There are many battery alternatives to lithium-ion coming into the industrial storage space. For example, London-based ZapGo (with an office in North Carolina) offers a carbon-ion cell technology that it says is safe, recyclable and ultra-fast charging.
Zap&Go’s technology can quickly charge consumer electronic products like power tools, and may also serve as a solution for electric vehicles.
We caught up with ZapGo’s CEO Stephen Voller to learn more.
Energy Storage Networks: Can you give a brief overview of how ZapGo was founded?
Stephen Voller: ZapGo Ltd. was founded in 2013 with intellectual property licensed from the Department of Materials Science at the University of Oxford in the U.K. The company has a team of materials scientists, chemists and engineers located at the prestigious Rutherford Appleton laboratory at Harwell, Oxford and has a wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary, ZapGo Inc., located in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Although it is currently the industry standard for rechargeable batteries, li-ion works by an electrochemical reaction, raising the risk of dangerous fires in consumer products—many of which have been well-publicized by the media in recent years. Also, li-ion batteries are limited to about 1,000 charge-recharge cycles before they begin to wear out. In addition, li-ion batteries can take hours to recharge fully. These drawbacks formed the impetus for a new rechargeable technology that does not involve a chemical reaction or the risk of fire, can be recharged up to 100,000 times without wearing out and can be recharged in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
As such, ZapGo has developed carbon-ion (c-ion) technology, a faster-charging, environmentally friendly, safer alternative to rechargeable batteries such as li-ion and nickel metal hydride (NiMH). C-ion is being used today in a range of products including cordless power tools and autonomous electric vehicles, combining the capacity and slow discharge performance of li-ion batteries with the time to charge, safety and environmentally friendly features of supercapacitors.
ESN: Tell me more about the advantages of carbon ion.
SV: C-ion cells work in a manner similar to supercapacitors, i.e. maintaining their ability to provide rapid charging and long cycle life. However, c-ion employs different carbon and electrolyte materials than current supercapacitors, which enables them to operate at higher voltages, thereby delivering energy densities that are more in line with current li-ion batteries but without any of the fire risk or safety concerns.
ZapGo’s c-ion cell technology is currently in its third generation, making its debut at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. ZapGo battery has four technological advantages: 1. sub five-minute charging with slow discharge 2. increased safety (no risk of fire or explosion) 3. significantly greater charge/discharge cycles (100,000) versus li-ion and 4. when the c-ion cells do need replacing, they are easier to recycle.
ESN: What type of industrial applications is carbon ion ideal for?
SV: While ZapGo believes that there are many potential applications for its technology, we’re focused on cordless power tools and floorcare products, light personal electric vehicles and vehicle emergency start packs. ZapGo expects the first ZapGo-enabled products to be available for consumer purchase by Q3 2018.
Many of today’s vehicles are internal combustion engine (ICE) hybrids that also use gasoline or diesel. However, the automotive industry is committed to mass roll outs of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that have no ICE capability. For example, the VW Group has announced that 25% of its total vehicle output will be pure electric drive by 2025, and Volvo have announced they will stop making ICE vehicles altogether from 2019.
Most analysts predict that there will be an inflexion point in 2025, when a new generation of BEVs will become available, that will offer similar cost and driving experience as existing gasoline and diesel vehicles. These BEVs will use new battery technology that can be charged much more quickly and provide additional driving range.
In order to gain widespread acceptance of BEVs, the automotive industry believes that drivers will demand a five-minute charge for 100-mile range and a 15-minute charge for a 300-mile range. This is possible only with ultra-fast charging 350-kW chargers and would mean that 30 kWh is transferred to the vehicle in five minutes and 90 kWh in 15 minutes.
The fastest chargers available today are the Tesla Super Chargers that can operate at up to 160 kW. Most charge points or posts currently installed have a maximum charge rate of about 30 kW. As an example, a wall socket at home operates at just 3 kW. This means that the 30 kWh required for 100 miles would take about 20 minutes from a Tesla Super Charger, about one hour from a typical charge post and about 10 hours if a BEV was charged at home. The 90 kWh for 300 miles would take about one hour from a Tesla Super Charger, about three hours from a charge post and 30 hours from home.
However, the real challenge is in the National Grid’s inability to support 350-kW ultra-fast chargers. These types of high-speed grid connections are not available at most places, certainly not in homes and almost never in built-up areas where filling stations are currently situated. To connect one would require a new high-capacity electrical cable to wherever the nearest electricity substation is located. This could be miles away, and would require streets dug up and new infrastructure installed along the route, a process that could cost millions of pounds and take several years to obtain planning permission for, let alone complete. Then, if installed, it would mean that the cost of the electricity to charge an electric vehicle would have to rise significantly to amortize the investment.
To minimize capital investment, and also to keep the price of electricity low for drivers of electric vehicles, ZapGo proposes to install large containers on filling station sites that initially contain 1 MWh of stored energy in its c-ion cells. On sites with high vehicle throughput, there may be multiple containers installed.
The containers will be charged up at night at off-peak rates using the existing electrical connections to the site. Ultra-fast-charging 350-kW chargers will be installed on site connected to the container storage, not directly to the site grid connection. Vehicles will be charged from the stored energy at the 350-kW rate.
This ultra-high transfer rate is possible for two reasons: because c-ion can charge and discharge very quickly, and because it does not catch fire, so it is perfectly safe to have a large energy store on site next to existing storage tanks of gasoline and diesel.
Where filling station sites already have EV charge points, these can be upgraded to 350 kW by installing this system.
For existing EVs that do not have the capability to charge at 350 kW, the chargers will perform a “handshake” with the vehicle before charging commences and charge them only at their maximum safe rate, typically in the 30-kW to 120-kW range.
The ZapGo 350-kW ultra-fast charge solution would provide the following benefits:
- Competitively priced electricity compared to sites that have had to invest in new, expensive electrical infrastructure
- State-of-the-art ultra-fast charging capability at automotive industry rates of 350 kW
- Upgradeable to charge rates above 350 kW in the future
ESN: I’ve read you launched the first-ever consumer electronics-certified hydrogen fuel cell product.
SV: In my earlier career, I worked at IBM and then Netscape. Netscape was one of the first big “dot-coms.” Netscape was acquired by AOL, and I found myself on gardening leave. I was fascinated why my laptop battery went flat all the time, and came up with idea of extending the life of the battery by using a hydrogen fuel cell.
The device was built and it worked but was too big, bulky and expensive for widespread commercial adoption. Significantly, it was the first-ever self-contained device containing stored hydrogen in a metal hydride or solid-state form that had a CE certification (which indicates conformity with standards that allow a product to be sold within the European Economic Area). Hydrogen was then 10 years away from commercialization and probably still is.
One of the Voller Energy fuel cells is kept at the London Science Museum to signify the achievement.
ESN: How does hydrogen storage differ from carbon-ion storage?
SV: Hydrogen is best described as an energy vector. Hydrogen is made and then stored, and can then be used in a device such as a fuel cell to generate electrical energy. Essentially, the fuel cell converts chemical energy to electrical energy.
99% percent of hydrogen is made by reforming natural gas. You then have to store the hydrogen at high pressure (that takes a lot of energy) and then use it in a fuel cell. All of this is expensive, and although the fuel cell produces no carbon emissions, clearly the reforming the natural gas bit does, and while gas is cheap, it is better to just use the gas in something like a bus than to go to all the trouble and expense of a hydrogen bus.
You can make hydrogen by a process called electrolysis that splits water into its chemical species of hydrogen and oxygen. But to make electrolysis work, you need a lot of electricity, and then you still need to store the hydrogen at high pressure.
To avoid the high-pressure bit, which is the real risk factor with hydrogen, chemical hydrogen storage is used, such as the metal hydride used in my original CE fuel cell in 2003.
One advantage of all things hydrogen is you can recharge things instantly. By contrast, in a battery electric vehicle, it can take hours to recharge the battery, while a tank of gasoline can be filled or the vehicle refueled or effectively recharged in five minutes or so. This fast refueling is also possible with hydrogen.
By thinking differently about battery storage, which we have done with c-ion, it is also possible to recharge the vehicle in five minutes but with none of the safety concerns of hydrogen.