Startup works on safer carbon-ion batteries

Safety seen as trade-off for long battery life in lithium-ion cells

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New non-flammable, quick-charging batteries being demonstrated by private startup ZapGo Ltd. could begin showing up in popular smartphones in the next two years.

ZapGo's carbon-ion batteries promise to be a safe replacement for the billions of lithium-ion batteries already used in smartphones, electric scooters, vehicles and industrial devices. Lithium-ion batteries in several products, including the Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphone, have been banned on many airline flights because they can overheat, catch fire and explode.

ZapGo, based in Oxford UK, showed off its Zap&Go Carbon-Ion cell at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The company has been successfully testing the battery technology to power autonomous shuttles used to transport passengers at Heathrow Airport, said ZapGo CEO Stephen Voller in an interview on Wednesday.

In addition, ZapGo showed at CES smaller versions of its batteries used to power an 18-volt handheld drill, a Razor E300 scooter and a cordless cleaner.

Voller said the first iterations of its carbon-ion battery cells will be ready to be used in the iPhone 10 or the Samsung Galaxy S10, expected in about two years. He said various smartphone makers he would not name have shown interest in using carbon-ion instead of lithium-ion, primarily for safety reasons.

"There's no fire risk at all" with carbon-ion, Voller said. "There's nothing flammable. Our mantra is [we're] safer and faster-charging because the batteries are not lithium-based and have nothing inside that will burn."

Lithium-ion batteries rely on an organic electrolyte that easily catches fire when there's an electrical short of some kind, he explained. ZapGo instead uses nano-carbon materials, including graphene, as well an ionic electrolyte in its cells. The technology, which is patented in the U.S. and other countries, is described in a company white paper (PDF).

The original intellectual property behind the carbon-ion technology began with the work of researchers at Oxford University about six years ago. ZapGo, started in 2013, further developed the technology and has batteries being produced at three manufacturing facilities at undisclosed locations. The company now has about 25 workers.

The battery is currently in its third generation, and has been applied to some industrial products like cordless power tools. The carbon-ion batteries used for the Heathrow shuttles are about the size of a paint can, Voller said, and are used to recharge the onboard lithium-ion batteries.

With the shuttle and consumer products, a feature of carbon-ion cells is that they can quickly be recharged, sometimes in only a minute or two.

In the case of the Heathrow Shuttle, the carbon-ion batteries can be recharged in 35 seconds, as compared to the hours it takes with the lithium-ion batteries. It takes 60 seconds to charge the power drill's battery. It takes about five minutes to charge the scooter, for a charge lasting more than 15 minutes, depending on the weight of the rider.

The speed of the recharge is governed by the charging mechanism, which ZapGo doesn't produce.

Carbon-ion technology also traditionally quickly discharges its power, something that ZapGo is hoping to improve. The Heathrow shuttle carbon-ion battery usually discharges after one four-minute trip, while the power drill discharges in about five minutes, Voller said. In both cases, carbon-ion still had enough life to accomplish the task.

ZapGo's white paper says that engineers are currently working on nano-carbons and ionic electrolytes for a high-voltage battery to create "charging rates and cycle life that outstrip lithium-ion batteries in a form that can be safely transported around the globe." Cycle life is a measure of the number of times a battery can be recharged, put at 100,000 cycles for a carbon-ion cell, compared to 1,000 for a lithium-ion cell.

The white paper doesn’t specify the discharge rate of either type battery, merely noting lithium-ion discharges at “slow rate” compared to a “fast rate” for carbon-ion. Voller said that Zapgo’s cells "are designed . . . to charge quickly like supercapacitators, but to hold their charge like a lithium-ion battery. Our goal is a cell phone that will charge in five minutes or less, but last all day . . . and won’t catch fire.”

However, many smartphone makers advertise large batteries, some up to 3,000 mAh, that can last with a day of use on a single charge, so the question of carbon-ion battery discharge rate is expected to be a key concern of smartphone makers.

Despite such concerns, Voller said, the "main thing people care about is safety, with the increasing concern with the Samsung Note7 and laptop recalls." After recalling its Note7s last year, Samsung instituted an 8-point battery safety check process and appointed an expert safety advisory panel.

In addition to being safer, carbon-ion batteries could ultimately cost less than lithium-ion batteries, partly because they eliminate the expensive lithium ion component, Voller said. Also lithium-ion relies on installing charging circuits and charging chips, which have become scarce and more costly, he noted.

In addition, carbon-ion batteries are recyclable, Voller said. Environmental groups like Greenpeace have been especially concerned with lithium-ion batteries because they are not usually recycled and might not be disposed of safely. Greenpeace staged a protest at a Samsung event at Mobile World Congress over lithium-ion battery disposal concerns; in response, Samsung said it would "ensure responsible disposal" of the 4.3 million recalled Note7s.

Voller said several other companies are working on fast-charging batteries based on lithium, but added, "we don't know of anybody doing carbon-ion cells like we are."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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