How this tiny UK company could make electric cars viable
Few of us could be bothered with that. Until electric cars can go further between each battery recharge they are never going to be widely popular. Last week I took a trip down to the south coast to visit a small company called Ilika (Aim: IKA) that believes it may well have the answer. Let me tell you a little about what Ilika does.
A spin-out from Southampton University, Ilika is a world leader in the development of new materials. New materials change our daily lives for the better. New lightweight but super strong plastics make cars and aeroplanes lighter; new metal composites enable consumer electronics; and America’s WL Gore has built a multi-million dollar global business on the back of its water resistant but breathable fabric, Gore-Tex.
Ilika chief executive Graeme PurdyBut in the past the development of these new materials has been a painstaking affair. A sample made from different ingredients is produced. If this is not quite right the ingredients are slightly changed, and then they are changed again and again until the material has just the right properties.
At the moment, all this can take up to ten years. But Ilika believes that it can radically shorten this development cycle. Through the process of physical vapour deposition, Ilika is able to create a spectrum of different materials on one plate. It can then rapidly test this spectrum to find the point on the plate where the mix of ingredients give the desired properties of, for example, resistivity or conductivity.
Ilika plc (AIM: IKA), the advanced cleantech materials discovery company, has entered into contracts with two of the world's largest aerospace companies for the innovation of structural materials and coatings.
The aerospace sector represents a new market for Ilika's technology platform, which has recently been demonstrated to offer valuable insights into pathways for the development of materials highly relevant for the sector. In addition, the sector is a particularly strong fit because of the high level of demand for materials innovation required to drive forward improvements in aeroplane fuel economy. Fuel economy can be achieved through the use of lighter, stronger airframe materials as well as applying coatings to reduce drag.
In the UK, the aerospace sector has been recognised as a key part of the country's manufacturing base and has been identified for government support through the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), which will deploy £2 billion over the next seven years. Ilika is actively partnering up with aerospace companies to access this ATI budget.
Commenting, Graeme Purdy, Ilika's CEO, stated, "Ilika's proprietary materials platform has shown itself to be very relevant to the aerospace sector. The contracts we have secured will make a contribution to this year's revenue and we are looking to build on these initial commercial engagements to make a significant impact in the aerospace supply chain, supported by the ATI, going forward."
Nowhere is this a greater issue than in batteries. Recharging the battery of mobile phones has become part of the daily routine, but the appeal of an electric car is seriously undermined by the need to plug it into the mains every night. For a step-change in battery technology, researchers are working on solid state electrolytes in lithium ion batteries.
The key to this – I’m reliably informed – will be to find a solid-state electrolyte material with increased ionic conductivity that remains thermally and mechanically stable. Success could extend the battery run time tenfold and make it possible to recharge batteries in minutes rather than hours.
Ilika is working with Toyota to develop just such a material using its state of the art materials discovery platform. Today sheets of new material, each with slightly different properties, are produced one by one, and then tested. This is a slow process, but it also raises the danger that each sheet could be produced under slightly different conditions, which would alter the final outcome. What Ilika is able to do is produce one hundred variations of a sample material simultaneously and under strictly controlled conditions.
This is through a process called ‘molecular beam epitaxy’, by which atomic layers of elements are slowly laid down upon a substrate within a vacuum. Within one hundred different windows on a single substrate Ilika can lay down materials with one hundred slightly different properties. Each of these can then be tested for properties such as thermal resistance and conductivity. This process is far faster than the traditional method.
Ilika is tapping into a huge market
Ilika has some big names including Toyota, Shell, Toshiba and Energise among its customers and charges them for its development work. This generated £2m of revenues last year, and further growth could see it cover Ilika’s costs within two years.
But the real reward will come if products that are based on Ilika’s materials hit the market. Ilika has plenty of irons in the fire. It is making progress with metral hybrid materials that can store hydrogen; with lead-free piezoelectric materials; and with cheaper fuel cells that require substantially fewer precious metals. But it is batteries that offer the most excitement, and not only for vehicles.
Ilika is now working with the armed forces. On average a soldier currently carries up to seven different types of battery weighing a total of 10kg in aggregate. Now military planners want to halve this weight while also improving battery performance, and Ilika is now collaborating with the research arm of the UK’s Ministry of Defence. The potential market for rechargeable batteries in the defence sector alone is estimated to be worth $2.5bn by 2015, while that for the vehicle market would dwarf this number.