Structural Battery Doubles Flight Time

Structural batteries, structures which are also their own energy storage devices, are being looked at with increasing frequency.  Your editor has long been a proponent of integrating aircraft structures and the means of generating, storing and releasing energy – something he calls “the Grand Unified Airplane.”  Joe Faust, a hang glider pioneer and designer of energy-gathering kites, put the idea of including batteries in an airplane’s structure into your editor’s mind.  This video from the 1970’s shows Joe was not only athletic and adventurous – he was clean.  His Wikipedia page is even more fascinating.

40 Years Later at Case Western

Following Joe Faust’s lead, Case Western professor Vikas Prakash has demonstrated the potential or structural energy storage at model size.  In what was described as an “otherwise unremarkable” craft, Prakash inserted “structural battery” components inside the six-foot wingspan on his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Pre- insertion, the craft had been able to fly for 91 minutes before the batteries died.  After the structural insertion, it managed 171 minutes without a recharge.*  The other immediate benefits of  such integration include having more fuselage space for larger payloads and a better load distribution in the wings themselves – making for a stronger airframe.  Case Western’s releases don’t mention battery types or how they are incorporated as part of the structure, but if weight remains equal, the enhanced flight duration is a solid achievement.

Dr. Prakash works with Event 38, an Akron-area drone company, and a commercial partner on this battery project, which “builds fixed-wing, unmanned aircraft for mapping and surveying applications. The company has customers in 40 countries who primarily use the drones for agriculture or construction purposes.”

Jeff Taylor of Event 38 and Dr. Prakash of Case Western prepare drone for flight

Jeff Taylor, CEO of Event 38, was on hand to launch the demo flight.  He explained, “The new structural battery system offers benefits that will appeal to our customers.  The more efficient battery opens the door to build craft with more complex and sensitive sensors that small drones usually struggle to carry.”

The small drone will carry cameras for surveillance, but scaling the basic design up would eventually enable carrying larger cargo and even passengers.

Dr. Prakash foresees regional electric jets able to carry passengers and cargo and compete in terms of speed and distance with their fuel-burning competition.

Funding and Collaboration

His latest work is related to the NASA project conceptually and is funded by the Partnership for Research in Energy Storage and Integration for Defense and Space Exploration (PRESIDES) program. That partnership is sponsored by the Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN) and managed by the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve.

A large team and support vehicle for a small drone. Photo by Mark Haberbusch, PRESIDES, GLEI

The two-year, $450,000 project, officially known as “Hi-Performance Multifunctional Structural Energy Storage,” is one of 22 OFRN applied-research projects in the state, all of which emphasize collaboration among research universities, government and private companies.

“This new battery has a real chance to improve the day-to-day operations of our federal partners, and it has clear commercial applications,” OFRN Executive Director Dennis Andersh said in a statement. “We are proud to have enabled and supported this type of successful collaborative research.”

*(Repeat of a Self-serving Advertisement – Warning: Your editor has an article in the July, 2013 issue of Kitplanes magazine called, “The Grand Unified Airplane,” which details how materials science could lead to aircraft that ultimately  take their power from the “very act of flight itself.”  Dr Prashak’s work certainly points to one way this could happen.)


Mary Grady, A Great Aviation Journalist

I met Mary Grady at the 2011 Sun ‘n Fun Flyin in Lakeland, Florida.  After that, she and I swapped tips and leads for articles.  Her work at AVweb and for Belvoir Publications was professional and polished – always.  I’m using AVweb’s tribute to her, especially since it shows her many facets.  She will be missed.

Dean Sigler

Mary Grady, one of AVweb’s longest-serving, most dedicated and respected contributing editors, died at her home in Warwick, Rhode Island, on March 12 after a long illness.

Mary was one of the founding members of the internet experiment that became AVweb and continued as a key staff writer until her health challenges prompted a leave of absence earlier this year. She worked for AVweb for 20 years and wrote thousands of articles. To the best of anyone’s recollection she never missed a deadline.

“Mary had a quiet strength in her professional skills, but also in the way she carried herself,” said Tim Cole, AVweb’s editorial director. “When deadlines loomed or big, late-breaking stories came knocking, Mary was the calm, reliable, get-it-done pro in the eye of the storm. We depended on her for everything, and will go forward trying to live by her example.”

In her long career, she covered the full gamut of aviation stories from balloons to supersonic aircraft and did so with precision, clarity and balance. She was especially interested in new innovations that made aviation more accessible, safer and more environmentally responsible. She also covered aviation for Robb Report.

Mary was born in Providence, the capital of her beloved Rhode Island, in 1955 and spent most of her life there, most recently at her home a few steps from Narragansett Bay. She was a passionate environmentalist and was an adjunct professor of geography and environmental science at Rhode Island College. In her “other” journalism career, Mary won numerous awards for environmental reporting and was the author of three books.

But journalism was just an expression and outlet for Mary’s passion to learn, discover, explore and teach. After graduating college in Rhode Island, she obtained a Master’s Degree in Geography in Hawaii. She obtained her balloon and private pilot certificates and worked as an instructor on both in California and Florida. She was also a sailing instructor on the Tall Ship Rose, a replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate. Private services are planned.


Silicone Wrinkles Can Be Beautiful

Hanqing Jiang, a professor in ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, has come up with a clever and inexpensive way to fight dendrites in lithium batteries.  Since these spiky little outbreaks can lead to battery fires, his team’s findings might lead to safer batteries.  The approach involves silicone.

Many of us put up a (usually futile) fight against wrinkles, our youth culture spending fortunes to avoid the inevitable.  Scientists at Arizona State University, however, are encouraging wrinkles in their lithium-metal batteries, and pouring cheap silicone goo over their anodes to discourage dendrites from popping up.

This novel approach to crafting lithium metal anodes for batteries is something Arizona State University scientists are working on, with surprising results.  Hanqing Jiang, a professor in ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

 Silicon or Silicone?

Live Science explains an important distinction.  “In short, silicon is a naturally occurring chemical element, whereas silicone is a synthetic substance.

“Silicon is the 14th element on the periodic table. It’s a metalloid, meaning it has properties of both metals and nonmetals, and is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, after oxygen.

“Silicon readily bonds with oxygen and is rarely found in nature in its pure form. You’ve likely seen silicon as silicon dioxide or silica, better known as quartz, which is the most common component of sand.”

That it also makes up a major part of glass and computer chips shows the versatility of this common element.

Silicone, on the other hand, combines silicon with oxygen, carbon and hydrogen to make “generally a liquid or… flexible, rubberlike plastic” we use to calk our windows or enhance our trophy wives.

Reducing Stress

When lithium metal is deposited onto a rigid surface (the orange surface above), compressive stresses are formed, which cannot be relaxed and dendrites form (Image source: Arizona State University)

 Dr. Jiang’s research at ASU may help lithium metal anodes keep their cool in batteries while doubling the energy storage capacity over carbon-based anodes used in many (most?) of today’s lithium ion cells.

Plating of the lithium metal onto the silicone (PDMS) substrate causes it to wrinkle in 2 dimensions, reducing the lithium metal residual stress and dendrite formation (Image source: Arizona State University)

Beginning by depositing a layer of lithium metal onto a soft substrate of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS or silicone) researchers then observed wrinkles forming in the silicone.  According to ASU, “When the lithium metal was deposited on the silicone substrate, the stresses created by the accumulation of the metal were relieved by the formation of wrinkles in the silicon substrate. The elimination of the residual stresses had a large effect on the dendrites. ‘There were remarkable reductions in dendrite growth,’ said Jiang. The research team discovered that the reduction in dendrite growth was directly related to the reduction in stress caused by the deformation and wrinkling of the silicon substrate.”

Dr. Jiang explained the significance of the reaction. “We already know that tiny tin needles or whiskers can protrude out of tin surfaces under stress, so by analogy we looked at the possibility of stress as a factor in lithium dendrite growth.”

3D Equals Longer Life

The team found that giving the silicone a three-dimensional form, “almost like a sponge,” relieved stress and effectively inhibited dendrite growth.  Jiang compares the form to a sugar cube, with PDMS forming a continuous network as the substrate covered by a thin copper layer to conduct electrons.  Lithium fills these pores.

Zinc, sodium, and aluminum batteries have the same tendency to form dendrites, so the use of silicone could help develop safe, high-energy density batteries with several other metals .

 The Team’s Paper

Xu Wang,  Wei Zeng,  Liang Hong,  Wenwen Xu,  Haokai Yang,  Fan Wang,  Huigao Duan,  Ming Tang and Hanqing Jiang participated in the research.  Their paper, “Stress-driven lithium dendrite growth mechanism and dendrite mitigation by electroplating on soft substrates,” appeared in the March 6, 2018 issue of Nature Energy.

The abstract for the team’s paper gives an introduction to their research and hints that their approach results in enhanced performance and  great longevity for batteries using their technique.

“Problems related to dendrite growth on lithium-metal anodes such as capacity loss and short circuit present major barriers to next-generation high-energy-density batteries. The development of successful lithium dendrite mitigation strategies is impeded by an incomplete understanding of the Li dendrite growth mechanisms, and in particular, Li-plating-induced internal stress in Li metal and its effect on Li growth morphology are not well addressed. Here, we reveal the enabling role of plating residual stress in dendrite formation through depositing Li on soft substrates and a stress-driven dendrite growth model. We show that dendrite growth is mitigated on such soft substrates through surface-wrinkling-induced stress relaxation in the deposited Li film. We demonstrate that this dendrite mitigation mechanism can be utilized synergistically with other existing approaches in the form of three-dimensional soft scaffolds for Li plating, which achieves higher coulombic efficiency and better capacity retention than that for conventional copper substrates.”

Researchers included scientists from Rice University and Hunan University, China.  Funding was provided in part by the Department of Energy.


Mixing It Up With MXene

Over the years reporting on battery developments, we’ve seen paper batteries, spray-on batteries, structural batteries and many types of material mixes.  Drexel University has tossed all the above intone big hopper and come up with MXene, a potentially dynamic way of making batteries, supercapacitors, antennas, and structural elements that can be conductors, semiconductors, and insulators, among myriad applications.

Going Through a Phase

MXenes are formed from layered MAX phases, defined by Drexel as forming, “A large family of ternary(composed of three) carbides with the general formula Mn+1AXn, where n = 1–3, M is an early transition metal, A is an A-group element (mostly IIIA and IVA), and X is C and/or N:”  That level of chemistry is two quantum leaps above your editor’s pay grade, so you’ll have to work out the implications for yourself.

peeling layers from the MAX phase produces specific characteristics for new materials.  Mixing this with the MXene slurry enables a protected anode

Or, you can read the more understandable explanation in this link.

Drexel explains, “MXenes are made by chemically etching a layered ceramic material called a MAX phase, to remove a set of chemically-related layers, leaving a stack of two-dimensional flakes. Researchers have produced more than 30 types of MXene to date, each with a slightly different set of properties.”

The research group Used two of them the to make  the silicon-MXene anodes for testing: titanium carbide and titanium carbonitride.   Researchers made another anode from graphene-wrapped silicon nanoparticles. “All three anode samples showed higher lithium-ion capacity than current graphite or silicon-carbon anodes used in Li-ion batteries as well as superior conductivity. The silicon-MXene anodes had on the order of 100 to 1,000 times higher conductivity than conventional silicon anodes.”

Good for Mass Production

“The continuous network of MXene nanosheets not only provides sufficient electrical conductivity and free space for accommodating the volume change but also well resolves the mechanical instability of Si,” according to the researchers. “Therefore, the combination of viscous MXene ink and high-capacity Si offers a powerful technique to construct advanced nanostructures with exceptional performance.” The process of slurry-casting MXene-silicon anodes is scalable for mass production of anodes of any size, which means they could make their way into batteries that power just about any of our devices.”

Scanning electron microscope (SEM) view of MXene layers

Researchers found that slurry casting prevented the silicon anode from expanding to its breaking point, something other researchers have attempted for the last decade. Unrestrained, silicon can expand as much as 300 percent, which can cause it to break and  make the battery malfunction.  Excellent mechanical strength in the silicon-MXene anodes holps hold things together.  The anodes “are quite durable up to 450 microns thickness.”

This could expand the charge-to-charge life of cell phones and electric cars by as much as 40 percent, according to researchers from Drexel and Trinity College in Ireland.  “Silicon anodes are projected to replace graphite anodes in Li-ion batteries with a huge impact on the amount of energy stored,” said Yury Gogotsi, PhD, Distinguished University and Bach Professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering and director of the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who was a co-author of the research. “We’ve discovered adding MXene materials to the silicon anodes can stabilize them enough to actually be used in batteries.”

You can see Dr. Gogotsi’s recent presentation in Spain below.

Researchers found that slurry casting prevented the silicon anode from expanding to its breaking point, something other researchers have attempted for the last decade. Unrestrained, silicon can expand as much as 300 percent, which can cause it to break and  make the battery malfunction.  Excellent mechanical strength in the silicon-MXene anodes holps hold things together.  The anodes “are quite durable up to 450 microns thickness.”

This could expand the charge-to-charge life of cell phones and electric cars by as much as 40 percent, according to researchers from Drexel and Trinity College in Ireland.  “Silicon anodes are projected to replace graphite anodes in Li-ion batteries with a huge impact on the amount of energy stored,” said Dr. Gogotsi,  who was a co-author of the research. “We’ve discovered adding MXene materials to the silicon anodes can stabilize them enough to actually be used in batteries.”  Lead author Chuanfang (John) Zhang from Trinity College, Ireland submitted the paper, “High capacity silicon anodes enabled by MXene viscous aqueous ink,” to Nature Communications, where it was published on February 20, 2019.


Goodyear AERO Wheel Sparks Controversy

Goodyear Creates a Flying Tire

Displayed this week at the Geneva Auto Show, Goodyear’s new AERO wheel is not just rolling stock, but a possible aeronautical device that could propel a “flying car” skyward.  Not only could it roll along the freeway, it could navigate the vehicle and choose whether to be in highway or aerial mode.  These smart tires could have some problems, though, that could negate their aerial potential, according to some critics.

Goodyear’s press release extols the possible virtues of the forward-thinking product: “GENEVA, March 5, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — The Goodyear AERO concept is a two-in-one tire designed for the autonomous, flying cars of the future. This concept would work both as a tire for driving on the road and a ‘propeller’ for flying through the sky.”

Chris Hensel, Goodyear’s Chief Technology Officer, explains: “For over 120 years Goodyear has obsessively pursued innovations and inventions, partnering with the pioneers driving change and discovery in transport.  With mobility companies looking to the sky for the answer to the challenges of urban transport and congestion, our work on advanced tire architectures and materials led us to imagine a wheel that could serve both as a traditional tire on the road and as a propulsion system in the sky.”

Loaded with Tech

Goodyear promotes five functions the “purely conceptual” AERO wheel can accomplish.

Its multimodal design would enable the wheel to serve as a road-based drive train, absorbing forces from the road in a vertical orientation and act as a lifting propulsor in horizontal orientation.

Non-pneumatic tire on flexible rims strong enough to act as rotors – a heady challenge

Its non-pneumatic structure’s spokes would provide support as a wheel and act as fan blades when the tire is tilted.  This would require an ability to support the vehicle’s weight in several planes and absorb shocks when on the road.

Goodyear says the wheel would be driven by magnetic propulsion, presumably like a hub motor.

The AERO would use light-based, fiber optic sensors to monitor road conditions, tire wear and the structural integrity of the tire itself.

This is the first smart wheel your editor has encountered, the AERO wheel featuring an embedded artificial intelligence processor that would use data from the vehicle’s on-board sensors and from external vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.  The A.I. processor would select routes and choose whether the vehicle would roll or fly – a no-brainer for most pilots.

Serrated rims might reduce noise from fast-spinning wheel/rotor. Will these be the loudest things on the road or in the sky?

Goodyear’s Helsel concludes,  “Goodyear’s concepts are meant to trigger a debate on the tires and transport technologies for a new mobility ecosystem.”

Triggering a Debate

And that seems to have occurred, some fairly controversial views surfacing in the wake of the announcement.  Autoblog noted the similarity of Goodyear’s vision to the film Elysium, with the least among us living in, ”An above-ground landfill filled with grimy famine and high-tech, or [the well off in] a cyber-Bambi Shangri-La drowning in sunshine, leisure time, and ribbons of glass road.”

Autoblog notes the technical cleverness of the design and concludes, “Bring on Elysium already.”  How this level of luxury will be made available to all is probably a moot question.  Economists suggest we might all have to settle for a little less for everyone to have enough – but in the current political atmosphere, that might smack of socialism and not economic reality.

David Freeman, writing for NBC News, takes a somewhat contrary view on the tech front, interviewing Embry Riddle aeronautical University’s Pat Anderson, director of the Eagle Flight Research Center.  Anderson  notes the combination wheel/rotor might reduce parts count, but adds, “Combining things typically results in a lot of compromises.”

Anderson questions the slick transition from ground to aerial transport.   “’The downwash from the fast-spinning tire in flight mode might damage things below and possibly cause ‘horrific’ noise levels,” Anderson added. And he questioned why travelers would want to drive at all when they could fly. ‘I would just fly to where I wanted to park,’ he said.”

He is countered by Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.  “In an email to NBC News MACH, she called the tire ‘innovative,’ adding, ‘It would be great to use the same transmission to turn the thrust-generating blades in flight mode that turns the rolling wheels in car mode.’”

She did question the use of solid rubber tires, which reminded her of “the early days of automobiles.”  She asked, “How safe and efficient can a car be with ‘Model T tires’ in car mode even with 21st Century sensors and electronics?”

NBC explains that the AERO is not Goodyear’s first foray into radical tire design.
In recent years the company has developed concepts for an electricity-generating tire and a spherical tire capable of rolling in all directions.

Whether the AERO of other Goodyear designs end up driving us or flying us to our future destinations remains to be seen.  Innovations usually come hard, but we encourage them for making us break from the obvious and hackneyed.


Metro Hop Leaps From Tall Buildings

Metro Hop™ is an electric, conventional fixed wing, all-weather aircraft designed to operate within the urban air mobility environment, according to their web site.

Different Design Philosophies

Metro Hop is a unique view from the leaders of the CAFE Foundation, which is often allied with the Vertical Flight Society.  Metro Hop’s fixed-wing approach seems to fly in the face of the team’s normal affiliations.

The Sustainable Aviation Foundation was established as a proponent of fixed-wing design by President Brien Seeley, and promotes “pocket airparks,” small urban and suburban airports that would distribute availability of short-range aircraft within walking or cycling distance for many urban dwellers.  CAFE would distribute spaces similar to heliports on rooftops or on specialized buildings such as those envisioned by Uber as part of its LIFT program.

Metro Hop, according to the development group, would cruise at 400 kilometers per hour (250 mph) and carry two passengers.  Using current battery technology, it would have a 160 kilometer (100 mile) range, enough for in-city hops in the largest urban areas.  It near-silent operations would be imperceptible against the normal city background noise, allowing day and night operation.

Its spring-loaded  landing gear will keep passengers from bouncing around on takeoff and landing, even though it provides a bounce on departure.  Powered wheels will enable climbs and descents from and to the service area below the landing platform, although passengers might find the squeamish part of the flight is the descent from the landing platform.

According to Metro Hop, “Urban air mobility means a safe, efficient, community-accepted method of moving people and cargo via aircraft within cities.”  The firm will attempt to operate out of its own unique Skyport stations on or near “prime urban locations,” providing the mobility that ground transport often fails to deliver.

Metro Hop uses not only existing battery technology, but follows a “well-known flight envelope, and a clear path to certification,” according to company leaders.  Their hope is that it would make a trillion-dollar industry possible, operate on $39 fares and make itself “a commonplace tool for any business, large or small.

Bruno Mombrinie and an Inventive Streak

One of the founders of Metro Hop, Bruno Mombrinie has a history of mechanical design, having a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.  He helped build the Chrysalis human powered airplane, even getting to fly the featherweight biplane several times.  He recalls the feelings that experience drew from him.  “The feeling of being so, so high (39ft)…to fly under my own power was beyond…I just wanted to burst…actually I was so out of breath from the effort, I could hardly mouth ‘yippee!'”

Bruno Mombrinie took the picture of another student flying MIT’s Chrysallis HPA.  A clever photo edited inserted Bruno’s image chasing the airplane

He went on to found AVEC Scientific Design, specializing in disposables for operating rooms, and has a medical device for children with spinal cord injuring awaiting FDA approval.  He even designed the world’s lightest and stiffest bicycle crankset, which helped Lisa Vetterlein set a woman’s human powered vehicle land speed record of 66.65 mph.

Whether we will see hundreds of Metro Hops wending their way over the skies of San Francisco will depend, as all great ideas do these days, on finding venture capitalists willing to back the enterprise.


Is Ionic Propulsion Plausible?

Ethan Krauss responds to MIT’s Ionic Flyer Coverage

There seems to be great interest in ionic propulsion.  After we published “MIT’s Ionic Flyer – Solid State All the Way,” our editorial offices (otherwise known as your editor’s kitchen) received a comment from Ethan Krauss, who corrected the historical record.  He explains, “MIT was NOT “the first ion propelled aircraft of any kind to carry their power supply, as their video and paper say.  They don’t use less voltage, they are not more efficient, they are not the largest. Size was not the limit in the past.”

Click on image to see video of MIT’s first flights.

“They are the second in the world to be able to claim that they built an ion propelled craft that can carry its power supply. Their craft however, was launched with the assistance of a bungee cord, and large wings thereby reducing the power needed for its 10 second flight.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer interviewed Mr. Krauss and reported: “‘Aviation started here in Ohio by two guys that everyone thought were just out of their minds,” Ethan Krauss said.  You could call Krauss, who is an electrical engineer, a modern-day Wright brother…. If you can move the air downwards without stirring it up too much, then you end up with a very efficient flying machine,’ Krauss said.  ‘The flying machine has no moving parts, it’s silent and creates no emissions. Possibly be a revolution in flight for light duty applications,’ said Krauss.”

Krauss responded to questions from your editor about whether a larger (say, person carrying)ionic propulsion lifting device could be powered by similar means.  “It is simply not correct to imply that lightweight lifters could carry their power supplies. The whole point is to be able to carry a power supply using ion propulsion. The power to weight ratio was 3 orders of magnitude too low. A larger heavier ion propelled device than MIT’s was flown in 2003 with an external power supply though.

“The first solely ion propelled aircraft to carry its power supply, is covered under US Patent No. 10,119,527. This patent covers all ion propelled aircraft that carry their power supplies against gravity since 08/07/2014. Here is the website with videos that show it fly for around 2 minutes:”

“The first and only ion propelled invention ever that can both take off and fly with onboard power, is called the ‘Self Contained Ion Powered Aircraft.’  It is extremely well verified to predate the MIT device with onboard power. It also produces about 20 times as much thrust for its weight. ”

The patent,  provides details of how Krauss’s machine is constructed and how it works.

“In accordance with an aspect of the present invention, a self-contained ion powered aircraft assembly is provided. The aircraft assembly includes a collector assembly, an emitter assembly, and a control circuit operatively connected to at least the emitter and collector assemblies and comprising a power supply configured to provide voltage to the emitter and collector assemblies. The assembly is configured, such that, when the voltage is provided, the self contained ion powered aircraft provides sufficient thrust to lift each of the collector assembly, the emitter assembly, and the control circuit against gravity.

“In accordance with another aspect of the present invention, an ion powered aircraft assembly includes a collector assembly comprising at least three substantially concentric conductive elements, an emitter assembly, and a control circuit operatively connected to at least the emitter and collector assemblies and comprising a power supply to provide voltage to the emitter and collector assemblies.

“In accordance with yet another aspect of the present invention, an ion powered aircraft assembly includes a collector assembly, an emitter assembly, and a control circuit operatively connected to at least the emitter and collector assemblies. The control circuit includes a power supply configured to provide voltage to the emitter and collector assemblies and a resonant transformer that is continuously driven at an associated resonant frequency to provide a high voltage signal to another component of the control circuit.”

For Those Who Want One

A basic device, powered by an external source, can be assembled from balsa wood and aluminized Mylar film. These have been floating around in laboratories for several years, and are realizable for an enthusiast.

Skip the first minute or so, but then this video gets down to business.

These demonstrations illuminate a reality that ionic propulsion devices can fly, but questions remain as to whether these craft can be made into practical people or cargo carriers.  As they grow large enough and carry enough voltage and amperage to lift more substantial loads, will there be a substantial danger in their passage?  Things at such light weight and high voltages seem dicey at best. reports about MIT’s efforts: “One of the first prototypes of the plane fried itself due to its black coating, as black color contains carbon, which conducts electricity. Those previous prototypes only managed to tumble to the ground seconds after being launched.

“The latest prototype, this time painted yellow, managed to sail through the air for almost 200 feet at 11 miles per hour (17 kilometers per hour). Unfortunately, it crashed into the nearest wall, but the fact still remains that the yellow prototype, dubbed simply Version 2, worked.”

As teams progress on their different paths, we might see some hope for more practical demonstrations of an interesting technology here on earth, rather than in propelling payloads toward Andromeda.


Purdue Flow Battery: Safer, Less Expensive

Promising enough to catch NBC’s attention, new flow battery technology from Purdue University promises quick refueling and up to 3,000 miles range in the electric car of the future.  If volumetric and gravimetric factors can be brought into line, this could be a useful energy storage medium for future aircraft.

John Cushman, Purdue University distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and a professor of mathematics and partner Eric Nauman, professor in mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and in basic medical sciences, co-founded IFBattery Inc.  The pair developed a “safe and affordable” patented technology that requires replacing fluids in their battery every 300 miles, and then swapping the anode material every 3,000 miles “taking less time than is needed to do and oil change” and costing about $65.  This calculates to about 2.167 cents per mile, considerably less than the 11 cents per mile your editor’s small econobox requires just for fuel.

Cushman further explains the economics from the infrastructure perspective: “It’s a game-changer for the next generation of electric cars because it does not require a very costly rebuild of the electric grid throughout the US.  Instead, one could convert gas stations to pump fresh electrolyte and discard depleted electrolyte and convert oil-changing facilities to anode replacing stations. It is easier and safer to use and is more environmentally friendly than existing battery systems.”

Furthering the use of repurposed service stations, IFBattery’s would be collected and taken to a solar farm, wind turbine installation or hydroelectric plant for recharging.  Cushman says, “It is the full circle of energy with very little waste.  IFBattery’s components are safe enough to be stored in a family home, are stable enough to meet major production and distribution requirements and are cost-effective.”

Economically, the system would have a “flow” of materials at the infrastructure level.  Cushman explains, “Instead of refining petroleum, the refiners would reprocess spent electrolytes and instead of dispensing gas, the fueling stations would dispense a water and ethanol or methanol solution as fluid electrolytes to power vehicles.  Users would be able to drop off the spent electrolytes at gas stations, which would then be sent in bulk to solar farms, wind turbine installations or hydroelectric plants for reconstitution or re-charging into the viable electrolyte and reused many times. It is believed that our technology could be nearly ‘drop-in’ ready for most of the underground piping system, rail and truck delivery system, gas stations and refineries.”

As to safety, Michael Dziekan, senior engineer for IFBattery, adds a significant set of numbers to the discussion. “The battery does two things: it produces electricity and it produces hydrogen. That is important because most hydrogen-powered cars run on a 5,000 or 10,000 PSI [pounds per square inch] tank, which can be dangerous.  This system generates hydrogen as you need it, so you can safely store hydrogen at pressures of 20 or 30 PSI instead of 10,000.”

Eric Nauman, Purdue University professor in mechanical engineering and in basic medical sciences and co-founder of IFBattery, and Michael Dziekan, senior engineer for IFBattery, run tests on a membrane-free, flow battery being used to power a golf cart. The battery has the potential to generate enough energy to drive an electric car up to 3,000 miles.  Image courtesy Purdue University

Because the single-fluid technology does not use a membrane or separator, and oxidizes the anode to produce electrons, and reduces the fluid at the cathode, it generates current to power vehicles.  The oxidant is a macro-molecule that lives in the electrolyte, but is reduced only at the cathode.

First tested in scooters and then larger off-road vehicles, the technology will next be tested in industrial equipment and then automobiles, according to Cushman.  He points out, “Historically, flow batteries have not been competitive because of the low energy density.  For example, conventional flow batteries have an energy density of about 20 watt hours per kilogram. A lithium-ion battery runs on 250 watt hours per kilogram. Our flow battery has the potential to run between three and five times that amount.”

John Cushman, Purdue University distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science and a professor of mathematics, is commercializing a technology that could provide an “instantly rechargeable” method forelectric and hybrid vehicle batteries through a quick and easy process similar to refueling a car at a gas station. Image courtesy Purdue University

“We are at the point now where we can generate a lot of power. More power than you would ever guess could come out of a battery like this,” Cushman said.

Naumann adds, “Conventional electric cars like Tesla have lithium-ion batteries that are usually plugged in overnight. Our flow battery uses a water-based single fluid that can run the car like it is a gas engine except it is not burning anything – it’s like a hybrid of a battery and a gas.”

According to Purdue, “Cushman will present the technology at the 11th annual meeting of InterPore in Valencia Spain, in May 2019 and he previously presented at the International Society for Porous Media 9th International Conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands and its 10th International Conference in New Orleans.”

IFBattery licensed part of the technology through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization and has developed patents of its own.

The technology aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration of the university’s global advancements made in health, space, artificial intelligence and sustainability as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Those are the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

One hopes that this battery can be sized for practical vehicular use and that the costs of converting existing gas stations will not prevent its expansion into real-world use.  Refills at 300 miles and changing out electrodes at 3,000 miles is not an onerous cost for clean operation. It reminds your editor of refills of his car, back in the day, and swapping out points and plugs.  Younger drivers might look up that maintenance necessity in old maintenance manuals.


Astigan HALE Flies British Skies

Ordnance Survey

Established in 2014 by Ordnance Survey and private investors to develop and commercialize the UK’s first commercial sub-orbital Earth Observation High-Altitude Pseudo Satellites (HAPS), Astigan is both the aircraft company and product of that partnership with OS.

Ordnance Survey produces maps for private, government and business users, including pre-printed print maps and custom charts downloadable to PCs or mobile devices.  These can be as elaborate as items containing “fly-throughs” of requested routes for hiking, biking, driving or even flying trips.  3D modeling enables users to visualize the terrain and essential elements before committing to a flight.

Astigan HALE

To enable accurate mapping and application development, the team has created a 38-meter (124.7 feet) wingspan, twin-motor high-altitude, very light machine that will not only chart the landscape, but provide data for environmental, analysis of changes in the geospatial landscape, monitor agricultural factors such as soil erosion or crop yield, provide a communication link in remote areas and in disaster emergencies, and enable real-time surveillance of borders (an aerial “wall”?).  It can remain aloft for 90 days at a time, its batteries recharged by a full span of solar cells.

The 149-kilogram (327.8 pounds) HAPS (high altitude Pseudo Satellite), “Can be positioned to view any part of the Earth and collect data over much wider areas compared to conventional aerial imagery capture.”  Its 25-kilogram (55-pound) Payload enables carrying cubesat-compatible packages and “advanced data download and encryption technology.”

226 Years

With a history spanning 226 years, OS has had a large influence on British explorers, warriors, and politicians. According to OS, “Business Minister Lord Henley said: ‘The UK has a particularly successful track record in mapping and associated technology. This exciting new unmanned aircraft project is a brilliant example of the innovative thinking behind our modern Industrial Strategy and should lead to global business opportunities. As well as having the potential to support key government objectives such as upgrading the UK’s infrastructure, it could benefit emerging technological areas such as smart cities and self-driving vehicles which both rely on accurate 3D mapping.’”

Design for the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) vehicle, completed in July 2014, led to prototype construction and testing completing in March, 2015; with low altitude flight testing done in 2016 and high altitude trials completed by 2019.

A large HALE, Astigan requires a pickup tow for takeoff

The project’s aim is to develop a UK designed and manufactured, cost-effective and reusable vehicle which could carry scientific instruments, cameras and telecommunications equipment above the majority of the Earth’s atmosphere. And, for the platform to perform many of the tasks of satellites without the cost and risk of having to go into Earth orbit.

The platform is expected to be used in mapping; environmental and climate monitoring; natural disaster/hazard early warning and emergency communications networks; precision agriculture; and commercial security, intelligence and border control.

An Honored Leadership

The guiding lights for the project are recognized for their expertise and accomplishments, their names sometime festooned with those abbreviations often following names of distinction.

Mike Carr, OBE (Order of the British Empire), FREng (Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering) serves as Chairman for the company and on several innovation and engineering boards.

Brian Jones OBE, DSc (Doctor of Science), MA (Master of Arts), Astigan Program Manager and Director on the Astigan Board and currently Managing Director, has worked on various aviation projects during the past 25 years.  He flew a balloon around the world in 1999 with Solar Impulse pilot Bertrand Piccard.  His books about that flight were in the top ten of several international best seller lists.

Neil Ackroyd is acting CEO for Ordnance Survey, and wrote the first book on the application of GPS, published in 1990.

The two other directors, Clive Mosey and John Bowman, are Chartered Accountants – a bit like Certified Public Accountants in America – with broad experience in the publishing industry.

With history, leadership, and a great range of products, Astigans may soon be flying over this former colony, downloading information with a British accent.


Polyplus, a Berkeley, California-based battery developer, has teamed with SK, Korea’s” first and largest energy and chemical company,“ to produce and test prototype cells to demonstrate increased volumetric and gravimetric energy density and cycle life relative to existing Li-ion cells.”  Just reported,  “The PolyPlus lithium-water battery has achieved the highest recorded energy density of 1,300 Watt-hours/kilogram, or an almost 10x improvement* over current lithium-ion batteries. Polyplus projects the energy density for commercial lithium-air batteries to be 1000 watt-hours per kilogram.”

Polyplus gained a measure of fame for its ability to function in even salt water environments

As with many recent partnerships, the alliance between Polyplus and SK provides “muscle” for the smaller partner.  Polyplus, with 18 bay area employees, will benefit from the far more sizable SK’s financial and managerial expertise.  Between the two firms Polyplus’ 135 issued and 40 pending patents should receive proper support.

According to Green Car Congress, “SK selected PolyPlus as partner for its global consortium.”  The collaboration is focused on PolyPlus’ solid-state lithium anode laminate that has the potential to double the energy density and cycle life of rechargeable batteries.”

The partnership hopes to build batteries with increased volumetric and gravimetric density while increasing cycle life.

Polyplus has been relatively silent since winning praise from Time Magazine in 2011 as one of the year’s 50 Best Inventions for its protected lithium electrode (PLE) and recognition from the Edison Committee with a Gold Edison Award in 2012.  That electrode is still a part of Polyplus’ basic design in its lithium-sulfur, lithium-air, and lithium water batteries.  Patented in 2000, the glass protection now encapsulates a pure lithium metal electrode (since 2017).  As shown in many of their publicity photos and the video below, the glass coating protects the pure lithium, which would flare up if brought into contact with water.

Recently, Polyplus won an ARPA-E grant to enable development of “flexible (editor’s italics) solid-electrolyte protected lithium metal electrodes made by the lamination of lithium metal foil to thin solid electrolyte membranes that are highly conductive.”  Fire resistance was to be enhanced by “removing the most flammable battery components.”  The ARPA-E analysis explained that “Solid-state separators also open the door to the use of lithium metal as an active material, resulting in a significant increase in cell energy content, and the subject of research efforts for the past several decades.”

Flexible glass not only coats outside of cell, but acts as active separator between anode and cathode

Working with SCHOTT Glass, Polyplus “laminated lithium metal foil to thin solid electrolyte membranes that are highly conductive.”  The “nearly flawless” film glass helps to protect against dendrite growth that would otherwise penetrate and short the cells.

The ARPA-E prospectus notes that, “If successful, developments made under the IONICS program will increase the energy storage content for vehicle batteries by about 30% compared to today’s Li-ion batteries and significantly reduce battery storage system costs.  It adds, “A 10% increase in electric vehicle use would reduce US oil consumption by 3% and reduce total US CO2 emissions by 1%.”

With a new partnership and if Polyplus succeeds in fulfilling the ARPA-E criteria, the small battery company may face a bright and productive future.

*Well, perhaps 5X the 260 Wh/kg reported by Bye Aerospace with their EPS modules.  It will be interesting to see a module-to-module, battery pack-to-battery pack comparison.  Even so, Polyplus seems to have achieved a noteworthy output.