A breakthrough in lithium battery technology achieved by Victoria-based start-up Li-S Energy has been hailed as a step-change for battery-powered devices, with the potential to deliver enough charge for an electric vehicle to travel up to 1000km or a mobile phone to operate for an entire week.
Li-S Energy, a subsidiary of PPK Group (ASX: PPK), this week announced it had unlocked the code for creating lithium sulphur batteries that are more powerful, lighter and safer than conventional lithium-ion batteries.
PPK Group has a 48 per cent interest in Li-S Energy as well as a 50 per cent stake in Deakin University-backed BNNT Technology, the company that has made the world-first breakthrough possible.
BNNT Technology has managed to develop a low-cost production method for a heat resistant nanomaterial known as Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT) that is essential in stabilising the lithium sulphur batteries produced by Li-S Technology.
"They have cracked the problem of producing BNNT at a commercially reasonable price point and at scale," says Li-S Technology CEO Dr Lee Finniear.
The breakthrough now positions the regional Victorian city of Geelong as a new powerhouse in the development of the next generation of batteries that could potentially accelerate the take-up of electric vehicles globally.
"This has the potential to make a dramatic impact on the global stage," says Finniear.
"Lithium-ion batteries are reaching their maximum theoretical energy density. People have been optimising them for decades.
"But Panasonic which makes the Tesla batteries have said they are only going to improve their batteries by 20 per cent in the next four to five years. When you start looking at climate change, a better battery is going to be essential."
The road to commercialising the technology has been 10 years in the making, building on research undertaken at Deakin University.
Among the shareholders of BNNT Technology are a group of Deakin University researchers who helped develop the BNNT technology.
Li-S Energy has filed two key provisional patents covering the function of BNNT within the lithium sulphur battery chemistry. The new technology covered by these patents has the potential to make large-scale manufacturing of lithium sulphur batteries commercially viable for the first time.
The lithium sulphur difference
Lithium sulphur batteries are described by Finnear as "aggressive batteries" with a theoretical energy capacity of more than five times their lithium-ion counterparts. They also charge faster, are lighter and less prone to overheating, making them safer than lithium-ion.
"The technology has been around for 20 years, but the issues have centred on their recharging stability meaning they die after relatively few cycles," says Finniear.
"BNNT, with its combination of amazing properties, has allowed us to mitigate these critical problems within the battery.
"By using BNNT and another composite we've developed, we've been able to create a lithium sulphur battery that has surpassed 450 recharge cycles without significant degradation. This compares with a typical lithium-ion battery's recharge-discharge life of 300 to 500 cycles.
"Our next step is to optimise the construction and performance of the battery cells we are producing to drive them as far as we can."
Finnear describes the advances achieved by the joint-venture partners as a world first in lithium battery technology.
Powering electric vehicles
The implications for electric vehicle production are among the most significant for advances in lithium sulphur batteries.
"Weight is a big issue for lithium batteries, and for the same energy storage we can be a third of the weight with lithium sulphide," says Finnear.
"We have more work to do. Our intention is to increase the scale of our pilot production once we've optimised construction of the battery.
"And our intention is to look at products that use batteries and undertake trials with the lithium sulphur alternative."
The Li-S Energy and BNNT Technology teams work in collaboration at Deakin University's advanced manufacturing precinct in Geelong.
Li-S Energy's initial production plant is slated for the university's new ManuFutures 2 facility, which is being developed through a $20 million investment by the Victorian Government.
Australia at the cutting edge
With a significant stake in both Li-S Energy and BNNT Technology, PPK Group executive chairman Robin Levison sees the technology delivering major dividends for Australia by positioning it at the cutting edge of technology that has significant potential globally.
"This as a massive opportunity firstly for Australia where we have developed a technology which no one else in the world, including NASA, have been able to achieve," he says.
"Secondly, in an area like Geelong which has done it tough with the car industry leaving, we feel we can really start to generate employment there as we start to grow these businesses out."
Levison says in combination with its other joint ventures such the Strategic Alloys alliance with Amaero International, the breakthrough is a major step forward for the university sector.
"We think these entities like lithium sulphur batteries, BNNT and the super-strength aluminium alloy project, we can generate employment for PhD students and senior professorial staff so they're actually learning how to create a business."
Levison says while it is unlikely lithium sulphur batteries will be mass produced in Australia, the licensing revenue will deliver an economic dividend for PPK and the technology ector generally.
"The real money comes from the development and commercialisation of the science and we're now on the cusp of being very ready to enter a massive commercial market."
Li-S Energy has bolstered its capital position with a $20 million pre-IPO capital raising, ahead of a planned IPO.
Levison is best known for turning Australian "penny stock" Industrea into a mining products and services giant before selling it to General Electric in 2012 for $470 million.
If PPK shares are any indication, almost tripling in the past year, Levison hasn't lost his touch.
"For me personally, this is a really exciting moment for PPK," he says. "What we see here is a real-life tangible application of BNNT to facilitate a genuine technological breakthrough with global commercial potential."
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