We met with Dr. Thomas Maschmeyer to discuss a self-rejuvenating battery, ways to recover hydrocarbons from plastics, how Australia manages energy, and much more. Enjoy!
"By 2050 we'll have more plastic waste than fish by weight in the ocean if we don't stop stuff the way we're doing it now. So that's unacceptable."” – Dr. Thomas Maschmeyer
Leading chemist Dr. Thomas Maschmeyer discusses advances in battery technology, including a patented, zero-state-of-charge, self-rejuvenating, zinc-bromine battery. He also examines the Cat-HTR process, which recovers hydrocarbons from plastics, and how Australia manages energy. Professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney, as well as executive chairman of Gelion Technologies, Dr. Maschmeyer talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have a special guest coming to us from Sydney, Australia, Professor Maschmeyer, who is a chemist, but also one who solves a lot of problems.
And you’re Down Under, Professor Maschmeyer, and yet you’re from Germany originally. So how did that all work out?
Thomas Maschmeyer: Oh well, Australia obviously is a wonderful place in itself, but it’s made even more wonderful because I have... I’m married to an Australian lady who I met many years ago on her obligatory European trip, as many Australians, I think Canadians have almost as a rite of passage. And yes, I am a self-funding travel souvenir.
Jed: Wonderful. So it really was a match made in heaven. So you came down from Hamburg, Germany to Australia to do your undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Thomas: That’s correct.
Jed: And then you went back to Europe for some time and then found your way back to Australia, and that’s where you’re currently doing your work. One of the things that I’m interested about is your batteries that you’ve been working on.
What would you say is the difference between your batteries and some of the other batteries that exist out there from sort of a technical point?
Thomas: Right, so the other two batteries are principally lead acid batteries and lithium ion batteries. The worldwide market for that is about $90 billion and at the moment they’re roughly 50-50, so about $45 billion each. We are not there, but we’ll try and scrape into that market a little bit.
So we are a zinc bromine battery, and what that does is, it is basically a zinc plating machine that plates out zinc as I charge the battery on an electrode, and it generates bromine on the other side of the electrode.
Bromine normally is a problem because it’s very reactive and that’s where the battery gets its power from. But we’ve developed a patented chemical formulation which renders the bromine more or less harmless and still retains its capability of reacting.
So what that means is that we can go down to what’s called zero state of charge, so we can run the battery completely flat. Normally other batteries die after that or never really recover. Whereas we love it. Zero is just fantastic. It replenishes all the electrode surfaces and rejuvenates them, makes them just like a new battery.
And the second thing is, the other two battery technologies really don’t like the heat. And as it is proper for an Australian battery technology, we love the heat. So 45 degrees of running temperature, no problem at all. So that is actually a very nice spot for us. So to go down to zero state of charge, to do that at 45 degrees, it’s just a brilliant for us and other batteries die.
So therefore, we have this capability to go into markets where there is a need for solar battery solution, but where the batteries currently are not really up to the job.
The batteries can do it, of course, but they will die much more quickly than one would think. So they can die between six months, nine months, 12 months, and then they’re gone.
And if it’s a remote area, the replacement cost itself plus somebody in a little white van driving out there, doing the job, driving back, and it may be 300-400 kilometers at a pop, that’s expensive. So our robustness and what’s called "abuse tolerance" is really important. So that’s the difference.
Jed: That’s great.
And what is the secret behind protecting the bromide from being so reactive?
Thomas: Yeah, so we have what’s called a "self-assembled nanogel". So think about toothpaste. And the bromine acid is generated within the toothpaste, is encapsulated on a molecular level by a tiny little bubble of this toothpaste gel, and that bubble just reduces the reactivity of the bromine enough so that I can actually put my hand into the toothpaste and wash the toothpaste off and I’m not badly affected. Whereas if I put the hand into pure bromine, I need to go to hospital very quickly and I might have some issues. So it’s really that self-assembled nanogel that was the first patent, that makes all the difference.
Jed: Right, and you said that you like to look at problems and find out where the bottleneck is and see if it’s a chemical problem at the bottleneck, and then try to open that up.
So can you describe how it was that you found... Okay, was it that you noticed that the batteries were dying of the other two types of batteries? Or did you notice that this third type of battery just didn’t have a good way to harness the bromide and keep it under control? Or describe the process a little bit.
Thomas: So the process started with my view that really the electricity network needed to get additional buffer capacity to be able to accommodate all the renewable energy that was undoubtedly coming in.
And then I thought, "So why isn’t there more already?" And what was clear was that the battery technologies out there did not quite have the characteristics that were necessary for some of these applications I spoke about, especially in the agricultural sector for desalination, irrigation and pumping, etcetera.
So I thought, "So why is that?" I had a look and understood why it was the case. Looked for, at alternative battery technologies, and zinc bromine looked very promising, but that was only available on what’s called a flow battery, where I have similar electrodes set up, but then I have two large tanks which pump the electrolyte around the electrodes, and that has some advantages and some disadvantages. And the principal disadvantage is cost and complexity. So it’s really a chemical plant one buys, which needs to be serviced, that makes noise, and is quite expensive.
So I thought, "Well, how can I change that chemistry and make it into a non-flow chemistry?" And this encapsulation came up very quickly as a key point. And I had a failed experiment from some years before with a student, and we tried to make a membrane out of something that’s called an ionic liquid.
And that sort of worked, but never really did work. But it had something in it that was special and it captured a bromine-bromide like substance and I was able to selectively transport that.
And I thought, "One of these days, maybe it’ll be useful for something," so I had it in my top drawer.
And as I realized that there was a need for this special bromine handling, I thought, "Well, I’ve got something, don’t I?" So I tried that out and it worked like a charm. And we never looked back.
Jed: Wow, that is so fascinating. Well, you’ve really made some progress with your battery project, but of course, that’s not the only thing you’ve worked on over your career.
Can you just tell us briefly, what is it that makes it possible to bring out the carbon in throw-away plastic items, that usually are burned, back into the useful economic cycle for using those kinds of carbons? What was the secret there, the secret special thing that you did there?
Thomas: So we’ve got this technology called Cat-HTR, so Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor Technology that we are rolling out worldwide, including in Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, and maybe Japan.
And what that does for the plastics is it helps to make really stable products in high yield, much more stable and much higher yield than alternative technology.
So the alternative one, the first one up is of course to burn it. Just for heat in a waste incinerator, and vaping, vaping around for some time.
But that’s not the best use of that resource, because if you think about it, those plastic films and plastic bags and whatever, that’s fuel, that’s already from refined crude oil, has gone through a refinery, has been passed around with, a lot of value added just to burn it. It’s a waste. So burning is not good.
Landfill is even worse because you don’t get anything from it, and throwing it into the ocean, "Oops. I’ve done it again." That’s no good. By 2050, we’ll have more plastic waste than fish by weight in the ocean, if we don’t stop stuff, the way we’re doing it now, so that’s unacceptable. So throwing away, landfill, and burning is not acceptable. The next one is pyrolysis, and that is to break down the plastic with heat, and it breaks bonds.
But those bonds, when they’re broken, they are very, very reactive. And broken bonds want to react together again, and make a lot of intractable solid that is useless, and has to be thrown away or burned. And that’s no good.
So what we’ve come up with is a super critical water. So that’s water, which is like a gas, but it’s so heavily compressed to act like a liquid. It’s a fourth state of matter, really. And we can’t experience it, because if we did, we would die instantly. So it would be a very short moment of recognition.
So we take this water and under those conditions, the water transfers heat, transfers mass, it pushes it through the reactor, but also, it is able to donate some of its hydrogen atoms to where the bonds are broken. And that stabilizes our breaking down plastics.
And it means that we make almost no waste, almost no carbon, it’s about 5% or so of this intractable stuff. I’m sorry, 0.5% of the intractable stuff that we make, and on a carbon basis, whereas others might make 40% or 50%, so we make 0.5%. And what comes out, because it is stabilized with the hydrogen, is very, very easy to further process.
And we immediately make three different streams that we can sell on, on sale; the naphtha, light cycle oil, and industrial waxes, straight out of the mixed plastic in one step just by separation of the distillation.
So that’s really unique and the process economics, because I don’t need extra hydrogen to calm down or reprocess what I’ve got. The process economics are sensational.
Jed: Wow, that is just amazing to think about those little hydrogen atoms and the supercritical water going and kind of protecting those reactive bonds, just sealing them off so that nothing can turn into the black tar that you can’t do anything with. That’s fascinating.
So my last set of questions are just about the environment down in Australia. You’ve been lucky enough to live there for a long time, and having been there, I realize that it is very different even from Europe, in its concern for the environment, in its desire to protect things.
Why do you think that is? And is it true that it’s even... It’s certainly better than the United States, but is it even better than most parts of Europe, and why?
Thomas: Yes, so we do have, I guess, similar to Canada. We do have a strong mineral sector, and that mineral sector tends to, potentially is somewhat less concerned about environmental impact, but therefore the population as a whole balances that out beautifully.
And overall, I think the Australian voters are very concerned about the environment, the bushfires, obviously, they’re a yearly reminder of advancing climate change. So this is really top priority. I think that that is one of the things.
And we have a beautiful, pristine place, we’ve only been here for two hundred years. Obviously the First Nations had been here for 60,000 years, and they looked after the place pretty well until we came.
And we, I think, have an increasing awareness of the role they’ve played and also the role we’ve played in changing the environment. And maybe we need to synthesize those two elements and come up with a new way.
I think there is a broad support for that in society, and that shows itself through lots of different actions in terms of protecting wild rivers, protecting native bushlands, protecting animal habitat, etcetera.
Jed: Yes, and this saline basin that’s sort of right there, if you look at the kidney shape of Australia, it’s right in the bottom part of Australia. And you were saying that it has a salty layer, a fresh water layer, and then a salty later on top. And your technology with the batteries allows farmers to pump out the salty layer that’s on top so that it doesn’t come up and ruin the crops.
Thomas: That’s right.
Jed: And you were saying that they also get water out of pumping that up…
Is that because then they desalinate that salty water?
Thomas: That’s right. So once you have a pump, you basically have a desalination system, depending what kind of desalination it is. There’s reverse osmosis, that’s just basically pumping hard, so that... With some membrane.
So yes, they can reduce the saline level of the water table and get them with desalination water for use in agriculture. And they can do that 24/7 with a solar battery installation, and you don’t need to ship diesel, etcetera, etcetera.
So once the initial CapEx is made, it just runs on its own effectively. That can really make a big, big difference, because arable land mass is I think one of the critical areas going forward for the world, not just Australia.
Jed: Yeah, not just Australia, but Australia certainly has that as a big, big issue. Now, for those of us who are in the United States, picturing the westward expansion and windmills, which brought the water up from the Great Plains…
How efficient is a windmill in bringing up water compared to a solar panel attached to an electric pump? How do those compare?
Thomas: Right. That might be slightly outside of my precise expertise. So when the windmills run, obviously, obviously it’s about the conversion of the mechanical energy of the wind into the mechanical energy of the rotating windmill. Now if that were to run an electric motor, once I have the spinning happening, and I don’t know what the conversion is there, but the electric motor runs at 95%-98% efficiency.
Jed: Perfect, well, that’s something maybe I’ll look into later. But it certainly is wonderful that you’re taking one of the plentiful resources in Australia, which is sun power, and turning it into something that can really help agriculture as well as so many other things. Wow, well, it’s just so wonderful to hear all these encouraging technologies that are coming out of your laboratory and out of Australia generally. Professor Maschmeyer, it’s just been so wonderful to have you on this program. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time.
Thomas: Thank you for having me, and good luck with your further work.
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