This is a story about a new battery breakthrough. Maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s not. You are free to draw your own conclusions. In a May 13 report, Forbes contributor Michael Taylor writes about an Australian company called Graphene Manufacturing Group that says its latest aluminum ion battery can charge up to 60 times faster that any lithium-ion battery. Aluminum-ion batteries are not new, but GMG claims its version has 3 times the energy density of any other aluminum-based battery. The chart below represents a comparison between GMG’s battery and other Al-ion batteries.
In April, GMG announced a research agreement with the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at Queensland University that will lead to the manufacture of commercial battery prototypes for watches, phones, laptops, electric vehicles, and grid storage based upon technology developed at UQ. GMG has also signed a license agreement with Uniquest, the University of Queensland commercialization company, which gives GMG an exclusive license to use the technology for battery cathodes.
GMG CEO Craig Nicol says, “We are currently looking to bring coin cell commercial prototypes for customer testing in 6 months and a pouch pack commercial prototype — used in mobile phones, laptops etc. — for customer testing in 18 months. We are really excited about bringing this to market. We aim to have a viable graphene and coin cell battery production facility project after customer validation that we would likely build here in Australia. It’s basically aluminum foil, aluminum chloride (the precursor to aluminum and it can be recycled), and the ionic liquid is urea.”
Dr Ashok Nanjundan, the company’s chief scientific officer, adds, “This is a real game-changing technology which can offer a real alternative with an interchangeable battery technology for the existing lithium-ion batteries in almost every application with GMG’s Graphene and UQ’s patent-pending aluminium ion battery technology. The current nominal voltage of our batteries is 1.7 volts, and work is being carried out to increase the voltage to directly replace existing batteries which[will] lead to higher energy densities.”
“The real differentiator about these batteries is their very high power density of up to 7000 watts/kg, which endows them with a very high charge rate. Furthermore, graphene aluminium-ion batteries provide major benefits in terms of longer battery life (over 2000 charge / discharge cycles testing so far with no deterioration in performance), battery safety (very low fire potential) and lower environmental impact (more recyclable),” he says.
The Secret Is In The Graphene
Aluminum has one huge advantage over lithium. It has three electrons available versus only one for lithium. In addition, it is widely available and costs far less than lithium. Add in that it eliminates the need to use nickel, cobalt, or copper, and couple that with the fact that the Al-ion battery is easily recyclable and you have a package that could be far superior to lithium-ion batteries in a relatively short time. Finally, Al-ion batteries do not overheat nearly as much as Li-ion batteries do. Almost 20% of the weight and cost associated with a Li-ion battery pack is attributable to high performance cooling systems, which can be eliminate in most Al-ion battery use cases.
The secret is in the graphene itself. Think of a block of iron. To the naked eye, it looks solid, but under the powerful microscopes used by researchers, it looks as porous as a Brillo pad. Graphene also is highly porous. What the researchers at the University of Queensland did was find a way to store more electrons in each hole in the graphene.
Michael Taylor writes that a study conducted by the peer-reviewed publication Advanced Functional Materials found GMG’s surface-perforated, three-layer graphene (SPG3-400) had “a significant amount of in-plane mesopores (≈2.3 nm), and an extremely low O/C ratio of 2.54%, has demonstrated excellent electrochemical performance. This SPG3-400 material exhibits an extraordinary reversible capacity (197 mAh g−1 at 2 A g−1) and outstanding high-rate performance.”
There is only one problem with that claim. Taylor does not provide a link to the research, a professional failure that should make any alleged journalist blush. Not only that, a search of the Advanced Functional Materials website fails to find any mention of such a study. A search of the University of Queensland website for “aluminum-ion battery” also fails to find any mention of the technology. Is this all a scam designed to drive up the share price of GMG, which is listed on the TSX Venture stock exchange in Toronto? “Pump and dump” schemes are certainly not unknown when breakthroughs are involved. Caveat emptor.
Craig Nicol certainly talks a good game. “It charges so fast it’s basically a super capacitor,” he claims. “It charges an iPhone coin cell in less than 10 seconds. So far there are no temperature problems. Twenty percent of a lithium ion battery pack (in a vehicle) is to do with cooling them. There is a very high chance that we won’t need that cooling or heating at all. It does not overheat and it nicely operates below zero so far in testing. They don’t need circuits for cooling or heating, which currently accounts for about 80kg in a 100kWh pack.”
Nicol adds that the new Al-ion batteries could fit inside current lithium-ion housings like Volkswagen’s MEB architecture, which would eliminate the need to create new electric car platforms to accommodate the new technology. “Ours will be the same shape and voltage as the current lithium-ion cells, or we can move to whatever shape is necessary,” Nicol says. “It’s a direct replacement that charges so fast it’s basically a super capacitor. Lithium ion cells can’t do more than 1.5-2 amps or you can blow up the battery, but our technology has no theoretical limit.”
All this rosy, pie in the sky happy talk is all very interesting, but is it anything more than that? In 1883, Thomas Edison warned against putting too much faith in promises about storage battery improvements. “The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing. Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.”
We all want cheaper, more powerful batteries that are easily recycled, last a long time, don’t catch fire, and can be recharged quickly, and someday we may get them. In the meantime, slow and steady progress is being made toward all those goals. We shouldn’t automatically dismiss all reports of exciting new battery breakthrough technologies for fear of repeating the mistake of a former head of the US Patent Office who once advised “Everything that can be invented has now been invented.” Quiet enthusiasm coupled with a healthy dollop of skepticism seems to be the wisest course to follow when it comes to groundbreaking new battery technologies.