original design philosophy for the base leaf, saying, “The catalysts I made are extremely well adapted and compatible with the growth conditions you need for living organisms like a bacterium.”

Once the artificial leaf splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, the hydrogen is fed to a genetically engineered variant of Ralstonia eutropha, from which the research team made isopropanol (C3H8O), “an alcohol molecule that can be used as fuel like ethanol or gasoline and can be easily separated from water with salt.”

This system gets more bang for the buck than natural photosynthesis, beating nature’s rate of one percent efficiency in turning sunlight into biomass.  Researchers are hoping to achieve five percent efficiency.

Brenda Colón, a graduate student in Silver’s lab and co-author or the team’s paper in the February 9 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  looks at further developments.  “The advantage of interfacing the inorganic catalyst with biology is you have an unprecedented platform for chemical synthesis that you don’t have with inorganic catalysts alone.  Solar-to-chemical production is the heart of this paper, and so far we’ve been using plants for that, but we are using the unprecedented ability of biology to make lots of compounds.”  Compounds could include drugs such as vitamins in small amounts, according to Silver.  Other authors include Janice S. Chena, D. Kwabena Bediakob, and Jeffery C. Way.

In a not vainglorious statement, Nocera took pride in the team’s accomplishments.  “We’re almost at a 1 percent efficiency rate of converting sunlight into isopropanol,” Nocera said. “There have been 2.6 billion years of evolution, and Pam and I working together a year and a half have already achieved the efficiency of photosynthesis.”

According to the abstract for their paper, they also set records for “engineering of R. eutropha enabled production of the fusel alcohol isopropanol at up to 216 mg/L, the highest bioelectrochemical fuel yield yet reported by >300%.”

Harvard reports, “This work was supported by Air Force Office of Scientific Research Grant FA9550-09-1-0689, Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Award N00014-11-1-0725 and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.”


China Permits Two-Seat Electric Aircraft

Jane Zhanf of Silk Wings Aviation (see note), an aircraft consulting firm, commented on an earlier post about the RX1E, an airplane designed by Shenyang University students and demonstrated at two airshows over the last two years.  Similar to the Yuneec (GreenWings) E430, it is a totally different design.

A two-electric airplane formation, complete with airshow smoke.  AirVenture 2013 had two GreenWings single seaters flying formaton.

A two-electric airplane formation, complete with airshow smoke. AirVenture 2013 had two GreenWings single seaters flying formaton.

CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) just awarded[a]TDA (Type Design Approval) to them!

“By the way, Yuneec E430 is not widely known in China, not an excuse for the wrong claim of being #1 from China though.  (Editor’s Note: The E430 is being developed by GreenWings, now based in California.  It uses a Yuneec motor.)

“Given FAA and EASA don’t support electric SLSA (Special Light Sport Aircraft – allowed to be used for instruction by the FAA) yet (correct me if wrong), RX1E maybe world first “certified” electric LSA.”

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has apparently allowed flights by the Pipistrel WattsUp at the Blois, France fly-in last year and demonstrations by Tine Tomazic at the airplane’s home field in Slovenia.

The Federal Aeronautics Administration currently doesn’t interfere with users flying single-seat electric aircraft, but does prohibit flight by two-seaters.  This will have to be sorted out before planned instructional aircraft from Airbus, Pipistrel and Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation become common sights in our skies.  It is interesting that China has led the U. S. in this innovative arena.

Note: “Silk Wings Aviation is a San Francisco-based provider of specialized merger & acquisition consulting and general aviation consulting services with a focus on China’s emerging General Aviation industry. Our clients include manufacturers, training organizations, design and engineering firms, and aviation-related real estate ventures.”

Information Added  February 13, 2015: 

Thomas Boyle made this clarification: “ You’re almost right. The FAA will allow single-seat aircraft, but not two-seaters, and you cannot certificate even a single-seater as E-LSA or S-LSA. Also, no-one operating under Sport Pilot privileges can fly an aircraft with an electric motor, even if it is normally certificated and otherwise meets the light-sport definition. A consequence of this is that if AEAC is able to certificate its electric trainer, pilots flying on Sport Pilot privileges will not be legal to fly them.”

Bill Lofton, who edits EV Hangar, shared these two entries:

“I looked recently and couldn’t find any evidence that the draft update to 8130.2 (prohibiting carrying passengers in electric aircraft) has been made final.


“As far as I know, Yuneec/GreenWing can still fly two people in their N-numbered e430/GW430 prototypes in California.”


There’s still a bit of fog over this issue that’s important to those of us in the electric aircraft movement.


On January 22, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced the release of, “More than $55 million to develop and deploy cutting-edge vehicle technologies that strengthen the clean energy economy.”  This is at least the second series of Department of Energy incentives for development of ways to increase fuel efficiency and reduce petroleum consumption.  Such technologies will “support the Energy Department’s EV Everywhere Grand Challenge to make plug-in electric vehicles as affordable to own and operate as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022.”

Energy Secretary Moniz makes keynote address at Washington D. C. Auto Show

Energy Secretary Moniz makes keynote address at Washington D. C. Auto Show

Secretary Moniz explained, “Energy Department investments in advanced vehicle technologies have had a major impact on the industry, driving down costs for consumers and reducing carbon emissions.  These projects will continue America’s leadership in building safe, reliable, and efficient vehicles to support a strong, 21st century transportation system.”

Funding opportunities include money for:

  • Advanced batteries (including manufacturing processes) and electric drive R&D,
  • Lightweight materials,
  • Advanced combustion engine and enabling technologies R&D,
  • Fuels technologies (dedicated or dual-fuel natural gas engine technologies,

Funding will go to cost-shared projects with private industry, national laboratories, and university led-teams. Additional information and application requirements can be found here.

The Department announced up to $35 million “to advance fuel cell and hydrogen technologies, including enabling the early adoption of fuel cell applications, such as light duty fuel cell electric vehicles.”

The DOE has also made another $59 million available: $45 million to stimulate solar innovation and $14 million to enable deployment in homes, businesses and communities.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) defines it mission as accelerating development and facilitating deployment “of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and market-based solutions that strengthen U.S. energy security, environmental quality, and economic vitality.”

These efforts, combined with work from the Vehicles Technology Office, should continue to build greater energy security and freedom from the need for foreign oil.


Powering Imagination in Seattle

Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Boeing Field will host a one-day event, Powering Imagination, an electric flight symposium organized by Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Presentations will be held in the William M. Allen Theater at the Museum, starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 28 and ending at 5:00 p.m.   Admission is free, but RSVP to cwilcox@museumofflight.org to guarantee a seat.

NASA's LEAPTech, powered by 20 Joby motors, will offer the ultimate in multi-motor safety and performance

NASA’s LEAPTech, powered by 20 Joby motors, will offer the ultimate in multi-motor safety and performance

Topics include an update on the NASA LEAPTech aircraft being designed and built by Joby Aviation and powered by Joby motors.  This 20-motor (!) aircraft will achieve a high coefficient of lift from the motors that distribute thrust over the entire span.

Eric Lindbergh will talk about the Quiet Flight Initiative, a multi-pronged approach to designing and crafting airplanes quiet enough to be flown over national parks, areas now off-limits to noisy overflights.  This is one facet of Powering Imagination, the other two Electric Flight and Alternative Fuels.

Erik promises video updates from Europe and an electric aircraft Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education challenge.

Speakers include:

  • Erik Lindbergh, who will explain his vision of the future of quiet electric flight and of bringing aviation to America’s youth. 
  • Mike Friend, retired Technology Director and leader of Boeing’s fuel cell aircraft program, will reflect on how the introduction of electric propulsion can change some of the fundamentals of future powered flight.
  • Dean Sigler, CAFE Foundation Blogmeister, will detail ideas about electric ultralight aircraft and sub-ultralight machines such as human-powered aircraft.
Rendering of modified motorglider quietly cruising above the Grand Canyon

Rendering of electric motorglider cruising quietly  above the Grand Canyon.  Embry Riddle students are helping with the implementation of this grand idea

  • Eric Bartsch, co-founder of Powering Imagination, will expand on the direction and focus of the program.  Eric holds 19 patents and has recently been involved in the development, marketing, and business management of one of the leading programs in manned electric flight.

Following the presentations, attendees will have an opportunity to meet with the presenters.

Other presentations planned for the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in, AirVenture 2015, and additional venues show that the interest in electric aircraft is increasing, and with the willingness of industry leaders to share their knowledge, becoming a real presence in the aviation world.


Bacterium + Nitrogen = Ethanol

78 percent of all the air we breathe is nitrogen, the most abundant gas in the Earth’s atmosphere.  This readily available substance may do more than just give us something for inspiration (there’s a pun there), it may power our vehicles and heat our homes.  The catch is that it has to be combined with the bacterium Zymomonas mobilis, which gives off ethanol when exposed to the gas.

James B. McKinlay and a team of biologists at Indiana University at Bloomington work with a cluster of unlikely materials to produce, among other things, biofuels.  His laboratory posts the following description of the team’s work:

“Nearly all of our society’s energy and chemical needs are met by fossil fuels. Microbes have evolved a profound diversity of metabolic attributes which can be harnessed as sustainable alternatives for the production of fuels and chemicals. Our lab seeks to understand the metabolism underlying the production of useful compounds and to engineer strains for enhanced production rates and yields. In doing so, we invariably learn about how a microbe’s metabolism contributes to its physiology and how it interacts with the external environment. Our lab uses biochemical assays, genetic manipulation, functional genomics, and stable isotope tracer studies (13C-metabolic flux analysis) to study microbial metabolism.”

Non-foodstock  biomass, shown here frozen in liquid nitrogen, need to be disassembled to produced sugars

Non-foodstock biomass, shown here frozen in liquid nitrogen, need to be chemically disassembled to produced sugars

Their work with Zymomonas mobilis, could lead to a “faster, cheaper and cleaner way to increase bioethanol production,” possibly save the biofuels industry millions and make cellulosic ethanol more competitive with corn ethanol and gasoline.  Corn ethanol gets a demerit because it uses food better suited to feeding humans and animals, and gasoline gets a bad grade for its environmental effects.

Conversely, materials used to make cellulosic ethanol such as wood, grasses (remember switchgrass as a means of environmental salvation?), and the inedible parts of plants tend to be difficult to break down into sugars and from there into ethanol.  The processes require high heat and therefore energy that has to be subtracted from the energy eventually extracted from the resulting biofuel.  These raw materials are also low in nitrogen, necessary to make ethanol-producing microbes to grow.  Nitrogen fertilizers such as corn steep liquor and diammonium phosphate add to the cost.

McKinlay and his team have found that their chosen bacteria can use nitrogen gas (N2) as a nitrogen source. “When we discovered that Z. mobilis could use N2 we expected that it would make less ethanol. N2 utilization and ethanol production demand similar resources within the bacterial cell so we expected resources to be pulled away from ethanol production to allow the bacteria to grow with N2.  To our surprise the ethanol yield was unchanged when the bacteria used N2. In fact, under certain conditions, the bacteria converted sugars to ethanol much faster when they were fed N2.”

This led to the realization that N2 could serve as an inexpensive substitute for nitrogen fertilizers during cellulosic ethanol production.

Bacterium Z. mobilis combines with nitrogen to produce ethanol quickly and cheaply.  Cells can be seen dividing in this picture

Bacterium Z. mobilis combines with nitrogen to produce ethanol quickly and cheaply. Cells can be seen dividing in this microscopic picture

McKinlay explains, “Until recently, ethanol has been produced almost entirely from food crops, but last year there was a surge in cellulosic ethanol production as several commercial facilities opened.  Cellulosic ethanol offers more favorable land use and lower carbon emissions than conventional ethanol production. Even so, cellulosic ethanol is struggling to be cost-competitive against corn ethanol and gasoline.”  Using N2 eliminates costs associated with fertilizers or baker’s yeast that degrade the cellulosic ingredients into sugars that can be converted into ethanol.  Savings from using N2 gas could amount to over $1 million per year for each ethanol production facility.  This would also pay off in avoiding carbon dioxide emissions from producing and transporting the industrial fertilizers.

UI reports that McKinlay says, “More work needs to be done to assess how this approach can be integrated and optimized on an industrial scale, but all of the data we’ve collected thus far are very encouraging.”

Combining bacteria with a gas is similar to the processes of combining engineered bacteria with CO2 from plant exhaust, something being pursued by Audi, Joule, and SolarFuel, among others.

A provisional patent has been filed in relation to the study with the United State Patent and Trademark Office.

McKinlay’s and three graduate students have their research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Authors include graduate student Timothy A. Kremer, postdoctoral fellow Breah LaSarre, and former research associate Amanda L. Posto.  McKinlay is an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology.  McKinlay is also studying similar means to produce hydrogen with low energy inputs.

In 2012, McKinlay received a five-year, $750,000 U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Research Program award, the agency’s most prestigious award for early-career, tenure-track teachers and scholars.  Such research yields clean and low-energy production of biofuels that provide benefits from nature instead of contending with it.


The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

SolidEnergy is an MIT spin-off with a lithium battery that’s been touted by R&D Magazine as “potentially…the biggest breakthrough in battery technology since Sony introduced the first Li-ion battery in 1991.”  Unlike other manufacturers with indefinite product dates, SolidEnergy says it will release a 2 Amp-hour smartphone and wearable battery in 2016 and a 20 Ah electric vehicle battery in 2017.

SolidEnergy claims their Solid Polymer Ionic Liquid (SPIL) electrolyte enables creation of an “ultra-thin lithium metal anode, and improves the cell-level energy density by 50 percent compared to graphite anodes and 30 percent compared to silicon-composite anodes.”  The electrolyte adds non-flammability and non-volatility, operating safely at temperatures up to 300° C.

We reported on this company last year when Dr.  Qichao Hu, CEO and Chief Technology Officer of SolidEnergy, spoke at the eighth Electric Aircraft Symposium in Santa Rosa, California.

Dr. Hu led a team of six associates in developing SolidEnergy Systems’ Solid Polymer Ionic Liquid (SPiL) rechargeable lithium battery.   Sometimes referred to as the Magnificent Seven, their plans carried to fruition will be magnificent indeed.

Solid Energy Team, otherwise known as "The Magnificent Seven."

Solid Energy Team, otherwise known as “The Magnificent Seven.”  Front row (left to right): Ke Zhang, Jaehee Hwang, Chaojun Shi.  Back row (l-r): Qichao Hu, Arun Tiru, Yury Matulevitch and Xiaboo Li

Front row (l-r): Ke Zhang, Jaehee Hwang, Chaojun Shi. Back row (l-r): Qichao Hu, Arun Tiru, Yury Matulevitch and Xiaboo Li.

One of their features involves manufacturing: the best battery in the world means very little if it can’t be made in quantity.  SolidEnergy’s cells can be made in existing Li-ion facilities.  Because of that, the process can leverage a mature infrastructure.  A123 Venture Technologies has partnered with SolidEnergy to facilitate that.

The battery’s makeup is instructive, as explained in Green Car Congress’s write-up.

“The SolidEnergy prototypes combine a cathode (SPIL can work with a range of cathode materials); the novel electrolyte; and a solid-polymer-coated lithium metal anode. The electrolyte combines ionic liquid and liquid polymer to provide both the safety and wide temperature capability required for advanced batteries, while the solid-polymer-coated lithium anode boosts energy density and cycle life. In addition, Lithium dendrite- suppressing additives boost safety.”

A “solid graft copolymer electrolyte (GCE) combined with a lithium salt becomes a solid electrolyte, looking and feeling like a “rubbery solid but still possessing high ionic conductivity: a block copolymer electrolyte (BCE).”  A solid polymer coating “with dendrite-suppressing additives” surrounding the anode (essentially the pouch case) prevents the growth of spikes that would otherwise penetrate the anode and cause short circuits.

Moving from prototyping to full manufacturing puts the group in a competitive position with other advanced battery makers such as Sakti3 and rewrites the normal ending to these stories.  Instead of the usual “Commercial production is expected in five to ten years,” we can look forward to seeing these batteries in consumer products next year, and in our electric and hybrid cars in two.  The future grows closer.