Founded in 2013, the 24-strong team at French start-up company NAWA Technologies strives to push the global energy transition further and has developed a new, promising battery type. The Ultra Fast Carbon Battery Technology promises enhanced reliability and quality in comparison to other battery technologies on the current market. ees International talked to NAWA’s newly appointed CEO Ulrik Grape about the perspectives of the company and the Ultra Fast Carbon Battery Technology.
ees International: Mr. Grape, you have 20 years of experience in executive management positions in the lithium-ion battery field. What was it that motivated you to join a relatively young company such as NAWA Technologies as CEO?
Innovation, a pioneering spirit and a chance to be involved in some genuinely game-changing technology. I’ve been fortunate in my career to see major developments in battery technology, starting with Danionics in Denmark, which was one of the early leaders in lithium-ion batteries for portable electronics with customers such as Compaq (now part of HP), Apple and Sagem, then on to EnerDel in the US, which was one of the early leaders in lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications with customers such as Volvo, Think and VanHool. I then moved to California where we had success with solid-state lithium-ion battery start-up SEEO, developing batteries for the automotive and energy storage sectors. When SEEO was acquired by Bosch, I was looking for my next challenge.
We’ve seen lithium-ion technology develop hugely in terms of energy density but now the power equation has changed – and that’s where ultra capacitors come in. NAWA Technologies’ Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries feature a pioneering use of aligned carbon nanotube electrodes and offer five times higher power density than existing ultra capacitors – that’s an enormous leap forward.
Then you have NAWA’s approach. I was instantly impressed by the team, led by Pascal Boulanger, one of the chief founders. Pascal is COO and has spent 20 years at the CEA (French Atomic and Alternative Energies Organisation), where he worked across a variety of fields including nuclear energy, solar photovoltaics and smart grids. In 2008, he joined one of the first R&D teams in Europe working on new nanocarbon structures: carbon nanotubes and graphene.
Within two years the team had shown that nanomaterials could be produced on a large scale and at a competitive cost. And in 2013 NAWA Technologies was born, spun off from the CEA (French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission), creating 24 jobs in Rousset, Southern France. So, in a very short time the team has not only pioneered a new type of ultra capacitor but also pilot manufacturing, clearly demonstrating that we have the technology and a talented team in place. Then you look at the potential for growth: latest reports predict that the global market for ultra capacitors will be $3.1bn by 2022 (up from $0.69bn in 2015). Wrap all of that up and you have a challenge – and an opportunity – that’s impossible to resist.
ees International: May you give us insights on the inner workings of the Ultra Fast Carbon Battery? What are the core components that make the innovation unique?
NAWA Technologies’ Ultra Fast Carbon Battery features Vertically Aligned Carbon Nanotubes combined with a unique coating and a chemical electrolyte. It’s this combination that makes the technology unique. In a regular ultracapacitor, there is a purely electrostatic reaction, while with a lithium-ion battery there is a purely chemical reaction. NAWA Technologies’ Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries sit between regular ultracapacitors and lithium-ion batteries.
Key to this is that NAWA Technologies has developed a new nanotube electrode architecture that increases the amount of electrical charges that can be stored per unit of mass (energy density), increases the rapidity with which those electrical charges can move (power density) and eliminates most of the manufacturing process problems suffered by lithium.
The nanostructure of the electrode material is at the heart of the outstanding performance available in the NAWA Technologies’ electrode, which is like a tooth brush but with a super high density of bristles (more than 10 billion per square cm). This carbon nanotube electrode is then coated with another material which has a higher intrinsic capacitance (ability to store more charge per mass unit) than carbon itself.
The combination of the carbon nanostructure and the coating is what gives the Ultra Fast Carbon Battery its unique properties. Today all batteries are manufactured from mixtures of powders from various materials. Powders lead to many problems due to the non-uniform material with holes of different sizes and only 2/3 of the specific surface accessible. Problems such as mechanical behaviour (disaggregation) especially when active powder is expanding in volume during charges are common, as is a poor electronic conductivity thanks to losses at each joint boundary. NAWA can get rid of most of those limitations thanks to the aligned structure, where 100 % of the specific surface is accessible, with narrow and straight holes to facilitate ion mobility. Finally, these nanotubes are continuous and have higher crystallinity with far higher conductivity.
A NAWA Technologies Ultra Fast Carbon Battery can be charged and discharged within seconds. And it can do so over a million cycles without any material loss in performance, far in advance of conventional lithium-ion batteries which take minutes, sometimes hours, to fully charge and typically have 5,000 cycle limits. The ability to vary the coating allows us to optimise our Ultra Fast Carbon Battery for energy or power. Our NAWACap Energy range of High Energy ultracapacitors is capable of storing three to five times more energy than existing ultra capacitors, while our NAWACap Power range of High Power ultracapacitors are 5 to 10 times more powerful than existing ultracapacitors.
ees International: Why does NAWA Technologies focus on carbon as the preferred material for its battery components? What are the characteristics of carbon that make it particularly suitable for battery designs?
Carbon exists as graphite and diamond, but it can also form other allotropic forms like fullerenes. These are cages and tubes. Buckminsterfullerene is one type of fullerene (discovered in 1996 by R. Smalley, F. Curl and H. Kroto – one of three Nobel prize winning discoveries that our technology is based upon – see answer No.4). Fullerenes have all sorts of uses, for example drug delivery systems in the body, in lubricants and as catalysts. Tube fullerenes are called nanotubes, which are very strong and light but also very good at storing electrical energy. NAWA Technologies has taken this two steps further by mastering a process that automatically aligns the nanotubes and, thanks to coating the carbon with another material, allows a fantastic trade-off between more energy and more power than existing ultra capacitors.
ees International: How did this idea come about and have there been any obstacles during the development process? Were there any forerunners to this technology?
NAWA Technologies’ innovations are directly linked to three recent Nobel prizes. In 1996 with the discovery of buckminsterfullerene (the “buckyball”) by R. Smalley, F. Curl and H. Kroto, in 2000, with the discovery of Electronic Conducting Plastics by A. J. Heeger, A. G. MacDiarmid and H. Shirakawa, and more recently in 2010 the discovery of Graphene by A. Geim and and K. Novoselov.
The scientist who pioneered this material at CEA went for an internship at the University of Sussex in the UK (H. Kroto’s university), and when she returned to France she developed the unique process that NAWA Technologies uses now. In 2011, CEA teamed with Dr. Pascal Boulanger, co-founder of NAWA Technologies, who had demonstrated the up-scaling and cost-effectiveness of the process.
In the same year CEA’s team produced the world’s largest virtually aligned carbon nanotube (VACNT) carpet on a 30 cm diameter wafer substrate. Three potential applications for this technology were identified: seawater de-salination, composite materials and energy storage. Of these, energy storage was the most attractive – especially as it meant we could overcome all of the limitations of lithium batteries (e.g. safety, charging time and overall life-cycle).
That’s why we focused our attention on developing a new concept of Ultra Fast Carbon Battery, marrying the best of ultracapacitors and lithium batteries.
Obstacles have been numerous because when you are working at the nanoscale, everything tends to stick together! Also, trying to manipulate objects in the nanoscale is like wearing boxing gloves. That is why we use the electrolyte to keep the nanotubes aligned. In effect, the nanotubes are like cooked spaghetti – our electrolyte is effectively Bolognese sauce that keeps these nanotubes all aligned in a pot. The main difficulty was to simplify the equipment design to make all this simple and cost-effective. If we keep the aspect ratio constant it’s like manipulating billions of aligned, 1 km long spaghettis while keeping a uniform sauce all along each piece!
ees International: What fields of application are possible for the Ultra Fast Carbon Battery? Is it future-proof from your point of view and why?
In the simplest application, NAWA Technologies’ new Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries can work as replacements for existing ultracapacitors, enabling faster charging of electricity. But the potential is far wider than that! The number of sectors in which Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries can be used – and improve other existing technology – is numerous. From logistics, for example, where faster, more rechargeable electric storage devices with longer lives are ideal for fleets of factory or warehouse-based vehicles, to power tools.
There is huge potential in automotive. Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries are perfect for use in the hybrid cars where they can, for example, rapidly store (and deploy) energy from regenerative braking systems. In the short term that means less overall weight, more efficiency and better response. Over the long term, because an Ultra Fast Carbon Battery can be charged up to 1 million times and is taking the heavy loads, we can prolong the life of the lithium ion battery and the whole system. So, whole life costs will be lower.
In fact, we have already carried out an interesting simulation based on a Formula E battery. By combining our batteries with the Formula E car’s lithium-ion battery, we took weight down from 300 kg to 200 kg, with the same power and the same range. That’s a 30% weight reduction – and more performance because you have less weight, not to mention longer life.
Mobility is another key area. In tomorrow’s intelligent cities, NAWA Technologies’ batteries are ideally suited for autonomous vehicles (such as buses or shared cars) which can be recharged in a few seconds when they are at rest. Furthermore, NAWA Technologies’ concepts are perfect for regulating tomorrow’s smart electricity grids, which will have an increased reliance on renewable, more variable energy.
Is our technology future proof? We strongly believe so. Our Ultra Fast Carbon Batteries are strong, eco-friendly and answer many questions the world has been asking. In the long term, we don’t know which technology from lithium or hydrogen fuel cells will win the automotive transition, but in both cases they will benefit from our power. The next step is to take the technology from pilot production to full manufacturing – but we believe we’re well on the way to doing that. We are at a very exciting point indeed.
Ulrik Grape, CEO, NAWA Technologies
Xenia Zoller, Assistant Editor, ees International