Last week, the CSIRO-invented UltraBattery scored a huge triumph by winning $US32.5 million in funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
UltraBattery – a hybrid car battery that lasts four times longer, produces 50 percent more power than conventional lead acid batteries and is approximately 70 percent less expensive than current HEV battery systems – secured the grant through a competitive selection process conducted by the US Department of Energy, part of $US2.4 billion in funding for 48 advanced battery and electric-drive projects announced by President Barack Obama in August.
Australia’s (and especially the CSIRO’s) quality public R&D pedigree has long been acknowledged globally, and this is more glitter for the mantelpiece. But before we all get too caught up in ‘Go Team Australia!’ euphoria, it should be noted that the CSIRO licensed the UltraBattery technology to Furukawa Battery Company to commercialise the technology in Japan and Thailand, and granted permission for Furukawa to sub-license the technology to US-based East Penn for commercialisation and distribution to North America, Mexico and Canada.
So while this $US32.5 million US Government funding for UltraBattery is certainly a tremendous validation for the technology and the CSIRO researchers who developed it, the international licensing option pursued means that Australia will, in all likelihood, only receive couch change from what stands to be an extremely lucrative venture for the foreign companies (Furukawa Battery Company and East Penn) that are actually doing the commercialisation.
UltraBattery is the kind of impressive, locally-developed technology that should be forming the cornerstone foundation for an Australian cleantech company with global ambitions. It is perfectly aligned to the times, offering a cheap and efficient clean energy solution at a moment of intense hand-wringing over our impact on the planet and a groundswell of public opinion in support of clean energy alternatives.
We often ask, where is Australia’s Nokia, our Intel, our Google? Properly funded and nurtured, this technology could have formed the basis of such a company.
Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? In a feature article for Anthill Magazine last year, I wrote about the cautionary commercialisation tale of Dr Zhengrong Shi.
Mention the name Dr Zhengrong Shi to participants in the Australian cleantech sector and many will wince involuntarily at an opportunity lost. Shi earned his PhD in 1989 from the University of NSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, which is acknowledged globally as being at the forefront of solar technology research. In 1995, Pacific Solar, a co-operative venture between the university and the Pacific Power company, was established to commercialise the thin-film technology he worked on at UNSW, which uses 100 times less silicon than conventional cells. Shi continued to develop the technology in Australia until 2000 when he was lured back to his native China with an offer of $US6 million to establish a conventional photovoltaic solar cell manufacturing plant. The resulting company was Suntech Power, which listed on the New York Stock Exchange in December 2005 as one of the leading solar cell manufacturing companies in the world, making Shi a billionaire. In 2004, Pacific Solar was acquired by German company CSG Solar, which now has worldwide rights to commercialise UNSW’s thin-film technology. And once again Australia was left in the lab.
The opportunity for Australia to capitalise on UltraBattery technology has not completely passed. It has yet to be licensed in Australia for automotive applications and CSIRO is accepting expressions of interest for manufacture and distribution of the technology in this region.
And UltraBattery technology has applications beyond the automotive sectors. CSIRO is part of a technology start-up that will develop and commercialise battery-based storage solutions for renewable energy storage from wind and solar.
Now that sounds promising, and an apt response to the local development of clever technology that addresses both market and environmental needs.
Australian entrepreneurs and investors need to step up and seize these kinds of opportunities. Because soon the only thing of value left to mine will be buried between our ears.