With the help of hometown lithium-ion battery manufacturer International Battery, Allentown PA is on the verge of becoming the latest rust belt refugee to dip its toes into the new green economy. International Battery has just won a contract with NASA to build a prototype battery strong enough to provide backup power to support the space shuttle program, and it is currently the only U.S. company manufacturing lithium batteries using an earth-friendly water based process instead of organic solvents.
Allentown’s future in sustainable green technology is striking, not only because the city’s manufacturing base was notoriously written off by singer/songwriter Billy Joel a generation ago (“Well we’re living here in Allentown/And they’re closing all the factories down”), but also because the city is a mere hour’s drive away from Centralia PA, one of the world’s most infamous symbols of old school fossil fuels and their devastating consequences.
International Battery has gained a reputation for high energy, low cost lithium-ion batteries based on iron phosphate and nickel cobalt manganese. The company uses a water-based process to coat the elctrodes. By eliminating the organic solvents required by conventional coating processes, International Battery practically eliminates the costs associated with vapor recovery and organic solvent waste disposal. All well and good, but what caught the eye of NASA is International Battery’s large-format cells, which are are 50 Ah and larger (Ah stands for Ampere-hour, a unit of electrical charge), compared to about 3 Ah for conventional cells. NASA is developing a “smart” power storage system or Battery Management System to ensure a continuous, reliable backup power supply for its space shuttle operations, and International Battery’s large-format cells might just fit the bill.
International Battery and the U.S. Military
Robust portable power is the new “it girl” for the U.S. military, which is finding that its fighters of the future are carrying so much electronic gear that conventional batteries are becoming logistically impracticable. The triple whammy is their relatively high weight, short life span, and disposal complications. The U.S. military gave portable fuel cells a battle test-run during its annual multilateral Cobra Gold exercise in Asia last spring, and now International Battery is getting $2.1 million in federal funding to develop prototype batteries for the new Silent Watch high energy storage system. It’s the first in a series of potential federal contracts that International Battery expects will bring more high quality green jobs to Allentown.
Cleaner, Greener Energy
Large-format cells are ideal for the leap to mass market electric vehicles, and nanotech researchers are stretching the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries even further with new materials such as highly porous nano-silicon, so there is plenty of competition for International Battery. Still, the company’s focus on a water-based manufacturing process takes Allentown a step further into the vanguard, by merging the manufacture of green products with a process that promises a more safe and healthful environment for workers, the general public, and – for lack of a better word – the environment.
As for nearby Centralia, the town is a graphic illustration of the unsafe and unhealthful consequences of old school technology based on fossil fuels. Much of the rural town is an abandoned wasteland, beset by fumes and sinkholes from an underground fire in a coal mine that has been burning out of control for more than 40 years with no end in sight. It’s just one among hundreds of such fires around the world. Clean coal, anyone?
Image: Matthew Simantov on flickr.com.