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Indian labs establish global competitiveness through indigenous technology

The following is an excerpt from a podcast interview by Netra Walawalkar for Emerging Technology Radio, with Dr Bharat Kale, Director of Center for Materials for Electronics Technology (C-MET), who spoke about the ongoing efforts of India's premier labs to build strong R&D centers and position itself as a manufacturing hub for advanced ES tech.

Dr Bharat Kale

Regarding the three chemistries you spoke about which C-MET is working on for Li-ion, is there any specific chemistry, for any application?

Battery chemistry today is standard: lithium cobalt oxide and graphite. Suppose you need 3.2 to 3.7 electron gold batteries, then the chemistry needed is one cathode should be lithium cobalt oxide and the anode should be graphite or perhaps carbon. Other chemistries are lithium cobalt oxide for the cathode with lithium titanium oxide for the anode. Here, we get a voltage of around 1.5 to 2 volts which is low but has better stability. This chemistry allows charging at a higher rate as compared to the graphite chemistry. At C-MET Pune, we experiment with different chemistries such as Co-LCO as well as graphite-LCO. We have a lithium phosphate cathode and we have used biomass carbon instead of the graphite anode. You can produce a good quality carbon with the required porosity from biomass like banana and potatoes. We can also use the sodium-ion chemistry, since sodium is available in large quantities. Sodium metal, too, is easily available and cheap.

Li-ion battery costs have reduced in a big way over the last 10 years. As the demand increases and India enters the battery manufacturing space, do you believe costs will reduce further?

Definitely the cost will reduce a little, but not to the extent we expect today, which is half the present cost. A 20-30 percent decrease will be achieved, but only with huge production of batteries.

As you said, the successful commercialization of lab technologies requires industrial participation. How can industries collaborate with C-MET?

There are two kinds of approaches to this. One, is that people think we will give them the technology for e-vehicle batteries. That is not the case since anyone can make batteries for 2W, 3W or 4W with the single cell. The technology we provide will be only for manufacturing the single cell; and very few companies have the expertise and know-how for cell fabrication. It is a high-tech technology and only those who have it can survive. This is a very sensitive, material dependent technology. If something goes wrong in the material, you will not be able to produce good capacity batteries, or you may manufacture a faulty battery with an explosion problem. How are we helping out in this scenario? We are optimizing cathode material, which is the cathode material needed for an Indian condition. The Indian conditions are very important as these materials are highly sensitive. At certain places you may get very dry weather where it will work properly while in the rainy season, moisture gets absorbed in such materials, which again leads to problems. We have to take these conditions into account. We are optimizing cathode and anode to suit our Indian conditions.
So, as you see, technology transfer alone is not the solution. To achieve sustainable technology we have to educate and train the manpower. The mobile, for example, has a huge demand. Today, the market for mobiles is 100 crore – one hundred crore people are using mobiles. The mobile battery lasts for a year or year and a half. So every year there is a market for 100 crore batteries. These are huge markets that cannot be serviced by a single company. Similarly, there would be a huge demand for e-vehicle batteries. There are almost 1.5 crore laptop users in the country as per
a 2018 survey which means there's a requirement for an equal number of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries have a slightly higher capacity, 10-15,000 milliampere (mA). This demand exists and is increasing on a daily basis.

Are you suggesting that transfer of technology can take place with multiple companies?

Yes, exactly. Only multiple companies can satisfy today's demand or companies could specialize in a single type of battery manufacture.
This covers one aspect, the other is that a corresponding supply of chemicals in this quantity should be manufactured. If the demand in the market rises for e-vehicles, one would need almost 15,000 tons of cathode and 15,000 tons of anode material. This is the job of those operating in the chemical line. There are two separate aspects here - the combination of chemical and electronics. The cathodes and anodes are very important and are highly specialized materials; they have to be produced in a very specialized manner and on a huge scale. In our C-MET facilities, we make up to 250 grams per batch. We demonstrate in small amounts and pass the technology onto the industry and allow them to take over the production.
The other constraint is that we as a government organization are
not permitted commercial transactions. So, we have now adopted a scheme by which we connect each project with the industry so that we get a fruitful product from this effort.

What are the focus areas and general objectives of the Center of Excellence in Rechargeable Batteries?

So far there was limited demand for lithium-ion batteries in India. Now with the demand increasing, we will have manufacturing in India for lithium-ion batteries. In order to support this manufacturing as well as the fabrication unit, we need some R&D support. If the machinery does not work as desired, manufacturers resort to importing machinery. Therefore, we believe that we should have our indigenous machinery production in parallel and the industry itself will design the machines. That is the first goal.
The second one is to ensure a continuous flow of lithium cathode and anode, and we are here to ensure their purity and sustainable supply.
Another battery option is sodium-ion batteries; in case this chemistry should enter the market in the future, we should be ready with our material. So we are also optimizing sodium-ion battery materials and their fabrication. That is one research project in CoE that we are running in parallel. The other is flexible batteries. Within two-to-five years, most of the electronic devices like mobiles and TVs will become flexible. You can roll up your TV, put it into your car, drive out of town, unroll and set it up. That is the kind of technology that we can expect within four-to-five years. Take the case of medical devices – all medical devices will become flexible to the patient. So, we have started research in flexible batteries and are seeing 10-20 percent success. We have to ensure not only their flexibility but also their stretchability. Since the battery will be stretchable we have to produce stretchable polymers and ionic conductive polymers. This is a work in progress, and four to five scientists are continuously working on this project.
Another research project is to replace the present organic electrolytes. Organic electrolyte restricts fast charging of batteries. In order to obtain a five-minute charging time, I need a solid glass, polymer or ceramic electrolyte. Different scientists are working on the three electrolyte options. All this falls under the CoE.
In the future, many other chemistries like aluminum-air batteries will come into play. We have already started continuous research in this field as there are many problems with aluminum batteries that have to be solved. CoE is not restricted to just lithium-ion, but to all chemistries and technologies. We also want to make CoE self-sustainable after five years.

What are other focus areas of CoE?

To give you examples, if a company wishes to set up a plant for say two kilos of lithium cathode, we are there to guide and help them establish a manufacturing plant. If a cycle manufacturer needs a small battery, they are free to use our facilities and know-how to make this two-wheeler battery. C-MET helps with these kinds of startups.
Another new and upcoming concept is 3D printing which has so many applications in all sectors. Very soon we will have a CoE in 3D printing. One can manufacture sensors through 3D printing and testing of a new prototype can be carried out within 24 hours. Cost wise the imported printer sells at around `2 crore against `30-35 lakh if we were to manufacture in India. Our program now includes work on 3D printing batteries and service.

How does the recent workshop on cell fabrication jointly held by C-MET and IESA fit in with the skill-development goals?

We conducted this conference as a part of CoE. The government approach is very simple: To promote a Make in India approach we help the industry in whatever way to develop a market-ready product. When the flexible battery market opens up, definitely people will come to me for know-how and I have to be prepared. Any indigenously developed technology becomes the wealth of the country. Our motto is to have indigenous technology
at least in batteries. From there we are slowly moving towards solar cells.
The key to sustainable production is to have trained people in companies. So, part of our objective is to train people for material synthesis, as well as the fabrication of cells. This trained manpower will be immediately available to the manufacturer.
We have about 30-35 scientists working in Pune. The rest are PhD, MTech and MSc students making it a total strength of 110. We mostly utilize PhD students in our projects. They will be the next generation of scientists and we have to train them properly.

Author : Netra Walawalkar
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