Australian Company Wins a $2m Grant to Print Ultra-Thin Batteries and Solar Panels


A new technology bought by battery storage firm Printed Energy promises to do what the company’s name suggests – print out ultra-thin, flexible screen-printed batteries, on top of ultra-thin flexible screen printed solar panels – and engineer another major reduction in renewable energy costs.

The company this week struck a deal with UNSW and the University of Queensland – and financial backing from the federal government – to pursue the technology and bring it to market. The $12 million R&D project received a $2 million grant from the Cooperative Research Centres Projects scheme.

The Brisbane- based Printed Energy says the “solid state” batteries that is is pursuing – and has some working prototypes – are thin and flexible and can be printed in a “roll-to-roll” process – just like a newspaper – and adapted to almost any shape.

It is unlikely to be able to be paired with existing solar technology, but it figures that if it can match this technology with printed solar panels, then it may just be able to unlock the next big thing in renewable energy.

The venture is being backed by Sunset Energy, a company better known for buying the Vales point coal fired power station in NSW for next to nothing, and for wanting to buy out the Northern and Hazelwood brown coal generators and keep them running.

Its principal, Trevor St Baker, is considered something of a maverick and contrarian in the industry. The co-founder of energy company ERM, he has argued strongly against renewable energy targets, and said last week, in response to AGL, that the “baseloading of intermittent renewables to replace coal in the foreseeable future … will just drive business out of the country.”

As recently as earlier this year, he said the 33,000GWh target would be impossible to meet, and he preferred a 20,000GWh target -which the country has already well and truly sailed past.

Still, while saying all this, St Baker has bought a Tesla, put solar on his roof, (and according to this article a gas generator in his garage), and has created an “energy innovation fund” and invested in the likes of Brisbane EV charging firm Tritium, smart energy device company Kortek; and Nth Degree.

It is Nth Degree that has developed the IP for the battery storage. But because it wants to focus on printed LEDs, it has agreed to sell the IP to another of St Baker’s portfolio companies, Printed Energy.

Rodger Whitby, CEO of Printed Energy and of the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund, says the technology is ideal for powering sensors, devices for the “Internet or Things”, disposable healthcare devices and eventually, for renewable energy.

He says that the company will focus first on “disposable” devices, like sensors and healthcare devices, which he hopes will come on to the market in the next few years. The battery storage with solar will follow later.

“We are really thinking of this type of battery in a different paradigm,” he says. “We have also got IP for printed PV – so the idea is to have a sub-strata plastic sheet, and print solar on one side and battery on the other.”

The goal is to reduce the cost of manufacturing to next to nothing – it would come out in kilometres of rolled sheets, just like a newspaper. The challenge is to ensure it has enough efficiency to produce enough power, and to store it, to make it worthwhile, and competitive with what is there now.

Given that solar costs are already down to 2.5c/kWh in the Middle East, and still falling, the challenge is there.

“It might only have a 5-year life …. so what we are thinking about is a toally different price structure,” Whitby says.

Can it be done? “We don’t know,” Whitby says. “We have got a lot of research to undertake before we answer that question.” And this research includes understanding the electro-chemical properties of the product, how it performs in various temperatures, and its lifetime.

Printed Energy says is developing a unique set of new battery chemistries using commonly available metals such as zinc and manganese oxides, along with inorganic matrix structures mixed with polymers and electrolytes. They are non-toxic and have very low flammability, but their performance is still uncertain.

Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s Dean of Engineering, said in a statement: “What’s exciting is that this technology also has immediate applications in wearables and small-scale devices.”

The first applications of the technology will be in small-scale devices, with development work in large-scale uses to be explored by the partners over the next three years, relying on Printed Energy’s proprietary designs.

UQ’s the Dow Centre will coordinate the research effort, with UQ’s Lianzhou Wang and UNSW’s Da-Wei Wang driving the development.

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