In a freewheeling chat, we talk to Mr David Mayer, Director (IOP) and CEO (Phinergy) and Mr Sanjeev Gupta, Chairman (IOP) and ED – Corporate Strategy (IOCL), about IOC Phinergy (IOP), the joint venture between Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) and Israel-based Phinergy, and their all-new metal-air battery technology, based on aluminium.
What potential do you see in the aluminium-air battery technology, and how is it better than conventional battery technologies like Lithium-ion, or Nickel-Hydride?
David Mayer – Thank you for the question. First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is David and I am the CEO of Phinergy, a company that was founded in Israel. We have collaborated with the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) to form IOP (IOC Phinergy) – a joint venture that will help us commercialise this revolutionary technology in India.
Simply, I would say, when we look at electricity in mobility, things, in one way or another, are linked to Lithium-ion. But this cannot be indigenous to India as its source is not coming from here. So, what we have developed over the years is metal-air technology, which is based on aluminium. As you know, aluminium is one of the most abundantly available metals on the planet, as well as in India. And we know how to make batteries from aluminium which is being produced in India to be used in the mobility space. We have already demonstrated this technology, how a vehicle can travel up to 500kms with only a few 10s of kgs of aluminium and we have also shown this technology for use in backup power generators. So, hopefully, in 2023, we can commercialise this technology for use in more spheres.
Can you describe the working principle of this technology? Since it’s a new technology we think not many would be aware of how exactly it works…
David Mayer – Yes, you are correct. I will try and explain it in layman's terms. Simplistically, I will say that ours is a fuel cell – not one that runs on hydrogen but one that runs on solid-state metal. Naturally, this is a big difference because aluminium is non-flammable and abundantly available. So, the advantages are built-in with the characteristics of this metal. What we have done is develop a very special membrane that essentially works like the gills of fish. It senses the ambient air around us and only when we tell the battery, it takes the oxygen from the ambient air, which then attacks the aluminium to form aluminium hydroxide. This chemical reaction also results in the release of stored electrons (energy). So, we have found a way of forcing the aluminium to erode as, on its own, aluminium does not react with the surrounding air. So, with our process, we also end up releasing energy in the form of the electrons already stored in the metal.
Like any new technology, each one comes with its own set of challenges. Can you shed some light on the challenges you faced with this? Especially when talking about its application on electric vehicles.
David Mayer – Definitely. When we are developing something unique, it does not happen overnight. IOP, as I said, is a JV between Phinergy and IOCL, and it is only a one-year-old company. However, Phinergy is a 12-year-old company with 100s of engineers working on this technology. So, were there challenges? Yes, many. But we have overcome all of them, and the proof is that the technology is already at a product level. We are already selling certified products in Israel, in Europe, and we are soon going to start in North America. In India, we have already done field testing, and hopefully, together with Indian Oil, commercialize it here on a large scale from this year onwards.
From the JV’s perspective, what are the steps being taken currently for local production, such as sourcing partners for raw materials, etc?
David Mayer – We were able to create a complete ecosystem, which is very unique. Let me explain. The first part of this ecosystem is technology, which is coming from Phinergy. The second step is identifying the areas of application. We saw here in India its applications, and we are already working with one of the largest telecom companies in the country, and numerous automotive clients like Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Maruti Suzuki. So we have the level of the applications and for the same levels of distribution, we have joined forces with IOCL, which puts us on the ground. The next layer of the ecosystem is to have the atmosphere and regulations from the government which are supportive. Also, everything will be produced in India, from the materials that are available in India – this is a big difference from what others are offering at the moment – and I hope this, in some way, can also support the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.’
During our research, we figured out that for this technology to become viable and economical in the long run, there also needs to be an effective recycling infrastructure as far as the by-products are concerned from the battery. What are your thoughts on it?
David Mayer – Well, my first thoughts are that your research is very good! This is not actually a technological issue but more of a cost-reduction issue. Because, at the end of the day, everyone likes new technology, and everyone wants clean solutions but as long as it is also cheap – no one wants to pay Rs 5 more but everyone is willing to pay Rs 5 less. And this is why we have collaborated with Hindalco from the Aditya Birla Group for us to have an effective partner who can process all the aluminium hydroxide, which is the by-product of the process, and convert it into reusable aluminium for us. So, the complete solution for this has been worked out already.
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What is the scope of each company in this JV, in terms of workflow and responsibilities?
Sanjeev Gupta – If you look at it from Indian Oil’s perspective, a couple of years ago, we realised that sooner or later, energy will be under transition, and India, being a developing nation, has big energy demands. Unlike Europe or America, where energy consumption in developed countries is somewhat plateauing, India’s energy demands will keep growing. So, we need new sources of energy going ahead. And, while mapping, we realised that a dependence on Lithium will mean adding heavy-duty imports for it, alongside the current large-scale oil imports. Unfortunately, a dependence on oil is still manageable since multiple countries are producing it, whereas, in the case of Lithium, it’s only a handful of players that are producing it, and controlling the production. So, due to this, we shifted our focus to metal-air technology and that is what led to IOCL’s JV with Phinergy.
To this JV, IOCL brings a formidable presence in India. And IOP will soon need a large, well-established infrastructure because any technology, without proper supporting infrastructure, cannot be successful – this is where IOCL’s strength lies. Once vehicles will start using this technology, our pan-India infrastructure will make its use as simple and convenient as refuelling with petrol or diesel. If your aluminium battery is depleted, you simply come to an IOCL pump and swap it with a fresh battery, and you are on the move again, in only a few minutes. So, this will be our contribution to this entire ecosystem. The technology component, of course, comes from Phinergy.
However, at this stage, it is difficult to define the extent or scope. As of now, IOCL bringing the infrastructure and Phinergy bringing in technology is only the near-term plan. At the end of the day, we are working on everything together. Plus, thanks to IOCL’s diverse client base – we have major B2B clients – that comprises large automotive players like Tata, we are at a level where we can bring these major players on board to adopt our technology. And that is why IOCL is putting its full weight behind this project.
Proof of this is also the fact that we displayed our first passenger car – a Tata hatchback – at the 2023 Auto Expo which is equipped with our metal-air battery powertrain.
At this point, I would also like to highlight that our technology is also very safe when seen from a high-temperature operation standpoint. Since aluminium is a non-reactive metal, it remains very stable at high temperatures, and the battery will also be much safer in the case of an accident. However, our system does make use of a small Li-ion battery as well, but its use does not affect the overall recycling potential.
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Can you give us a rollout timeline? And where can we expect to see this technology first – in passenger vehicles or the commercial sector?
Sanjeev Gupta – Let me answer the second part first. This technology is already commercialised when it comes to stationery batteries. The biggest telecom player in Israel is already being supplied with it, as well as some of the largest data centre operators in the world. Of course, we can’t reveal their names since we are under NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) with them. So, when it comes to India, I think the technology could debut with stationery batteries.
As far as the automotive sector is concerned, we are working in all areas. However, the easiest applications are perhaps in e-autorickshaws, so that could be the first. However, at this point, it is difficult to provide a rollout timeline simply because the commercialisation process is still at a very nascent stage, as we are dealing with an all-new technology, from the ground up. Once the tech is worked out, we move on to its economics, and from there, to establishing pan-India infrastructure.
the best entry market for aluminum-air batteries is heavy long-haul vehicles, turboprops, helicopters, and as such. I don't understand why they are not in air-crafts.Reply