Great potential seen in soft batteries
Chinese scientist living in Finland stores electricity in a piece of paper
By Pentti Laitinen
Seventeen years ago, Chinese scientist Xia-Chang Zhang came to Finland, where he proceeded to invent a nearly paper-thin battery.
Now the product is ready. People working for the manufacturer Enfucell know many applications where low-level energy emitted by the batteries can be used. Soon the product development work should bring the company some cash flow.
Dr. Tech. Zhang, 45, is CTO at Enfucell. The company, with 15 employees, is headquartered at the Innopoli building in Otaniemi Science Park in Espoo, and was set up around Dr. Zhang and his battery innovation.
Enfucell hopes to find completely new applications for Zhang's SoftBattery.
The batteries are thin, printed on film, and are slightly smaller than a business card. The batteries can be any shape at all, and they can be bent and crumpled without causing damage.
The need for low-energy batteries has been recognised in fields such as cosmetics, the pharmaceutical industry, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, various micro-sensors, and in the "smart paper" of the future.
The voltage is the same as with standard AA or AAA batteries - 1.5, but the energy output is only about 15 per cent of their level. Nevertheless, there is enough current to make a musical greeting card play its tune for a month, day and night.
The more data is packed into a small space, the more active electric solutions are needed.
"My starting point has been to develop a completely environmentally-friendly battery, which can be linked with any material. The environmental load of today's batteries is considerable in any case", Zhang says.
Applications include monitoring the refrigeration chain of foods, or preventing goods from being lost.
"It is making the world better in a way. It is all the better if it can be profitable", he smiles.
In cosmetics and medicine, electric current can accelerate the effectiveness of substances. It could provide power for slowing the ageing of the skin, for accelerating the healing of wounds, or boosting the effectiveness of nicotine patches.
However, Zhang is really looking forward to a breakthrough of the Soft Battery in RFID technology. The passive identification stickers now in use could be made active with the addition of electric current, thereby making it possible to add many new features.
Making a headway into goods identification, and to the massive RFID flows of logistics could significantly bring down the price of the batteries.
The use of active identification labels would start from the more expensive products, but the far-reaching goals of the people at Enfucell include replacing bar codes with electronic labels.
SoftBatteries involve a chemical process in which the energy of metallic compounds in a paste is converted into energy.
One significant advantage in the production of SoftBatteries is that they can be produced by using silk-screen printing techniques.
Enfucell is currently almost a garage business. At its premises in Otaniemi there are about a dozen engineers at their computers, including three Chinese who have studied at the Helsinki University of Technology, as well as one Algerian and one Dutch engineer.
In the laboratory behind the combined meeting room and kitchen, there is testing equipment, and a silkscreen press insulated with plastic. In a small room sits the company's CEO Jaakko Happonen, a chemist.
Happonen expects that in two years there will be 100 employees, and that after that the company will grow during some period of time to employ thousands.
Currently, there is no turnover. The first product application is expected to be ready sometime this year.
So far, Enfucell has operated on financing from national research funding, provided mainly by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (TEKES), and the Aloitusrahasto Vera fund.
TEKES appears to expect that the batteries will prove to be a major technological breakthrough. It granted an unsecured loan of EUR 400,000 to the company in January.
After the product development financing, the company is looking for private risk financing in order to reach the commercialisation phase. Large capital funds usually get interested when there are clear results in the development of products.
The company had a big stroke of luck earlier in the year when the World Economic Forum in Davos named it one of its technology pioneers. It was the first time that a Finnish company has made the list.
"One thing that was encouraging in the choice was that there have been plenty of incoming messages on our website", says Risto Huvila, Enfucell's Vice President of Sales, Marketing, and Communications.
One effect that the Davos certificate had on Zhang was that he became a minor celebrity in China.
Two weeks from now, about ten people will be given awards in contest a contest called "You Bring Charm To The World As An Influential Chinese 2006", and Zhang is one of the 26 candidates.
In the public vote on the Internet, Zhang has risen to the top of the list of scientists, but the overwhelming favourite in the overall competition is a certain entertainer.
"Unfortunately I cannot sing", Zhang says.
Zhang graduated in China as a biochemical engineer. He came to Finland after he became interested in the research of Professor Aarne Halme, which largely focused on the same phenomena that are needed in the batteries.
After living in Finland for a year, he met his future Chinese wife, who currently works for the financial department of Nokia. They have two children.
Zhang produced his doctoral thesis at the Helsinki University of Technology, and he became a Finnish citizen ten years ago.
He sees himself as primarily a world citizen. His Finnish passport has helped him in that he has not needed to get visas when travelling to different countries for business.
Zhang manages with Finnish on the practical level, but prefers to speak English.
"I like Finland. That is why I am here. The country is peaceful, the people are tolerant, the summer is a wonderful time, but in other respects I would not like to talk about the weather now", he says.
Zhang insists that half of the food in Finland is quite palatable. "Mushroom soups are good, and so is spaghetti, if you can really call it Finnish."
PENTTI LAITINEN / Helsingin Sanomat