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Electronics

Former Nissan EV developer to launch plastic battery this year

Japanese startup APB plans mass production of electricity storage systems

Japanese startup APB has developed a plastic-based lithium-ion battery, which it says has big advantages over those made from metals (Photo by Akane Okutsu).

TOKYO -- A Japanese startup hopes to start commercial production this year of a lithium ion battery made entirely of plastic, hoping to make the power cells safer and ultimately give a springboard to their wider adoption in electric vehicles.

APB's initial target is the vast market for giant batteries to store energy from wind farms and solar panels until needed by national power grids, the company's founder Hideaki Horie said in an interview.

APB, which stands for "all polymer battery", uses special polymers that can conduct electricity. Unlike most lithium-ion batteries, all its parts are made of plastics.

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in products from smartphones to EVs. However, there has been a series of accidents with batteries reportedly heating up and catching fire.

Polymers have higher resistance to electrical currents and so APB's batteries would not dramatically heat up, according to Horie, who in the 1990s helped Japanese carmaker Nissan to pioneer lithium-ion batteries.

"I need to demonstrate that there are new technologies for lithium-ion batteries, and that they can meet various requirements such as cost and safety," said Horie. "I don't want [lithium-ion batteries] to be regarded as useless, after working so hard on this," he said.

APB is set to start production of its battery by October for commercial sales.

APB's plastic battery is one of the potential "next generation batteries" that aims for safer, cheaper and more efficient ways to store energy. Another candidate is the solid state battery developed by major carmakers including Toyota Motor, Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor. The first commercial solid-state battery car is expected from Toyota in the early 2020s.

Japanese conglomerate Sony first commercialized lithium-ion technology in 1991, and many other carmakers at the time were focused on using nickel-hydrogen batteries for EVs. Horie was involved in developing Nissan's Leaf electric vehicle in the 1990s.

Horie said he made sure that the Leaf's battery system was designed to be safe, and, according to Nissan, there have been no reports of any major accidents caused by the model's battery.

"We know that when a lot of things are designed in a very accurate manner, [existing batteries] can be safe," he said. However, he acknowledged that use of metals entails risks and that the current metal-based lithium-ion battery was not the ultimate version of a battery, especially for storing large amounts of electricity.

He said APB would first target the utility-scale, stationary power sector. "We want to start with the biggest markets," Horie said.

Utilities' demand for battery storage systems becomes increasingly important as renewable energy installations expand, since power supplies become dependent on the fluctuating availability of solar or wind power and are therefore unstable.

APB's founder Hideaki Horie was involved in developing Nissan's Leaf electric vehicle in the 1990s (photo by Akane Okutsu).

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, utility-scale battery storage systems typically have capacity in the hundreds of megawatt hours. Horie said he hoped to set up larger storage systems of up to about one gigawatt hour.

On top of their safety appeal, APB's batteries can also be stacked in a more compact way, improving energy density by up to three times compared to ordinary batteries.

"There is no competitor in the [stationary power] market," Horie stressed.

Targeting these massive storage systems would help the company to scale up production and bring down costs. APB plans to set up a factory this year in Japan's Fukui prefecture to produce three gigawatt hours of batteries annually. By around 2025, it aims to increase production to 30GWh, with cost at about 10 yen per watt hour. Horie said costs in the future would drop to about 5 yen -- far lower than the current price range for battery packs.

The production process would be all automated. Once APB establishes mass production technologies in its facility in Japan, "we want to roll out the same facilities in other areas such as North America," said Horie. He explained that, since production does not involve training local workers, all APB would need is investment or franchise partners.

In the long-term, Horie says APB's new battery will be a game changer for a broader range of applications. "There is a large auto market that we do want to enter at some point," he said. He also hopes that the plastic battery will be the only choice for future gadgets, such as smart glasses. "Our battery is the only battery that is safe and flexible," he emphasized.

Founded in 2018, APB has already raised 10 billion yen so far from Japanese companies including Sanyo Chemical Industries and energy company Eneos Holdings. APB works with Japan's telecommunications company SoftBank for the development of airborne telecom base stations, and with Kawasaki Heavy Industries on an unmanned submarine.

Sanyo Chemical is APB's largest shareholder with a stake of over 20%. With Horie, the Kyoto-based chemicals maker has been developing the polymers used in APB's battery.

APB's plan is to raise 100 billion yen in the next few years, eyeing foreign investors in particular. Now is the best time to attract investment in technologies that could boost green credentials, as the U.S. and Europe are pouring money into green energy as a way to revive the pandemic-hit global economy, said Horie.

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