Alcoa Canada demoed a car on the Gilles-Villeneuve racetrack in Montreal last week, in collaboration with the developer of the car’s aluminum-air electric battery, a company called Phinergy.
While the world has been getting used to the idea of the lithium-ion powered electric car, mainly owing to the success of Elon Musk’s Tesla Model S, aluminum giant Alcoa and this small Israeli company have been collaborating on perfecting a method for extracting energy from aluminum whose time is likely to come in the next year or two.
Obviously, the electric car has had a rough ride these past decades, seeming at first like an environmental saviour promising the long-awaited end of our dependence on oil and gas, and ending up as a kind of early 20th century punchline, along with jetpacks and fusion energy.
Here in Canada, electric car pioneer Ballard Power virtually disappeared at the turn of the century before resurrecting itself recently as a developer of fuel cell technology with applications beyond the auto sector. And in the early 1990s, Alupower Canada developed the very same air-aluminum battery technology that Phinergy is now preparing for market.
As Phinergy’s CEO Aviv Tzidon explained to me recently, to conclude that an idea is a failure because it seemed impossible relatively recently would be a mistake. “We should be fair, to look at the progress of technology over these 30 years. Because 30 years ago, nanotechnology was not there, and the microcomputer was not there. Now, can you imagine a lithium-ion battery with no BMS (battery management system)? You can imagine it, but it will not work.”
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I talked with Tzidon after the racetrack demo and before his presentation at the Canadian International Aluminum Conference.
Aviv, what is the feasibility of scaling an aluminum-air battery for market?
I think there is a more sophisticated challenge, if we look around us because many things we keep doing, and if we get to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, we should not try to bury it. Because after 20-30 years, we should revisit, and revisit with a new view, a new approach, with better technology. And sometimes, that makes a difference.”
There’s the question also of those little windows being there, of opportunity. Is it scalable? Can we do this on a mass basis? And that’s been the challenge with the auto industry, aside from just the general torpor.
It’s always a challenge. Sometimes you can look on Youtube, somebody’s doing a miracle with some chemicals. But either it is very expensive or very scarce, and it can be done only once, or things like that. So when we decided to revisit this opportunity, it was after this catalyst was developed for eight years, in the University of Bar-Ilan in Israel. So we bought the rights of this technology and we continued to develop that. But the first thing we decided to do was to work under the radar, in stealth mode. Because we remember it failed so many years back, and there was no point of bragging before demonstrating, first to ourselves, that all the negative problems from the past can be cured with today’s technology and vision. And we worked for many years, from 2008 until 2013, five years we were under the radar trying to make it work. And today we can demonstrate that we have a battery that’s working continuously, 25,000 hours. That’s more than three years. We already consume aluminum back to energy, and we did more than 14 megawatt-hours. So it is scalable, it is robust, it is durable, and we feel it is a good time to be exposed.
Can you summarize the relationship with Alcoa, and their Innovation Centre in Pittsburgh, which employs approximately 650 researchers and is the largest light metal research facility in the world?
They were very open to look at us. There was skepticism. But I can say, and we’ve been talking to many people, that the way they are looking into new things, fresh, even though they are more than 125 years in the aluminum industry. The first owner of Alcoa invented the Bayer process. So there’s a lot of legacy in this organization, but they are open, they look at things, and this is why we’ve made such good progress. And at the recent AABC (Advanced Automotive Battery Conference) in Atlanta, Alcoa decided that we are ready as a team to be announced, and they gave the first announcement about the operation.
This technology has been discredited in the past, but do you think there is a gradual opening of the mind of the consumer to the possibility of electric car ownership?
Thank you for asking that, because I think this is very important to realize, that we spoke about consuming electricity, but let’s speak about consuming cars. Why do we buy a car? For transport? Probably not. It’s cheapest to go with public transport or something like that. So going from Place A to B, the car is not the perfect solution. We might look and see sharing and stuff like that in the future. Still, why do people buy cars? Because there is some sense of freedom associated there.
Intuiting that I was fishing for him to articulate the sense of resistance that consumers have, knowing that they ought to choose the “good” option while in the short term settling for whatever’s cheapest, as if car ownership was mainly a moral decision, he refreshingly replied, “We try not to educate the customer to change their behaviour. We try to go along with their behaviour.”
A recent report by Deloitte on consumer attitudes to electric vehicles points out that while “on average 80 percent of drivers surveyed typically drive less than 80 kilometers per day, consumers expect EVs to travel considerably farther.” It points to a phenomenon that Tzidon refers to as “range anxiety”.
“Did you ever ask, when you purchase a new car, ‘How far does it go?’ Never. Because it can go as much as you like, providing you refuel it.”
With aluminum-air technology supplementing existing lithium-ion batteries, which are good at power and acceleration, Phinergy’s partnership with Alcoa, which after all is one of the largest aluminum suppliers in the world, drivers may find themselves in the position of refuelling their cars once a month with a small amount of tap water rather than making the expensive ritual visit to the gas station every other day.
It’s a reality whose time has come, says Tzidon. “This was something that 20 years ago was nearly impossible to do in terms of budget and time. Today with factory prototyping, 3D printing, open thinking and other advantages, it is doable.”