Thin Film Batteries and the new “Smartness”

27 Oct 2011 • by Natalie Aster

The time when thin-film batteries can be characterized as a technology desperately seeking something to do has not yet passed. But the fact that some of the firms in this space (Cymbet, IPS and Solicore) have received significant investments in the recent past seems to indicate that things are changing. NanoMarkets believes that this “something” is the growing mega-trend towards “smartness,” that is, the embedding of computer chips and sensors in everyday (and not so everyday) objects.

We speak of smart grids, smart phone, smart appliances, smartcards, smart packaging, and smart medical devices. These smart devices are appearing now and they all add additional—and presumably more useful functionality to earlier, dumber versions of the same device. While such trends have been talked about for a while, they actually seem to be appearing in the real world at the present time.

There is an increasing use of smartcards, particularly for a stored-value card in public transportation systems. Distributed and inexpensive sensor networks make it possible to monitor complex systems, such as traffic patterns or the health of a remote oil or gas pipeline, with as much fidelity as desired. These sensors can report wirelessly in real time. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags track the location and contents of inventory, also in real time.

The new “smart world” can be powered in a number of different ways. In some cases, completely conventional batteries can be used. But in many cases; this is prevented by an inappropriate form factor, weight, or by lack of flexibility; this is the case with powered smartcards, for example. In some cases, these devices may be powered to some extent by an energy harvesting approach or by an inductive field generated by some kind of reader system, but battery power installed in the electronic device itself usually enables such devices to provide a much higher level of functionality. For example, battery-powered smartcards can have their own displays for one-time password security or to print the balance of the stored value—something that would be hard to achieve any other way.

Report Details:

Thin-Film Batteries: A New Market Opportunity Assessment 2011
Published: June 2011
Price: US$ 2,995.00

The Business Case for Thin-Film Batteries

This is a wave that thin-film battery firms must catch, if they are finally to generate money for their shareholders. They cannot hope to make a success by simply improving their performance, since such an approach misses out on the crucial demand-side factor. In addition, while some thin battery makers have attempted to create their own markets by inventing applications for their batteries—cosmetic patches for example—this is not an especially easy thing to do, especially for a small company. And while thin-film batteries are solid-state batteries and hence safer than conventional batteries, the battery safety issue seems less of a selling point than it was a few years ago, after there had been several well-publicized incidents of exploding batteries.

To finally make money in the thin-film battery space, NanoMarkets believes that suppliers of these products will have to demonstrate that (1) their battery technology can enable new smart applications; that is, these applications will be either impossible or impractical without such batteries and/or (2) reduce the total cost of ownership of the powered device.

While these value propositions can be brought to bear on many different areas in the new world of smart technology, large sensor networks provide a good illustration of how they can be applied.

Consider the case of a sensor network that monitors the health and activity of a natural gas pipeline. The pipeline snakes through a remote location for hundreds of miles. Could these sensors be powered with conventional batteries? Possibly. But this raises the issue of the life of the battery being shorter than the life of the pipeline, so that there is the prospect of replacing hundreds or thousands of batteries along the length of the pipeline; a prohibitively expensive proposition. A thin-film battery combined with an energy scavenging device can last for years and therefore significantly reduce the total cost of ownership of the sensor device, when the cost of battery replacement is eliminated.

Could energy scavenging devices be used on their own in such cases? Again, possibly. But if real-time data is required, this solution will not work as there may not be sufficient energy available at all times. In this sense, the thin-film battery combined with an energy harvesting device is an enabling technology for a smart system that might not be able to be effectively powered any other way.

The Cost Issue: The Elephant in the Room

While the smart “revolution” that is beginning to take shape is what is going to make profitable the efforts of the thin-film battery industry over the past few years, it won’t show the cost-related “elephant in the room” the exit. That is, thin-film batteries are, for the most part, lithium batteries that are a lot more expensive than regular batteries. This is partly because manufacturing of thin-film batteries is still in very small quantities, but also because thin-film battery technologies are at a relatively early stage of development.

Some firms have accepted that and gone for very specialized applications where cost isn’t really an issue. Medical implants need small, thin batteries and this is an obvious market for thin-film battery makers to chase after. Other thin-film battery firms are looking at cost reduction strategies at the factory level. For example, Solicore has coatable electrolytes.

Such developments are ongoing and may ultimately enable some thin-film makers to break into the market segments currently controlled by standard lithium-ion batteries. This market is vast, and includes batteries for laptops, cell phones, and other assorted pieces of consumer electronics. And as the technology is introduced into plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries will continue to sell in high volumes.

But thin-film batteries attacking these mainstream markets do not seem likely to emerge any time soon. Thin-film battery manufacturers are not targeting these mainstream applications. Traditional lithium-ion batteries have so many engineering hours behind their development, and are made in such bulk, that a thin-film battery will have a difficult time competing.

Beating standard lithium-ion batteries is not something that thin-film batteries are about right now. This may (or may not) come in time. For now, NanoMarkets believes that the opportunity that thin-film battery makers will be able to tap into, will be the “new smartness.” In the past year, we believe the buzz about smartness has finally begun to turn into action.

More information can be found in the report “ Thin-Film Batteries: A New Market Opportunity Assessment 2011” by NanoMarkets.

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