The electric vehicle segment in India has indeed come a long way. However, there remains limitations when it comes to mass adoption. As per data compiled by Bloomberg, a little over 8,000 EVs were sold locally in the past six years, while India currently imports almost all of its lithium ion batteries that predominantly power these vehicles.
The lack of an extensive charging infrastructure network, concerns over battery range, cost of batteries and the environmental impact of disposing lithium ion, lithium ferro phosphate or lead acid batteries have proven to be real bottlenecks.
Addressing all these concerns, a Bengaluru-based nanotechnology company specialising in Graphene called Log 9 Materials have developed their own brand of aluminium fuel cells (AFCs) that offer five times the range than an average lithium ion battery can offer, costs 30 per cent cheaper, is easier to use and doesn’t require the hassle of constantly recharging it.
“The key difference between say a lithium ion battery and AFC is that the former is a storage device which requires regular charging while the latter is a pure power generation device. Hence, our AFCs are more in tune with the behaviour of average automobile consumers, who refuel their vehicles within minutes instead of recharging it for hours. Moreover, AFCs offer a range of above 1,000 Km unlike their lithium ion counterparts which have a maximum range of 250 Km. Our objective is to extend that range to beyond 2,000 Km,” says Akshay Singhal, the Founder of Log 9 Materials, in a conversation with The Better India.
How does it work?
“In our aluminium fuel cell, we have aluminium cassette in the middle and two graphene membranes on either side. The graphene membrane keeps the carbon dioxide out, while letting oxygen in. When you want to generate energy, water flows in, and it mixes with oxygen. The subsequent chemical reaction converts aluminum into aluminium hydroxide, generating energy, which can power up a vehicle or a home,” he says in this video explainer.
“Once this cassette reduces in thickness and eventually vanishes after running over 1,000 KM, you can manually replace it with a new cassette. It’s like sliding a cassette inside a tape recorder. So, the aluminum cassette will slide into the fuel cell. Our objective is to ensure that these cassettes will be available at fuel stations. For this to happen, we are working with existing fuel distributors as well,” Akshay tells TBI.
More importantly, this is a completely circular and recyclable energy source—aluminium hydroxide particles which are created by the reaction can be re-smelted back into aluminum using clean energy. Also, aluminum is completely recyclable.
“What we do here is we generate aluminum using renewable energy. Aluminum goes into the aluminum fuel cell, generates energy, and gets converted into aluminum oxide, and this oxide can be again converted back into aluminum,” explains Akshay.
But how did Log 9 Materials arrive at this unique solution?
They are primarily a graphene manufacturing company. Looking at applications of graphene, they explored how it could be used to enhance the performance of lithium ion and lead acid batteries in electric vehicles by the end of 2017. Although they saw a marginal improvement in battery performance, it didn’t address certain key technological challenges like charging time and a lack of extensive charging infrastructure.
Moreover, they also realised that India is heavily dependent on Chinese imports when it comes to acquiring lithium ion or lead acid batteries. If we are looking at mass EV adoption in India by 2030, it will burn a hole in our already growing trade deficit with China. Today we import vast amounts of oil, but tomorrow we will do the same with lithium ion batteries.
Instead, those at Log 9 thought why not utilise what’s available back home, which offers more user friendly features like refueling, short refueling time and longer range and that’s when they hit upon AFCs, which had its own share of challenges.
“Using our graphene expertise, we solved these challenges. We developed a fully functional prototype in just 18 months, which our global competitors like Phinergy from Israel took 8 years to build. Also, with AFCs we don’t need to develop an extensive charging infrastructure network that often entails a significant capital cost,” says Akshay.
Moreover, Log 9 fuel cells are expected to cost 30-40 per cent lower than their lithium ion counterparts. Aside from offering five times the range, minimal electricity consumption, the materials they use in this battery are very simple–aluminum, water (electrolyte), graphene (which comes from graphite). These materials are readily available everywhere. Thus, the raw materials required to make one are cheaper, and the system design is a lot simpler than your lithium ion batteries requiring little engineering and industrial processes for production.
But globally, this isn’t the first attempt at using metal-air batteries like AFC in electric vehicles. Companies like Phinergy from Israel and Tesla have also expressed interest in the same. But time and again they have come across the problem of these metals corroding at a high rate. Log9 has seemingly addressed this issue by using the Graphene membrane, “which can block the water leaking out from the cell and at the same time allow oxygen to pass into the cell, while at the same time blocking CO2 as well,” explains Akshay.
At present, Log 9 is in talks with nearly all original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and live trials will commence by the next quarter. Going further, Akshay claims that the government has really issued their support for the company to manufacture AFCs.
“To ensure greater adoption, however, we need to take a holistic approach. We need to work with OEMs, aluminium manufacturers, and fuel distributors so that we can distribute AFCs through the existing network of fuel distributors. This will allow consumers to access their aluminum cassettes at regular fuel stations. However, our first commercial application of AFCs will be in stationary power generators as a direct alternative for diesel generators, especially for telecom towers,” he reveals.
If Log 9 does succeed in mainstreaming AFCs, it will change the game for clean energy in India.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)