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Rosnano find no promising technology in Russia

Rosnano find no promising technology in Russia

14.09.2010 — Analysis

The Russian state corporation Rosnano and the Chinese company Thunder Sky are releasing a lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles in Russia. Experts were surprised by this joint project - the framework that was created to support innovative domestic development projects invested public money in 20-year-old foreign technology. Experts told this columnist for RusBusinessNews that people should be concentrating on fuel cells, not batteries. They believe that the future lies in hydrogen energy and that that industry needs further development. However, Russian inventors aren't getting any of the money earmarked for that. 

There are plans to build a 14-billion-ruble facility to produce lithium-ion batteries at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant, which is part of the Rosatom group. The business will be built in 2011 and within four years will be able to produce up to 12,000 batteries a year for cars, trucks, and buses. At first, everything they make will be sent to China, since there is no market for electric vehicles in Russia. However, the partners expect to create such a market by 2015 and thus increase their yearly revenue to 17 billion rubles.

Russia does not possess the technology to produce lithium-ion batteries, and Russian engineers had a mixed reaction to Rosnano's decision to join with the Chinese to build a factory to produce them. They think that a state corporation should support Russian projects, not Chinese ones.

The Urals Electrochemical Plant, which is also part of the Rosatom group, has been producing hydrogen-generating equipment for more than 40 years, which, along a source of DC power, is the basis of the electric motor. In the 1990's, engineers from UECP modernized the Foton electrochemical generator, which was created for the Buran space shuttle, and installed it in an automobile. The car runs, but the technology requires further work.

Boris Pospelov, the head engineer for the UECP chemical converter plant, says that the scientists who are wrestling with this problem are leaning toward the idea of installing a generator-powered motor on each wheel of the car, which means that they must find the most economical way to obtain hydrogen as well as solve a number of other scientific and technical problems, aimed at lowering the cost of electric vehicles. After all, an electric car shouldn't be a chemical plant on wheels.

Nikolai Batalov, the head of the laboratory for chemical current sources at the High-Temperature Electrochemistry Institute of the Urals branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences says that chemical generators are currently very temperamental. They don't like a stop-and-go operating schedule and that's why they have to be installed in the electric vehicle along with the lithium battery or with a supercapacitor, which is the path the Japanese are taking. In addition, experts are needed to make sure the engine works in wintry conditions. The system could just freeze up in typical Russian weather conditions, since water is a part of the chemical process. However, Nikolai Batolov has no doubt that all the technical problems that come up during the creation of the electrochemical generator will be solved and that in the foreseeable future, UECP will be able to significantly reduce the cost of one kilowatt of produced energy. The scientist believes that the future truly lies in hydrogen energy. But just like oil, the reserves of lithium are not infinite.

Experts emphasize that lithium-ion technology was invented twenty years ago when video cameras, cell phones, digital cameras, and other forms of modern technology were just coming into common use and required powerful batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have a capacity that is many times higher than that of lead or nickel-cadmium batteries, which gave French engineers the idea of installing them on submarines and torpedoes. Naturally, demand for lithium will rise as this technology spreads around the world, which will cause new energy problems in the near future.

In view of this, Russian specialists suggest that funding fuel cell research is more important for the Rosnano corporation than building a factory to produce batteries. However, when it comes to getting support from a state corporation, nothing is simple. UECP applied for money in 2008 but their application didn't even pass review by the corporation's scientific and technical advisory panel. The governing body of the Sverdlovsk region will conduct talks with Rosnano about submitting the application a second time, but the engineers are saying that a number of internal and external complications are coming up. Boris Pospelov sums it up, "To put it very simply, we need support within the corporation."

Vladimir Matrenin, the acting director of UECP's chemical current converter plant, explains that deputies in the State Duma, academics, and other knowledgeable people who frequently own their own businesses are all members of the scientific and technical advisory panel. In theory, it is normal when the people who help form Rosnano's opinions already have practical experience working with this or that technology, but it seems one also has to take things like market competition into account. A conflict of interest can certainly be an obstacle to funding promising development projects. Boris Matrenin claims that one of the experts was very hostile to UECP's management because they had different views of the future of hydrogen energy. This divergence of opinions turned into a rivalry, which got to the point that the organization where the panel member worked spent $230 million to buy shares in an American company that is a direct competitor of the Urals chemical plant. So the expert was understandably less than eager to strengthen his opponent by giving him financial support from Rosnano.

Currently, Russian developers of an electrochemical generator are negotiating with a number of major private investors. V.Matrenin hopes that the Rosatom corporation, which created the panel of experts to evaluate the potential of development projects within the institution, will help to alleviate these stumbling blocks. It is likely that UECP will find funding, but experts are convinced that the system to support innovative businesses needs to be changed. Russia won't produce its own technology if the institutions specifically created to support science won't finance promising domestic development projects.

The problem isn't that the Rosnano corporation has invested billions of rubles in the production of Chinese batteries, while not allocating a single ruble to the Urals Electrochemical Plant. The problem lies elsewhere. UECP can't accept Rosnano's money, because that money is extraordinarily expensive and the state corporation is imposing difficult conditions that the nuclear plant has no desire to comply with.

Vladimir Terletsky

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