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Business Observer Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011 10 years ago

Power Packed

If battery-powered vehicles are to become practical for consumers, battery technology has to become smaller, cheaper and more powerful. Planar Energy believes it has created a technology to build it.
by: Dan Ping Editor/Central Florida

Issue. Improving battery performance
Industry. Technology
Key. Planar Energy has developed technology that could make battery-powered cars more feasible.

The future of printing presses may be in question for the newspaper industry, but an Orlando company believes the process they use is key to developing new batteries that could power electric vehicles.

Planar Energy is developing a technology called Streaming Protocol for Electroless Electrochemical Deposition (SPEED) to create thin-film batteries using a roll-to-roll manufacturing process similar to the printing presses used to produce newspapers.

Planar engineers and scientists are still refining the SPEED process. If successful, the result will be batteries that are 75% smaller, store up to three times more energy and last substantially longer than traditional batteries.

“If we can solve this problem, it's a multi-billion dollar industry,” says Planar Founder and CEO Scott Faris.

Funded by venture capital
Faris is a serial entrepreneur who has been involved in more than 20 startup and emerging-growth technology companies. He co-founded Planar Energy in 2007 with Princeton, N.J.-based Battelle Ventures LP, the $220 million venture capital division of Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages four of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Laboratories.

To date, Planar has received about $12 million in venture capital and grants, an important lifeline for a company with 18 employees focused on research, not revenues.

Battelle Ventures has provided $4 million in funding to Planar. The company has received another $4 million from the Department of Energy, as part of its Advanced Research Project Agency.

In addition, Planar has received $50,000 from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, as well as another $4 million in capital funding that Faris declined to identify.

“This is not for angel investors,” says Faris, noting that for Planar to succeed it needs investors who are experienced in financing emerging technologies.

Faris says Battelle Ventures, in particular, has been a valuable partner because of its deep pockets and, as importantly, its experience with technical companies.

“You need very knowledge investors who understand how these companies need to be funded,” says Faris.

For instance, Planar originally received $1.3 million up front, with the remaining $2.7 million being released as the company achieved specific milestones.

Going forward, Planar will need substantial investment from equity firms if the company plans to build or acquire a large-scale manufacturing facility.

Follow the markets
Planar's investors are willing to cover the company's cost as it perfects its technology because of its earnings potential but also because Faris focused on determining the market he wanted to serve, not the technology he wanted to use.

“We didn't start with the technology, we defined the market. Money follows the market, not the technology,” says Faris. “We wanted to know the market and where it needed to be in five years, 10 years.”

For batteries, the market needs substantially better performance for smart phones and a host of other energy-draining devices.

“The consumer electronics industry, for instance, has found it can't live with the 3% increase in battery performance that has typically been the norm,” says Faris.

Those small increases in performance are magnified when it comes to automobiles. Despite advances, batteries capable of producing enough energy to power a vehicle are large and heavy.

In addition, the chemical reaction that occurs inside a battery produces heat, which drains up to 30% of the battery's potential energy. That chemical reaction also shortens the lifespan, requiring battery-powered car owners to replace the costly batteries every two to three years.

Creating a lighter, smaller battery with more energy and efficiency was the idea market to follow. Plus, very few companies are investing in research to improve performance.

“It's a market that is under invested and ready for huge change,” says Faris, comparing it to the shift from vacuum tubes to transistors.

Solid research
Defining a market is one thing. Developing a technology that can fill that market is quite another.

Planar's research is focused on producing solid-state batteries.

“Battery technology hasn't changed in 150 years,” says Faris. “The chemistry has gotten better, but the basics haven't changed.”

Traditional batteries work by combining liquids and reactive materials to produce a series of electromagnetic reactions between an anode, cathode and a liquid electrolyte, usually a lithium ion.

A solid-state battery works the same way, but replaces the liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte. By doing so, you eliminate extra materials, such as binders, that add bulk, cost and inefficiency.

Using technology first developed by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Planar has created a ceramic electrolyte that works as well as liquid electrolytes.

The technology of solid-state batteries is not new. They can be manufactured using a process called vacuum deposition that builds up atomic layers of material on a substrate. However, vacuum deposition is complex and costly.

“I don't think anyone wants to pay $15,000 for a cell phone battery,” Faris chuckles. “It's not an option for manufacturing batteries for the automotive industry.”

The process requires SPEED
Planar scientists know they have a much smaller solid-state battery that delivers three times the energy at half the cost of traditional batteries. A study by researchers at the University of Central Florida's Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center verified Planar's findings.

The challenge is manufacturing the batteries on a large scale. That's where SPEED comes in.

Solar cells and display screens are manufactured using a “thin-film” printing process. The process requires a liquid precursor chemical to be applied onto a metal or plastic substrate that passes from one roll to another similar to a traditional printing press. Those chemicals then react to form a solid film.

To manufacture batteries using this method, the “solid” film, actually needs to be a honeycomb-like structure that is one-billionth of a meter in scale so that the ceramic electrolytes can move back and forth to generate electricity.

That process is the heart of SPEED, a proprietary mix of chemicals and concentrations to create these structures within the film. The process is the creation of Dr. Isaiah O. Oladeji, who discovered it while earning his doctoral degree in condensed matter physics. He joined Planar as the company's principal investigator.

“This is a homegrown technology that was created here in Central Florida,” says Faris.

Combining Oladeji's SPEED process with the proper battery chemistries was a process of trial and error that resulted in some frustrating moments. Progress did not always move up in a straight line.

“There were times we would make changes and actually make things worse,” says Faris. “But that's where you build the value of the company. We are learning about what to do, and more importantly what not to do.”

More work to do
Developing SPEED was an important break through, says Faris, but there is more work to be done. Planar has proven it can build its battery using new technology, but the company still has to prove it can manufacture them with consistent quality and quantity.

While Faris won't say the challenge is easy, he does admit the most difficult phase appears to be solved.

“We're past solving the chemistry part. We've solved the fundamentals and now we're down to engineering,” says Faris. “At this point it's about refining the manufacturing process.”

Planar is in pilot production of the batteries and will ramp up production over the next year. The company is in talks with electronics companies to begin making small batteries for high-tech, hand-held devices. Gradually Planar will pursue contracts for larger applications that require larger batteries. The company expects to be producing batteries for cars in about five years.

As production ramps up, Planar will need to purchase or build a facility to manufacture batteries on a large scale, as its current 47,000-square-foot building near downtown Orlando is too small.

Purchasing a large manufacturing facility would require a substantial investment. In 2009, the Planar applied for $56 million in federal stimulus funds to purchase a shuttered battery plant near Gainesville to purchase for $130 million.

In its application, the company said it had commitments from private investors to match the governments' $56 million in private investment.

An independent anaylsis of the proposal projected the plant would create 600 high tech jobs at wages above the average in Alachua County. The economic impact was estimated at $2 billion annually.

Planar did not receive the grant and the plant was reopened in 2010 by New York-based Bren-Tronics Energy Systems Inc.

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