If Contour Energy Systems is right, you might die well before your heart defibrillator gives out.
Contour — founded by a blue-ribbon group of chemistry and battery scientists — has come up with a way to make high-power, long-lasting batteries with fluorine ions instead of lithium.
The batteries will initially be targeted at the military and medical device industry, but, if successful, they potentially could wind up in a wide variety of applications. The company recently cut the ribbon on an initial factory in Azuza, California. The first batteries come out later this year.
“Why do you change batteries in a smoke detector? Because a battery wasn’t previously available that would last 20 years,” says Maurice Gunderson, a partner at CMEA, which invested in the company. “Why is a blender not cordless? Because batteries weren’t good enough.”
In terms of energy density, fluorine batteries have the potential to be eight times better than lithium batteries, but he adds that a two- to three-fold boost in performance is more realistic. The batteries will also have better power performance, i.e., they will be able to deliver more power on demand.
While lithium currently sits atop the battery world, other chemistries have emerged in recent years that may begin to go mainstream. GE and other large industrial companies are devising sodium batteries for grid storage, while a host of companies have put their hopes into zinc for batteries to be used in personal electronics and cars. Zinc may also get deployed in solar fields to store energy on the grid. Others advocate solid-state lithium batteries and lithium air batteries. (More chemistry fun: Linde, Masdar PV and others advocate swapping nitrogen trifluoride with fluoride in solar panel manufacturing.) After all, lead acid was succeeded by nickel, nickel by nickel metal hydride, and NiMH by lithium ion.
Fluorine batteries actually exist now — you can buy them in drugstores for cameras — but they aren’t particularly efficient. These currently available batteries employ a carbon monofluoride structure. That is, a battery component will have one fluorine for every carbon. Contour has developed a process to vary the basic formula that will allow a battery component to contain more, or even fewer, fluorine atoms to carbon atoms, depending on the desired result and application.
The company was originally called CFX Battery, with the C standing for carbon, the F for fluorine and the X for the ratio that can vary.
Like the lithium family of batteries, which includes lithium cobalt, lithium manganese and other combinations, the exact recipe used for each battery and component will vary. The company may come out with batteries where the secret sauce lies in the anode or the cathode or both. The first batteries — for military applications — will be coin batteries that are primary, i.e. non-chargeable, power sources.
Contour, however, hopes to follow up with secondary, rechargeable batteries in cylindrical form factors, such as prismatic batteries for the medical device industry.
“Any place where you have to do surgery to replace the battery is a potential application,” Gunderson said. “The material is tunable for the application.”
The business model will vary. In some instances, Contour will make the battery. In other situations, it may design the battery but outsource manufacturing. In still other scenarios, it may sell powder to a large battery manufacturer and supply some intellectual property. (Editor’s note — the ‘powder ‘n’ knowledge’ model is a hybrid of the classic intellectual property business model, which we call “The Innovalight Model” here, after Innovalight, which sells powder and licenses integration know-how.)
“The unconventional part is the making of the secret powder,” he said.
Despite the novel chemistry, the batteries can be produced on ordinary manufacturing equipment. Contour, in fact, says the batteries can be made on equipment on Chinese battery lines.
Will the batteries wind up in grid storage? Probably not, says Gunderson. The economics are challenging.
If anything, Contour has a solid pedigree. The company was founded by Robert Grubbs, a Nobel laureate in polymer-based chemistry systems; Rachid Yazami, a visiting professor from Caltech; and Andre Hamwi, a well-known fluorine expert out of the University of Blaise-Pascal in France. Other execs include T. Joseph Fisher, CEO, who comes from Energizer.