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Hydro-Québec shares lithium licensing

New battery technology could help increase demand for electric cars

Hydro-Québec and Technifin, a subsidiary of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), have agreed to share the intellectual property (IP) rights to their respective lithium-based technologies.

The agreement was reached in an effort to encourage the commercialization of their lithium titanate spinel oxide (LTO) technologies, which are of particular interest to rechargeable lithium-ion battery manufacturers for use in the emerging electric automotive industry.

Pike Research, a Colorado-based clean technology market research firm, forecasts that the market for lithium-ion batteries for transportation will grow from $2 billion annually in 2011 to more than $14.6 billion by 2017.

According to Hydro-Québec spokesperson Patrice Lavoie, it is not unusual for research entities such as Hydro-Québec and Technifin to enter into these types of IP rights sharing agreements, since a single device – especially in industries such as computer or telecom – can typically encompass thousands of patents.

The Technifin patents cover the basic use in lithium-ion cells of the LTO technology invented in 1994 by Michael Thackeray while at CSIR. The Hydro-Québec patents cover the potential of LTO that was recognized in 1995 by  Karim Zaghib at a Hydro-Québec research institute.

According to McGill engineering professor George Demopoulos, safety and longer cycle lives are the advantages of using LTO as material for lithium-ion batteries.

By pooling the IP rights to their technology, “Hydro-Québec has become a one-stop supply for this sort of technology,” he said.

“The LTO’s particular advantage is safety,” he continued. “Imagine there’s a collision; you don’t want your battery to be volatile, to become a bomb.”

Because the lithium reactions that take place during charge and discharge occur with no significant contraction or expansion of the battery material, lithium-ion batteries with LTO anodes have much longer cycle lives than traditional lithium-ion batteries. The trade-off that comes with the longer cycle lives, however, is that the batteries have a lower energy capacity.

For Hélène Laurin, another Hydro-Québec spokesperson, the trade-off would not pose a problem for battery-powered cars.

“At this point, batteries should last even longer than the car,” she said.

According to Pike Research Director John Gartner, LTO technology “is one of the several leading candidates, though not a clear winner,” in the competition for better rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, citing the LTO’s compromise on power capacity as one weakness.

“Besides, we can’t be sure of the impact this will actually have on the electric vehicle industry until manufacturers come forward and actually license the technology to create a product,” said Gartner.

“This is one of the technologies that will allow us to move forward. It’s at the forefront because of the safety and life cycle. Is it a game changer? I don’t know,” said Demopoulos. “There are other technologies available.”