Helping to build a better battery

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 9:13 PM

A 3M pilot project is making longer-lasting lithium ion batteries for consumer electronics. Next up: electric vehicle batteries.

Every smartphone and tablet user knows the freedom of going cordless comes with a price -- the nuisance of having to recharge batteries on those devices.

3M Co. sees market opportunity from easing the hassle.

The Maplewood-based manufacturer, whose customers include many businesses in electrical, electronic and communications markets, has developed a new material that it says could boost the life of lithium ion batteries by as much as 40 percent. 3M spent more than five years developing the material and recently was granted a patent on it, according to Chris Milker, business development manager for the company's electronic markets materials division.

Milker said 3M is targeting two portions of the $10 billion lithium ion battery market. Initially it's aiming at the consumer electronics market. The company currently is making the new battery material on limited scale at its facilities in Cottage Grove and is supplying a select number of battery companies that work with consumer electronics firms. He said 3M expects to begin full-scale production next year.

Longer-term plans include producing the material for batteries for electric vehicles. The global electric vehicle market is about $4 billion "and growing fast," according to Bennett Morgan, president of Polaris Industries Inc., which has expanded into the electric vehicle business in the last year.

Polaris' slow-speed electric vehicles don't have lithium ion batteries, the type that make use of 3M's new material. But Morgan said the industry is very interested in seeing batteries improve to deliver more power and last longer. "We are actively seeking other battery technologies that would provide greater electric vehicle range at a price that is affordable for our customers," he said.

3M is matching a $4.6 million grant it received last year from the U.S. Department of Energy to further its research in battery technology aimed at the electric vehicle market.

Lithium ion batteries, the type found most often in portable devices, are made up of three main components -- an anode, a cathode and electrolyte. 3M's new product is a silicon-based anode that replaces graphite anodes now on the market, Milker said. The increase in power and capacity results when the silicon anode is paired with a specialized cathode 3M previously developed and has been making for several years, he said.

"The driver behind both of these projects was increasing battery capacity, creating longer battery life," he said. Packing more power into the battery components also creates the potential to make batteries smaller. Milker said that's a desirable feature for consumer electronics manufacturers, giving them the freedom to redesign their devices, altering their form or making them smaller, he said.

"This fits well with 3M's focus on supplying value-added products for portable, battery powered devices," said Nicholas Heymann, an analyst at William Blair in New York. 3M has seen its optical film business struggle because it was still too focused on films for LCD televisions instead of films for handheld, cordless devices.

"When you look at tablets, laptops, the beautiful screens, all the functionality, they need a lot of power," Milker said. "From a technical standpoint it also is advantageous for us to start out small before moving to [anodes for] larger batteries for vehicles," he said.

Milker said the production currently underway at the Cottage Grove facilities is a "large pilot." The 35-building complex produces a wide variety of products, including abrasives, adhesives and specialty films. It also has four pilot plants, where new products continue to be evaluated and refined after moving out of research laboratories.

The silicon anode material currently is being produced on one piece of equipment installed earlier this year in one of the Cottage Grove pilot plants. Milker said four or five more pieces of equipment will be needed when 3M decides it's ready to take the new battery material to market. He said the location of full-scale production of the new material has yet to be determined but that Cottage Grove "is under consideration."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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