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Betting big on aluminium fuel cells to meet India's clean energy goals

The Log9 team at its lab in Mathikere, near IISc, Bengaluru
Detached from the bustle of multi-billion dollar social media businesses and consumer platforms fostering online shopping behaviour, a little-known start-up from Bengaluru is heads down in its lab creating India’s next big clean energy technology.

Batteries and fuel cells, used in sectors from telecom to automobile and power, have seen incremental improvements over the years, and have now become an area of significant research and development (R&D) as governments around the world respond to the threats of climate change.

India too is betting big on clean energy, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi setting a target of 175 Gw of installed renewable energy capacity by 2022 and 100 per cent electrification of automobiles y 2030. Clean energy is a significant area of importance.

The emphasis on clean energy, however, was not the motivation for Akshay Singhal and Kartik Hajela, who started nanotechnology company Log9 Materials in 2015. Log9’s mission is to create a robust business out of clean energy materials and technologies, giving its producers the right incentives and making R&D commercially viable.

Singhal and Hajela, metallurgical and chemical engineers, respectively, from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Roorkee, initially set up the start-up in their college to work on solutions based on graphene, a carbon-based material with remarkable absorbent qualities. They created PPuf, a cigarette filter that uses graphene, sold by pharma companies under the brand ‘Filtr’.

They also developed oil-absorbent pads for industrial use. LSP-2, used by customers in chemicals and oil and gas sectors, absorbs oil 86 times its weight and is also certified under British Standards. “The major reason leading to slow commercialisation of graphene and nanotechnology was the cost-intensive processes existing to manufacture the material, which made it commercially unviable,” according to Log9’s website.

“This is where we are different. We work in a reverse way with our clients, coming backward from the cost, ending up developing a cost-effective process to not only manufacture the material but also incorporate it in their current product lines to realise its value.”

The start-up now wants to dent the energy market with a potentially game-changing product. It has created a battery with aluminium-based chemistry that uses -- believe it or not -- water as its sole electrolyte.

Log9’s battery comprises aluminium as anode, oxygen as cathode, and water as electrolyte. Graphene, used as the enclosure, lets air pass through into the chamber where chemical reaction between aluminium, water and air takes place to release energy.

The benefits are aplenty. Lithium and cobalt, the main components of Lithium-ion batteries, currently the industry standard, are not produced in India and are imported from China, whereas India has abundance of aluminium ores.

They are also more efficient that lithium-ion batteries. Log9 claims its batteries can go up to 1,000 km as against average range of 250-300 km of lithium-ion-powered electric vehicles (EVs). Only water has to be replaced after every 300 km of travel, which lowers the cost significantly.

The by-product, aluminium hydroxide, is deposited at the bottom of the fuel-cell in powder form that can be recycled at a smelter and reused in the same battery. Fresh aluminium in a rectangular ‘cassette-like’ form is put into the fuel-cell, a process that takes less than five minutes. In comparison, lithium-ion batteries take over two hours to charge. Log9 is also testing this solution in power generators for use at telecom towers and data centres.

Globally, top companies too are moving to develop and test air-based fuel cells. Tesla said in 2017 that it was investing in developing alternate batteries technologies. US-based Earthdas, with over $1 billion funding, has sold 3,000 graphene-based battery units to automobile companies and is expanding to Europe. Hong Kong-based ACTXE and Japan’s Fuji Pigment have become globally renowned names in aluminium-based battery tech.

In 2019, two years after shifting operations from Roorkee to Bengaluru, Log9 gained major validation when it was selected for Surge, an accelerator programme run by top venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. It went on to raise $3.5 million from Sequoia and Exfinity Venture Partners.

“Log9 is an important company in our portfolio and one that has the potential to change the energy sector as we know it,” said Shree Harsha, India marketing director at Dassault Systemes, which picked Log9 for its technology mentorship programme in 2019. “There is high interest in clean energy technologies and metal-air batteries could potentially be a major alternative to fossil-fuel based sources.” 

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