One of the most promising types of solar cells has a few drawbacks. A scientist at Michigan Technological University may have overcome one of them.
The problem is figuring out how to make them.
Stretchability and conductivity are difficult properties to combine. Materials that are good conductors do not stretch well and materials that do stretch well are not good conductors.
This happens because the stretching of solid material lengthens chemical bonds, changing the distance between atoms, and in turn, decreasing conductivity. Alternatively, the crystalline structures of metals, which makes them good conductors of heat and electricity, are hard to mold since their internal bonds are not very forgiving.
“This is the story throughout the entire family of stretchable conductors,” said study researcher Nicholas Kotov, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, who may have developed the best stretchy conductor yet.
The new material is made from gold nanoparticles that are embedded in a flexible synthetic material called polyurethane. The bendy film, described in a paper published in Nature on Wednesday, July 17, can conduct electricity even when stretched to more than twice its original length.
Scientists used electron microscope images to see what happened when the material was stretched. It turns out that the gold nanoparticles aligned into chains when pulled — instead of becoming disorganized — creating a good conducting pathway. Importantly, the nanoparticles rearranged themselves when the strain was released, meaning the process is reversible.
The gold nanoparticles are produced in the lab, represented by this deep purple substance.
The secret lies in the gold nanoparticles, which were made in the lab so that they they would have a very thin shells on their surface. The thin shells are much better than thicker traditional shells.
Without a thick shell, the electrons can hop from one nanoparticle to another more easily and are able to conduct electricity very well.
The practical applications of elastic metal are far-reaching, but Kotov is particularly interested in how his material can be used to improve medical devices.
There are a number of implantable devices for the brain, heart, and muscles. The problem with these rigid electrodes is that the human tissue easily recognizes them as foreign materials and generates scar tissue as a response, explains Kotov. The scar tissue reduces the performance of implantable devices. A pliable material that is more akin to our soft tissue is key to longer-term implants.
The search for a material that has the unusual combination of stretchability and electrical conductivity is ongoing, but this is a critical step forward.
Maker of Batteries Files for Bankruptcy
Published: October 16, 2012
DETROIT — The troubled battery maker A123 Systems filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s program to jump-start a domestic battery industry and spur development of electric vehicles.
One of the many kinds of batteries made by A123 Systems.
In announcing its bankruptcy filing, A123 said it had agreed to sell its automotive assets and factories to Johnson Controls, another American battery producer that has benefited from federal assistance, in a deal it valued at $125 million.
A123, based in Waltham, Mass., was once considered one of the most promising grant recipients under the administration’s $2 billion stimulus program for electric car development. The Department of Energy awarded the company a $249 million grant to establish battery manufacturing operations in Michigan, although A123 had received only about $132 million of the grant before its bankruptcy.
The company’s failure may well become a political football in the presidential campaign, in which energy policy has been a leading topic. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has repeatedly criticizedPresident Obama for his heavy spending on green-energy programs, including a $528 million loan to Solyndra, a solar module maker that went bankrupt last year.
“A123’s bankruptcy is yet another failure for the president’s disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of taxpayer dollars on a strategy of government-led growth that simply does not work,” said Andrea Saul, Mr. Romney’s press secretary, in a statement on Tuesday.
The Energy Department defended the federal grant to A123 as one of many bipartisan efforts to support American manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. A department official, Dan Leistikow, said in a blog post that the administration had awarded $2 billion in grants to 29 companies involved in the electrification of vehicles, creating thousands of jobs.
A123 has used about $132 million of its grant to date, plus another $6 million given in 2007 by the Bush administration, said Mr. Leistikow, the agency’s director of public affairs. Michigan has also given A123 a $9 million grant, plus various tax breaks.
Mr. Leistikow said the federal money would not be wasted because A123’s two Michigan factories would now be operated by Johnson Controls.
“In an emerging industry, it’s very common to see some firms consolidate with others as the industry grows and matures,” he said.
The department previously gave Johnson Controls, based in Wisconsin, its own $299 million federal grant for an electric-car battery project.
The Solyndra bankruptcy, which became the subject of Congressional hearings, stoked concerns about oversight of government-backed energy programs.
Another battery manufacturer that received federal help, Ener1, went bankrupt in January. It had approval for $118.5 million in grants from the Energy Department but had received only about half of that when it entered bankruptcy.
A123 was a centerpiece of the government’s electric-vehicle program, opening two factories in Michigan and securing contracts to supply batteries to automakers including General Motors and the start-up firm Fisker Automotive.
But its financial stability has been in question for more than a year. The company suffered a major setback when it had to recall defective batteries in Fisker cars. And despite orders from carmakers, A123 could not generate sufficient revenue or profit from the slowly growing market for electric vehicles.
In August, A123 surprised industry experts by agreeing to sell up to 80 percent of the company to the American arm of the Wanxiang Group, China’s largest auto parts manufacturer.
Political opponents of the Wanxiang deal asserted that the Chinese company would get access to technology and products made possible by the support of American taxpayers.
One of the critics, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said the sale of A123’s factories to Johnson Controls was “something positive” because it kept the company’s assets out of Chinese hands.
But Mr. Grassley and Senator John Thune, Republican from South Dakota, criticized the Energy Department, saying it ignored warning signs that A123 was faltering.
“The bankruptcy raises the prospect that the taxpayers will get little or no return on their investment in A123 and will lose millions of dollars,” Mr. Grassley said.
The Energy Department countered that A123’s employees and customers would be absorbed by a larger, stronger competitor in Johnson Controls.
“A123’s manufacturing facilities and technology will continue to be a vital part of America’s advanced battery industry,” said Mr. Leistikow.
Wanxiang, which has its United States headquarters outside Chicago, pledged in August to invest up to $465 million in A123, but the deal fell apart for undisclosed reasons.
“We determined not to move forward with the previously announced Wanxiang agreement as a result of unanticipated and significant challenges to its completion,” said David Vieau, A123’s chief executive,in a statement.
Instead, the company found a new suitor in Johnson Controls, which analysts say is now in position to be the dominant American battery manufacturer.
A123 said filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would ease the sale of its automotive assets to Johnson Controls. The deal includes Michigan plants in the Detroit suburbs in Livonia and Romulus, as well as A123’s equity interest in battery facilities in China.
Johnson Controls said it would provide $72.5 million in financing for A123’s reorganization in bankruptcy.
“We believe that A123’s automotive capabilities are a good complement to our existing portfolio and will further advance Johnson Controls’ position as a market leader in this industry,” said Alex Molinaroli, head of the power systems unit of Johnson Controls.
Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital, said in a research note that the deal would help Johnson Controls become “the U.S.-based player” in the market for lithium-ion batteries.
A123 has also received “significant interest” for its remaining assets, primarily its electric-grid technology and products for commercial and government entities, said Mr. Vieau, the company’s chief executive
Whether Wanxiang will bid on those assets during bankruptcy is not known. The head of the Chinese firm’s United States operations, Pin Ni, said in an e-mail on Tuesday, “Our interest and commitment has not changed” regarding A123.
Matthew L. Wald reported from Washington.
A123 President and CEO David Vieau, left, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Energy Secretary Steven Chu and A123 Vice President Jason Forcier, right, tour the Romulus plant. / July 2011 photo by Carlos Osorio/ASSOCIATED PRESS
By Nathan Bomey
The future of A123 Systems, which received a $249.1-million grant in 2009 from the Obama administration and more than $125 million in State of Michigan tax credits and aid, is now up to a Chinese auto supplier.
Wanxiang Group agreed in August to invest up to $450 million to acquire as much as 80% of the Waltham, Mass.-based battery maker.
But shares in the company, which employs about 700 people in Romulus, Livonia and Ann Arbor, are now trading for 27 cents, down from a 52-week high of $4.44 about a year ago. It has lost $857 million since its inception, and $208 million of that in the first half of this year. Clean-tech companies backed by the U.S. government have been a target of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who accuses President Barack Obama of “picking winners and losers” with grants and loans like those to A123.
Now, the Wanxiang investment has made the administration’s support of A123 even more sensitive.
The deal gave A123 much-needed cash to continue operating, but experts said the future of the company’s manufacturing operations in Michigan is in doubt.
“The issue of having the Chinese come in after the U.S. has supported the company with loans is a challenge for them,” University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute analyst Bruce Belzowski said. “Do they end up moving the plant to China? As owners they would have that right to do that.”
Critics have suggested that Wanxiang identified an opportunity to pounce on a company with valuable intellectual property at a cheap price. Pin Ni, president of Elgin, Ill.-based Wanxiang America, referred questions to A123, which declined to comment for this report.
A123 CEO David Vieau told investors in August that the deal would “remove the uncertainty regarding A123’s financial situation” and allow the company to “leverage Wanxiang’s global supply chain and automotive manufacturing efficiencies to reduce our costs.”
Wanxiang, owned by Chinese billionaire Guanqiu Lu, told the Securities and Exchange Commission that its investment would help A123 gain “access to the vehicle electrification and grid-scale energy storage markets in China.”
Pike Research analyst John Gartner said that for A123 to expand sales in China, it would make sense to manufacture batteries there.
“Because of the weight of the batteries, it’s much more cost effective to manufacture where they’re going to be used in the vehicles,” Gartner said.
A123’s stock closed Friday at 27 cents, down 98% from its September 2009 initial public offering price of $13.50. Several executives have sold thousands of shares in recent weeks, according to SEC filings.
“It’s not clear what the Chinese are going to get out of this,” said Theodore O’Neill, founder of Connecticut-based Litchfield Hills Research and a former securities analyst who tracked A123. “There isn’t any value here. There really isn’t enough need for the product, and the product isn’t profitable.”
Battery companies have struggled to achieve breakthroughs and lower costs, which is necessary to make electric vehicles more affordable. Most consumers are still buying conventional vehicles that run on gasoline or first-generation gasoline-electric hybrids that don’t require recharging.
Gartner said lithium-ion battery packs cost about $700 per kilowatt hour, but that needs to come down to about $350 to become competitive with internal combustion engines.
“It’s really going to take the next generation of battery technology to get there,” he said.
A123 is spending more than $66 million to complete a recall of battery packs it supplied to Fisker Automotive. At issue is a faulty welding machine at its Livonia plant.
After the discovery, A123 hired materials handler MPS Group to conduct the Fisker battery-pack recall, according to company documents obtained by the Free Press.The recall is not expected to be finished until mid-2013, and Fisker, which represented 26% of A123’s revenue in 2011, may switch battery suppliers, Fisker CEO Tony Posawatz said Monday in Detroit.
Others are sticking by A123. General Motors, which selected A123 as the supplier for the forthcoming electric version of the Chevrolet Spark minicar, said it has no plans to switch suppliers.
But A123 has warned the SEC that there is “substantial doubt” about its ability to continue operating as an independent company.
A bankruptcy filing or Wanxiang taking control of A123 would stir further questions about the government’s role in funding private enterprise, especially if it expanded production in China.
“The venture capital community has been burned just as badly as the taxpayer,” O’Neill said. “This is a segment of industry that nobody’s making any money in.”
Contact Nathan Bomey: 313-223-4743