Alcoa, Israeli company collaborate on aluminum-air battery
Aluminum’s light weight is giving Alcoa Inc. a leg up on other metals in making vehicles go farther on a gallon of gas, but the world’s most abundant metal may help motorists drive even longer distances without using any gasoline.
Alcoa has been working for two years with Phinergy Inc. of Israel on technology that taps energy in aluminum. The aluminum-air battery would work in tandem with a lithium-ion main battery, recharging it to extend the range of hybrid and electric vehicles by 1,000 miles, they say.
A “breakthrough” by Phinergy removed a roadblock and raised hope that the technology, abandoned in the 1980s by researchers, can become a reality, Alcoa’s chief technology officer said.
“This is a substantial technology,” Alcoa’s Ray Kilmer said. “When we saw it, we said, ‘Wow. That’s the opportunity to make the aluminum-air battery work.’ ”
A team of a dozen scientists and technicians at the Alcoa Technical Center in Upper Burrell is working to resolve remaining logistic and economic obstacles. Alcoa is looking at a 2019-20 time frame for the battery to reach consumers, he said.
Phinergy’s breakthrough is based on air-electrode technology that keeps carbon-dioxide out of the system, first developed at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and licensed to Phinergy when the company was founded in 2008.
Beyond extending vehicle range, Kilmer said the aluminum-air battery has environmental advantages — because it does not use or produce carbon dioxide, the battery has “a negative carbon footprint,” he said.
That is “very attractive” to European automakers, who must cut carbon dioxide emission levels by 40 percent by 2021 under European Union mandates. American automakers are concentrating on increasing fuel mileage to 45 mpg by 2025 under government rules. Three major automakers in Europe are building vehicles using the aluminum-air battery for testing, Kilmer said.
Phinergy spokeswoman Judith Yavniely said the company so far has demonstrated its technology on a fully electric vehicle and on an electric boat.
The battery is Alcoa’s second recent entry into automotive development. It has built three aluminum sheet plants to provide lighter-weight metal to replace steel, most notably in the new Ford F-150 pickup that is 700 pounds lighter because of its use of aluminum. In the aluminum-air battery, a six-by-six inch plates of aluminum act as the positive terminal, using about 220 pounds per vehicle, and would be replaced rather than recharged when power runs low.
The battery could have financial advantages for Alcoa. “This is an exciting technology. It opens a whole additional chain of revenues. … It’s very cool for the future, and we know it works,” CEO Klaus Kleinfeld told securities analysts in November.
Alcoa has a joint development deal with Phinergy to be the exclusive supplier of high-purity aluminum needed for the battery and to jointly own technology they develop.
Kilmer said Alcoa’s estimate on the amount of aluminum it could supply at “a couple of smelters worth, over time. We think it can grow to that volume,” he said.
John Tumazos of Tumazos Very Independent Research of Holmdel, N.J., said selling aluminum for the battery “could be a big number for them” if Phinergy’s technology proves commercially successful.
If the aluminum-air battery becomes the success Kilmer described, two smelters’ worth of aluminum, it could mean production of 400,000 metric tons a year, Tumazos said.
“It would be one of their five largest customers if it grew to two smelters of 200,000 tons each. That would be over 10 percent of their smelter output and 8 percent of their shipments, but Phinergy has to be commercially successful. That volume would rank in the same league as InBev, Coke, Pepsi, Ford, GM and Boeing and other large customers.”
Batteries for electric and hybrid cars is big business.
Tesla Motors Inc. has started construction of a $5 billion lithium-ion battery plant in Nevada that CEO Elon Musk says is vital to Tesla’s goal of mass-market sales of electric cars and driving down production costs as much as 30 percent. The $100,000 Tesla Roadster’s battery is good for 245 miles, but an upgrade to 400 miles between charges is in the works, the company said last month.
But research by Carnegie Mellon University professors Jeremy Michalek and Jay Whitacre found that economies of scale in battery manufacturing are exhausted quickly. Beyond a certain point, higher volume alone won’t do much to cut cost, they said.
“Large factories alone aren’t likely to solve the battery cost problem,” Michalek said. He and Whitacre declined to comment on the Alcoa-Phinergy battery.
Alcoa said the cost of using the battery will be the same or lower than hybrid vehicles, and competitive with gasoline.
Lynn Trahey, a battery technology researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, said Alcoa and Phinergy are using the right approach.
“Their aluminum-air batteries are recharged mechanically, meaning someone swaps out the components for fresh ones,” Trahey said. “They reportedly last a long time on one charge and have affordable components.
“Cars need batteries that can be electrically recharged as well, like lithium-ion. Each technology serves a purpose. When artfully integrated in a car, you get the best of both worlds.”
The lithium-ion battery in the electric Nissan Leaf has range of about 120 miles between charges, Nissan says on its website. The hybrid Toyota Prius, which uses a gas engine and battery system, has a range of about 500 miles, according to information on its website.
The aluminum-air battery is a range extender, not the primary battery. That’s because lithium-ion batteries have greater power output to drive a vehicle, Kilmer said. Aluminum-air batteries have more energy but release it slowly, making them ideal to recharge the main battery. “We don’t compete with the lithium-ion, we complement it,” he said.
The three European automakers, unidentified because of confidentiality agreements, have done testing and will do more, including critical crash testing, Kilmer said. “Like anything automotive, it has to go through extensive testing. It’s a multi-year process to get to where a consumer can use it. One of the automakers tested it from minus 45 to 45 degrees (Celsius). That was a big hurdle,” Kilmer said.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or [email protected].