Innovative Materials for the Future of Batteries

Mario HonrubiaengineersEnergy

Vivek Nair is an Indian engineer who shared with ennomotive his point of view about the future of batteries / carbon capture sectors. In August 2018, ennomotive launched a challenge to help Codelco Tech, the subsidiary of the first mining company in Chile and first world copper producer. A new Copper Graphene (G/Cu) nanocomposite has been developed recently: the addition of 3% graphene to pure copper has proven to be a material that significantly improves the yield strength, tensile strength, and elastic modulus if compared to pure copper. The goal of this challenge was to find ideas on potential and very specific applications in which the use of this new nanocomposite translates into a technical/economic improvement compared to the materials used to date. For 6 weeks, 65 engineers from 14 countries accepted the challenge and submitted different solutions. After a thorough evaluation, Codelco Tech picked the solution that best met the evaluation criteria and awarded the winners, Julio Andrés Casal Ramos, from Venezuela, Fernanda Elena Monasterio, from Argentina y Vivek Nair, from India.

Vivek Nair: My inspiration for the challenge was to build the best future of batteries

future of batteries Vivek Nair

Can you introduce yourself briefly?

I am Dr. Vivek Nair, with Indian passport but currently living in Singapore. I have a joint doctorate from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Loughborough University (UK) on battery materials. After my Ph.D., I worked as a senior research associate at Lancaster University (UK) on lithium titanate battery packs and solid-state batteries. 
After that, I was working as the CEO of Clean Carbon Technologies, a company based in South Africa that produces Carbon nanotubes from Industrial carbon emissions. I am also a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore working on Graphene-based batteries. My current research focus is to develop lithium-sulfur battery packs which are 2 times the energy density and performance of NMC811//Graphite batteries.
Some of the notable awards and achievements that I received are:
1) Forbes 30 under 30, Energy category, 2012
2) MIT TR'35, Materials Category, 2012
3) Indians of Tomorrow, 2013 by India Today
4) NRDC, Gov. of India award for Meritorious Invention, 2012
5) Institute of Engineers, Singapore for "Most Progressive Engineering Achievement Award”, 2013 for Ph.D. project
I have also been granted multiple patents in the energy storage and "Waste to resource" innovations.

What is your motivation for participating in the ennomotive challenge? How did you come up with this solution? What was your inspiration?

As I have worked with carbon materials particularly carbon nanotubes and graphene, Cu-Graphene nano-composite material mentioned in the ennomotive challenge was very interesting for me. Being from the energy storage domain, I quickly got the idea of using the material to make batteries with higher energy density and rate capabilities. The demand for batteries is increasing at an unprecedented rate due to electric vehicles and renewables.
My inspiration springs from current research on building better batteries and always on the lookout for new materials to test them for my batteries. Batteries are the key to making renewables and electric vehicles economically viable and sustainable. Hence, I believe my efforts in this direction could build the best future of batteries and the best future for everyone on this planet.

What are the most significant improvements made in the batteries/carbon capture sectors in recent years?

The last 5 years have seen significant improvements in batteries both at materials level and cell engineering. Many companies are now able to pack more energy into the batteries by improving the thickness of the coating, which also has brought the prices of these batteries to ~USD120/KWh. With different cathode and anode materials, the prices have also come down making it more and more economically feasible to use it for storage.
The cycle life of batteries has also been improved dramatically,  from 1000 cycles provided by Lithium cobalt oxide//Graphite (Cathode//anode) batteries to 50,000 cycles provided by Lithium manganese oxide//Lithium titanate batteries. This is particularly interesting, as it would mean that the cost of storage per kWh per cycle could be as low as 3 cents. This finding, coupled with solar production prices of 2,5 cents, would bring the cost of electricity to a maximum of 5,5cents per KWh. This number is good enough to make an economically-based decision of switching to renewable energy.
In the carbon capture sector, there have been many innovations as well but very few have been able to demonstrate at scale an economically viable solution. Most of the end products of the carbon capture are liquid hydrocarbons, calcium carbonate etc and this process of carbon capture is energy intensive or complex. Hence, this does not provide a viable solution that could incentivize companies to adopt them.
Most of the companies that pollute adopt carbon capture methods to statutory or regulatory obligations, and I believe that it is not going to be a viable method that could create an impact. Even though my company is Clean Carbon Technologies, I developed a solution to turn the carbon emissions into carbon nanotubes, which has a higher economic value and these same carbon nanotubes could be used in energy storage systems as a conductive additive, host of active material, and even as a current collector.

Is it difficult to innovate in this sector? Why? What are the innovations and applications coming in the future in this sector?

There are plenty of innovations that happen in the energy storage and materials domain. The number of research publications is proof of it. However, innovating with the right commercial focus is the challenge.
Most of the research is not done with the proper understanding of the industry and the industrial process adoption. This would require the researchers to look at various aspects like cost, procurement of raw-materials, scaling up issues, industrial process, standards, and regulatory issues before planning the experiments.
It is expected by the launch of NMC811, the prices of batteries are going to come down to USD100/KWh, which the experts believe is the number that would make renewables a head-on competition to non-renewable energy production.