nanoFlowcell® quo vadis?

While many still think of it as a sports car manufacturer, others see it as the energy company of the future. The CEO of nanoFlowcell Holdings, Nunzio La Vecchia, talks about the future of the nanoFlowcell® and the hen-and-egg problem.

Mr. La Vecchia, the QUANT 48VOLT you brought to Geneva offered an impressive demonstration of a low-voltage electric vehicle. How has the automotive industry reacted to it?

The QUANT 48VOLT is truly a highly impressive showcase of what's possible today in low-voltage. However, our technology is still a few steps ahead, even of the high expectations held by the automotive industry, which is still planning on the basis of expensive and complex high-voltage drives and outdated battery technologies. But we don't want to sell low-voltage motors but rather a nanoFlowcell 48VOLT powertrain system. In the QUANT 48VOLT, this consists of four powerful low-voltage motors that don't yet exist on the market in this form, and the first nanoFlowcell® fitted with six membranes. This flow cell is the core of our research; everything else is application-driven development. In this respect, we still have a lot of work to do to raise awareness.

The principle of the nanoFlowcell® - energy storage based on flow cell technology - in the QUANT 48VOLT is not new. What's the basis for the progress?

The technological principle is the same as for the nanoFlowcell® drive in the QUANT E from 2014. However, we have developed a great many extremely important detail solutions that are crucial for the production feasibility of the nanoFlowcell® drive. It wasn't until the end of last year that we managed to achieve variable controllability of the flow cell, which now enables us to use several cell membranes. This also leads to a larger membrane surface and, in turn, greater system output, which makes the use of super capacitors - known as supercaps - superfluous. That last aspect was an important specification on the part of the automotive industry, as these components are incredibly expensive. Right now, we're working on the software-based control of a flow cell bundle that we intend to use in the QUANT 48VOLT. This will give us variable control of the power output from the flow cell between 0 and 300 km/h.

Do you believe that this development step marks the breakthrough for automotive applications of the nanoFlowcell®?

The nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT drive certainly puts us at the forefront at the moment in all major aspects. The system is cost-effective to manufacture, even in series production; it's environmentally friendly to use and offers a unique level of inherent safety. It's also compact and no heavier than other vehicle powertrains. We are offering the automotive industry so many positive arguments for including nanoFlowcell® 48VOLT drives in their long-term product planning.

Why do you not take this step yourself and produce vehicles? Tesla has shown that this can be done from scratch.

It seems like the obvious choice, but we don't want to be a vehicle maker. This involves a lot of complications, of which I'm sure Tesla is very well aware. Listen, building a prototype to demonstrate to the industry how the flow cell works for mobile applications is one thing; establishing series production and building an international distribution network is a very different matter. The energy and focus demanded by such an undertaking would give us problems in other areas. Our expertise is in the research and development of flow cells as energy carriers. This is where we lead the field internationally and we want to build on this position of technological leadership by establishing further applications for nanoFlowcell® technology.

The progress we have made in the automotive application of the nanoFlowcell® also benefits us in other areas. A larger membrane surface, the use of multi-membrane configurations and also the greater energy density of our bi-ION fuel can be carried over. We're now in a position to scale flow cells to cover the variable electricity needs of an entire community fully autonomously.

How do you see the further development of your company?

We selected a mobile application for the nanoFlowcell® not only because I'm a car enthusiast, but also because it enables us to clearly delineate the benefits of our nanoFlowcell® relative to other redox flow cells/systems - also in terms of power, compactness and economy. Plus, the nanoFlowcell® as an alternative form of energy is discussed with greater emotion in automotive engineering than as, say, a power unit for the housebuilding sector. But this is precisely where the future of our technology lies. The bulk of it will be in stationary applications. We've concentrated our communication efforts on the automobile because, quite frankly, it reaches more people. But it should be clear to everyone that a nanoFlowcell® that can deliver enough energy to send an electric sports car tearing around a race track can also supply energy elsewhere. The selling story for our technology is not just about revolutionising drives for electric vehicles, but also that nanoFlowcell® will become an essential energy carrier in the sustainable energy mix and will play an active role in the energy transition - the move away from fossil and nuclear energy towards renewable energies.

A noble aspiration indeed. How might I envisage the use of nanoFlowcell® in a stationary application?

Many consumers are already producing their own electricity - using the likes of combined heat and power units or solar installations. Particularly in the face of increasing energy prices, many are yearning for energy autonomy but are still shying away from the financial outlay for the necessary technology. For an individual household, living off-grid is certainly theoretically possible but rather challenging in terms of technology and finance. At nanoFlowcell® Holdings, we want to demonstrate a solution that is straightforward - technologically and financially.

Look, the nanoFlowcell® unit in the QUANT 48VOLT currently delivers a possible continuous output of 300 kWh; electricity can be generated for as long as bi-ION is available. Instead of feeding electric motors, this power can also be used to supply a residential household. For domestic applications, imagine the nanoFlowcell® as a power unit around the size of a microwave supplied with environmentally friendly bi-ION by a tank the size of a conventional oil tank. A nanoFlowcell® system like this can cover the entire electricity needs of one house or even a whole community! The nanoFlowcell® power unit can be scaled to suit the size of the consumer and is completely off-grid. It's cost-efficient to install, environmentally friendly, low-noise and has zero harmful emissions.

What we are seeing is that mainly small communities and neighbourhoods currently prefer to generate their electricity themselves using biogas installations, wind or solar power. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they are able to supply themselves with electricity completely off-grid. It rather means that these places can theoretically produce more renewable electricity than they consume but have to import power at certain times of the day or year. To be independent from the large electricity generators and grid operators, this is where a central nanoFlowcell® power facility could be connected to cover periods of peak consumption. Connecting a nanoFlowcell® power unit is as easy as starting a nanoFlowcell® electric vehicle - instantaneous and with no run-up phase. It can be fully integrated into the local electricity infrastructure.

Consumers - private households and communities - who haven't previously wanted to rely 100 percent on renewable energies because they feared power outages caused by cloudy skies or a lack of wind can secure themselves a reliable and uninterrupted power supply with a nanoFlowcell®. The energy transition can then really take off.

Does electricity supply by a nanoFlowcell® unit mean the integration of car and house?

No, not necessarily. Car is car and house is house. Nevertheless, the bi-ION used in the car is the same as that used in the house to generate electricity. That means you could theoretically also fill up your nanoFlowcell® vehicle at home. However, whether a future electric car powered by a nanoFlowcell® will have a power connection for operating external electricity consumers will be up to the individual car manufacturer. It would be theoretically possible, though. In which case, the vehicle could be used to deliver electricity to the household. The 2 x 250 litre tank volume in the QUANT 48VOLT would be sufficient to supply an average two-person household with electricity for almost four months. However, for a two-person household with an annual consumption of around 2,500 kWh, the flow cell wouldn't have to be as big as it is in the QUANT 48VOLT (300 kWh). Even if all domestic consumers - hairdryer, kettle, washing machine, tumble dryer, hob, dishwasher, flat-screen TV, fridge and lights - were on at the same time, peak consumption would still be less than 20 kWh.

Would a domestic nanoFlowcell® power unit be similar to the Tesla Powerwall or the Mercedes-Benz Home energy storage unit?

Not exactly. While the Tesla and Mercedes-Benz systems are nothing more than rechargeable batteries (accumulators) that store and release solar energy in a cycle, nanoFlowcell® produces electricity regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. And it's also totally environmentally friendly - a claim that cannot be made of regular accumulators. The bi-ION electrolyte liquid is not renewable and would either be filtered directly in situ and then treated as waste water or the spent electrolyte liquid would be pumped out on delivery of fresh bi-ION and handled centrally. The product benefits of bi-ION that apply to mobile applications are obviously also the same for use in a stationary power unit - non-explosive, non-flammable, non-toxic and environmentally neutral. What's also important for stationary use is the long shelf life of the electrolyte liquid and its almost non-existent self-discharge as well as the durable and low-maintenance technology of the nanoFlowcell® itself.

What will happen first - nanoFlowcell® for home or car?

We have prioritised the application of nanoFlowcell® technology for electric cars because we hoped that would spread the technology more rapidly. Its use in electric cars would also have familiarised consumers with our technology before we brought domestic nanoFlowcell® electricity systems to market. However, we have realised we have to think and act in parallel here. For car makers, the provision and distribution of bi-ION is certainly an issue we can't dismiss out of hand. The business case for potential franchise partners in relation to bi-ION production and distribution is economically sound, but nevertheless a complex part of the conversation. We have to solve a hen-and-egg problem that we are currently facing in discussions with the automotive industry. Fuel station operators see no need to re-equip for bi-ION when there are still no nanoFlowcell® vehicles, but no nanoFlowcell® vehicles will be built as long as there is no bi-ION distribution.

For sure, it's less complex and faster to implement delivery of bi-ION for nanoFlowcell® power units to households and communities - via tankers, similar to the way oil is delivered for oil heating - than to install a widespread automotive bi-ION infrastructure. It's certainly more productive to take this route than to go in circles with industry stakeholders on the hen-and-egg problem. I've no doubt that as soon as industrial mass production and distribution of bi-ION has been established for general use of stationary nanoFlowcells®, it won't take long for the automotive industry to catch up. I must admit, though, I was surprised that the automotive industry is acting so hesitantly when it comes to the matter of environmentally compatible energies for sustainable e-mobility, where ecological vision is required on the industry side.

Do you want to turn your back on the electric car?

No, certainly not. The nanoFlowcell® is the perfect energy for uncompromising electric mobility. It was clear to us from the start that the use of nanoFlowcell® in electric vehicles like the QUANT 48VOLT and the QUANTiNO is considerably more attractive for communicating our energy technology, as the discussion surrounding electric mobility is far more emotional that for things like power units for homes or container ships. But our passion here is for sustainable energy - the nanoFlowcell® - not a particular application. The effect of the focus on electric mobility has been to limit our positioning as a company. So much so, that we are perceived as a car maker, which we're not. As a consequence, we will place more emphasis in future on the overall potential of the nanoFlowcell® - the performance potential of the nanoFlowcell® as a meaningful energy source in the sustainable energy mix.

Thank you for talking to us