Nanotechnology is Quietly Transforming Electric Car Batteries

Last Updated May 4, 2010 2:57 PM EDT

"Nanotechnology" has been a brave new world buzzword for a decade, but its many applications in clean technology -- from solar panels to EV batteries -- are just now emerging. A new report from Lux Research sees a $29 billion clean tech nanotech market in 2015.

Much of the reporting on nanotech to date has focused on its use in such everyday products as extra-tough tennis rackets, Eddie Bauer's Nano-Care comfort-waist corduroy pants, sunscreen and high-tech sunglasses. And it's also zeroed in on the dangers of nanotech run amok. Reporters famously raised the possibility of minuscule self-replicating machines turning the planet into "grey goo," but that idea has been dismissed even by the guy who raised it in the first place.

"Most of the lower-quality, me-too ventures have exited stage left," said Peter Hébert, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital, which invests in energy technology (Lux Research is a spinoff, founded in 2003). "A handful of segment leaders have consolidated their positions (both large corporations and startups). Throughout this winnowing process, we've seen great leaps forward in the commercialization of nanoscale science and technology."

"Nano" just means small (as in the $2,500 Tata Nano microcar sold in India), and nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. Why work with such tiny things? Because many common substances have different and useful properties when reduced in size. Nanoparticles are in sunscreen, for instance, because on the nanoscale its active ingredient is clear instead of white--no more white noses. In clean-tech applications such as electric car batteries, nano can optimize chemical reactions to offer more range and energy density.

Here's a database of nanotech products now on the market.

Nano-enabled solar cells from companies like Gratzel PV, Solarmer Energy and Konarka hold promise, Lux says. In the auto space, there are opportunities in batteries, fuel cells and supercapacitors.

One company that is making some headway with nano batteries, says Lux, is A123, which went public successfully last year and is the supplier not only to Fisker Automotive for its high-performance Karma plug-in hybrid but also to Better Place in its ongoing switchable battery demonstration for taxis in Tokyo.

The nanotech breakthrough in A123 batteries, developed at MIT, changes the lattice structure of iron phosphate atoms to improve the conductivity of the company's relatively inexpensive iron phosphate cathode, enabling more charge cycles.

Nanotech-now.com called A123 "a 'perfect storm' company--nanotech, global warming, energy storage, batteries, green, high fuel prices, pressure for electric and hybrid car energy storage improvements, electrical grid storage--manufacture in China--all make A123 the right company in all the hot investible spaces"

Nanotech helps companies cut production costs. According to Vincent Caprio, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, "Much of the success A123 will enjoy in the future will be linked to how well the company executes on the manufacturing side. The relatively high cost of li-ion technology is an impediment to mass-market penetration."

It's a growth industry. "There will be huge opportunities in energy storage--both for batteries and ultracapacitors," says Hébert. "There are a number of venture-backed startups dramatically changing the industry's economics. We've definitely moved beyond Dockers stain-proof pants and nano-enabled suntan lotion."

Hebert also cites Nanosys, which developed a proprietary additive for lithium-ion batteries (reportedly increasing capacity 30 percent), Electrovaya (nano-enhanced battery technology, developed in partnership with Exxon) and Contour Energy Systems.

A conference on nanotech applications in renewable energy takes place in Denver May 24-24. Here are the details.

Photo: Flickr/Myself248