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The Inventivity Pod
Next Generation Batteries
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Making rechargeable batteries more powerful, cheaper, and longer-lasting benefits just about everyone. “Not a very good student in school,” Phil Bennett didn’t get into any of the major Florida universities but grew interested in science in community college and meeting Nobel laureates while working summers at the Miami Museum of Science. He helped develop Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries, and his company has pioneered the use of the next generation of Lithium-ion batteries. 

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

This morning I have as my guest, Phil Bennett, who is a native Floridian and spent a lot of his career working in advanced rechargeable batteries. Welcome, Phil.

Phil Bennett:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

So Phil, before we start talking about the heavy duty stuff on the technology, let’s talk about you a little bit. I understand you’re from Miami, born and raised there. What was it like growing up in Miami and sort of how did you end up in Gainesville?

Phil Bennett:

Well, I grew up in the southern part of Miami. I was about two miles from Biscayne Bay and maybe two or three miles from the everglades, so I had water everywhere and there were homes but not really close together. So I had a lot of opportunities to get out and see nature, which is now an important part of my life. I love the water, I love to fish and boat and I grew up there, went to elementary, middle school, high school there. I was not a very good student in public schools and I always had an interest in science, but as I was in my teenage years, science wasn’t cool and I always felt that the girls didn’t like science. So if the girls didn’t like science…

Richard Miles:

What’s the point, right?

Phil Bennett:

Right. I wasn’t going to show that I was interested in it, although there was always that deep feeling that I enjoyed it and I was not able actually to get into the University of Florida, Florida State, or the University of Miami because of my high school grades and the courses that I took. I actually had no intention of going on to college and ended up taking some courses at the community college in Miami called the junior college, Miami Dade Junior College. And I was working at a machine shop and it was a small family owned machine shop. The owners recommended that I start taking some engineering courses. I guess he saw some potential in me as an engineer and the first time I took a chemistry course or anything beyond Algebra was when I was at the community college. And I really started enjoying it and I was fascinated with science again. So it kind of rekindled that idea of how important science was to me.

Richard Miles:

Right. Let’s back up a little bit. So you’re in in Miami as a kid, you said close to water and so on and out and about. I assume your parents probably had no idea where you were right…

Phil Bennett:

That’s pretty much true. Yeah. My Dad had a small grocery store in a relatively low income part of town. He worked long hours and I didn’t see too much of him. My mother used to work with him also, so they didn’t really know a lot of what I was doing.

Richard Miles:

And so you were out just playing or were you the sort that was interested in discovering animals and building stuff or what was…

Phil Bennett:

Well, it was more, I had a lot of friends, so I used to ride my bicycle over to friend’s houses. And the fact that my parents weren’t around too much allowed me to get into some mischief and to get into a little bit of trouble I guess. But it gave me that opportunity to really explore, and I still to this day have that desire to go down a dirt road or something where I’ve never been before. Just to see where it goes.

Richard Miles:

So if I’m driving through Gainesville and I see you riding around on your bike, I need to be worried. Right. So let’s talk a little bit about batteries, which is where you spent a good chunk of your career. For the listeners who aren’t familiar with batteries, how they work and rechargeable batteries, walk us through some basics and why… kind of the latest generation of batteries, why are they a big deal?

Phil Bennett:

Let me start out by just explaining there are two general categories of batteries. One is the disposable kind that most people are familiar with that go into remote controls, are in toys, a variety of other things. And then there’s the rechargeable batteries what we call primary batteries, which are the disposable and the rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries are very complicated actually because you want to have a battery that will be able to charge and discharge a thousand times. Otherwise it’s not very valuable. You want to be able to utilize it in different environments, different temperatures, different exposures. You want to be able to use it inverted and different positions. Not all rechargeable batteries can do those things and the chemistry that’s involved in a rechargeable battery has to be such that it can go in one direction to allow the use of the stored energy and then go in reverse. When you recharge it in the reversal process, the chemical reactions have to be almost 100% reversible.

Richard Miles:

Wow.

Phil Bennett:

Because if they’re not, if you lose, let’s say 1% each time, you’re only going to have a battery that will last about a hundred cycles. So it really has to be fine tuned in such a way that it can…

Richard Miles:

Both ways, 100%.

Phil Bennett:

Both ways, 100% and that’s pretty difficult. So there’s a lot of design factors that go into it.

Richard Miles:

And I know that it’s a big deal. Well for everyone, all manufacturers for the size and weight of batteries, is there a difference between chargeable rechargeable in terms of size and weight?

Phil Bennett:

Yes, there is. Um, to answer that very quickly. A lot of rechargeable batteries, the type of batteries that are in cell phones and other electronic devices, computers, when they started out having smaller cell phones and things like that, they were basically the same size as the disposable kind that the AA or AAA size. But since then we have these small flat phones and electronics. So the batteries are made differently, but the chemistry is pretty much the same as what was used in the small cylindrical, disposable kind. That’s one type of battery. Now if you look at a car battery, the kind that you use to start your car, that has a completely different footprint and they’re larger, they have a lot more energy stored and they have to deliver that energy in a very short period of time. So that means a lot of power.

Richard Miles:

So let’s talk about your specific contribution, I guess, to the field of batteries. I mean you’ve been talking about batteries in general and you were involved with the development of something called a nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery. What was the difference between that and batteries that came before and how is it a step forward?

Phil Bennett:

Well, when I was working on the nickel metal hydride batteries, so that was when nickel cadmium batteries were the primary rechargeable battery for consumer electronics and other types of portable devices. The problem with the nickel cadmium is the cadmium that’s in the nickel cadmium. It’s a toxic metal, just like lead is in the lead batteries that we use for our cars. But they were so pervasive that people, when you were finished with your battery or finished with the device, we would generally just throw the battery into the trash and then it would end up in a landfill and then possibly in the water supply. So companies who are looking for alternatives to cadmium and what was found was new types of metals that can absorb hydrogen gas. So this metal was used as one of the electrodes in storing energy. So the water, all batteries, almost all batteries, have a liquid in them, usually water, except for now the new lithium ions don’t. But when the battery would be recharged, the water that’s in the battery would decompose into hydrogen. And then another chemical, uh, which I won’t go into all the chemistry, but that hydrogen would then be absorbed by the metal that’s used to make the electrode. And a tremendous amount of hydrogen could be stored in that metal. So that was then used as the fuel for discharging the battery again. So that’s where the name metal hydride comes in. The nickel is the other electrode. All batteries have a positive electrode and a negative electrode.

Richard Miles:

So, uh, I didn’t know this until interviewing you, that Gainesville became the largest nickel metal hydride battery manufacturer in the world where we’re recording this podcast. Is that still true or…

Phil Bennett:

No, that’s not true anymore. No. In fact, at one time it was the largest nickel cadmium manufacturing facility in the world.

Richard Miles:

Really?

Phil Bennett:

Yeah. But it was when it was General Electric, and General Electric, from what I understand, didn’t want it publicized too much because of the cadmium issue. They didn’t want it recognized in the community as being a potential polluter.

Richard Miles:

And the nickel metal hydrate is still used in like hybrid electric, vehicles, right?

Phil Bennett:

Yes, absolutely because it’s a very safe battery system. Even though there’s hydrogen involved in it, it’s very safe.

Richard Miles:

So can you tell us a little bit about the future batteries? What’s the next step on the horizon? I’ve read a number of things about different types of batteries. I’m pretty sure I don’t fully understand what’s going down the pipe.

Phil Bennett:

Sure. Well, there’s always a drive for higher energy, what we call higher energy density. In other words, how much energy can you pack into a small package? High power, which means how quickly can you get that energy out? Cost is another issue or another question. Safety is a big concern. Environmental impact, things like that. So probably about 20 years ago, maybe a little bit longer, lithium ion batteries made the scene and those have a higher voltage about three times a higher voltage then nickel, cadmium or nickel metal hydride they don’t store as much energy per se or capacity is what we would call. Ultimately the package has higher energy than does a nickel metal hydride. In doing that it has to use a non water base system. The liquid that’s in there is a non-water base electrolyte, we call it electrolyte. Um, that brings some issues because it is flammable, can be flammable. So that introduces some safety aspects to it. But that was the direction there. That took a big leap forward in battery technology.

Richard Miles:

The lithium ion.

Phil Bennett:

The lithium ion. And that’s now used almost exclusively in most rechargeable battery applications.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So like a cell phone for instance.

Phil Bennett:

Cell phone has lithium ion, computers have lithium ion, a lot of biomedical applications have lithium ion. It’s not used for hybrid electric vehicles and it’s not used for starter batteries to start your car or other large scale batteries. Part of the issue with that is the cost because it is more expensive, but if you’re going to have a battery for a phone or for a computer, you’re willing to spend 20% more, 30% more to have a longer runtime and have it smaller and lightweight and not worry about the cost.

Richard Miles:

Right.

Phil Bennett:

The cost of the battery is considerably lower than the cost of the whole device. Now, then there’s a whole other class of batteries which are not portable type batteries that would be used for things like wind farms or solar farms. Those are batteries that you want to have low cost. You’re not so concerned with how much it weighs and how much volume it occupies, but you are concerned with how many cycles you can get out of it and the ultimate cost and safety. So those would be things like lead acid and there’s a whole other range of battery types, battery chemistries, that’s being developed for those applications. Those would be types of batteries that you would have a big solar farm that would cover several acres and associated with that acreage would be a building that holds the batteries. So the building would basically be just to hold the batteries.

Richard Miles:

So that’s a big deal, right? Cause at one of the upper limits of the use of solar power, right? It’s this ability to store the energy.

Phil Bennett:

Absolutely. Like it’s not generating any energy at night, so you have to have something to discharge to be able to store that energy during the day or when a cloud comes over. So there’s a dip in the amount of energy that’s being stored. So you want to have something that can store the energy while the light is available. That would be for solar. For wind, wind sometimes drops off. Sometimes you have a lot of wind, sometimes you don’t have much wind. So there’s always ups and downs in the cycling of the energy that’s being produced.

Richard Miles:

Phil, let’s move on to, and I ask this of all the inventors, entrepreneurs that we have on the show: you have a great idea, you know it’s a great idea, but then there’s sort of the next phase and that’s getting that great idea out there in terms of marketing it, selling it, packaging, whatever it takes, just move it into the marketplace. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned about that phase of inventing, taking your good idea and actually getting it in a shape where somebody wants to buy it and will buy it.

Phil Bennett:

That’s a whole other part of commercializing the invention that you have or the product that you have. One of the things that I learned from being in this industry, in the battery industry, first of all, it takes more than one invention to make a commercial product. You might have the one good idea to get started and you try to cover as much ground in your invention, in your patent to make sure that nobody else can capitalize on that. However, there’s always other things that need to be done that you overlook in that first discovery. Those are the things that require other people. One of the things that I found is that it really takes a team of people to work with you on developing your product to the point where you have something that can be commercialized and then you need another team of people that will help you commercialize it, to market it. So that’s not just salespeople, that’s a lot of marketing. Identifying what the strengths and weaknesses of the product are and then identifying a strategy that you can use to go out into the public and convince the public that, hey, I have this new idea and you need it.

Richard Miles:

Tell me about uh, surprises, both good and bad. Is there anything that falls in the category of like, wow, I had no idea. Either, again, positive or negative as you either developed the idea itself or as you tried to take it to market?

Phil Bennett:

I think the biggest surprise to me in looking back at all of the work that I’ve done in the battery industry is something that I just said. It takes a team of people to really bring something to fruition. It’s not one person and it takes a lot of coordination and a lot of interpersonal skills to get people that have different ideas to work together and to generate the ideas that are needed to take it to the next step. Probably the most surprising thing was the amount of communication skills that are required and the amount of willingness to accept other people’s ideas and to be able to bring them into the groups so that they feel comfortable expressing their ideas and willingness to work together as a team.

Richard Miles:

You’re familiar with sort of both the world of research and development and academia and also the business side of it. Is there a huge difference in sort of the way people think in those respective worlds. I know I’m grossly oversimplifying this, but you could sort of caricature academics as ivory tower types and they spend all their time, their labs and they don’t really know how the business world works and then the other side of the business folks who really don’t care about ideas and they don’t really understand them. I know that’s a gross simplification, but is there a barrier between those two communities that is difficult to cross?

Phil Bennett:

Yeah, I can answer that from a personal perspective. I’ve spent many years in the area of science and developing the way that I think as a scientist, and as an engineer, solving problems just naturally using a scientific approach and everything that I do My wife on the other hand is very business oriented, very driven to “this is what we’ve got to do and this is how we’re going to do it.” And her thought processes are very different than my thought processes.

Richard Miles:

Who knew?

Phil Bennett:

And there are oftentimes big clashes in the way that we think and the way that we communicate. And I think the communication part is probably the one of the biggest parts of it because when I try to describe something I just naturally try to describe it in a way where it’s not very ambiguous. There’s very little room for uncertainty and the way that I describe it, whereas my wife on the other hand doesn’t use very many words and is just right to the point with what she wants to do. So sometimes there’s a communication problem.

Richard Miles:

Does your wife work with you together in business or is this…

Phil Bennett:

Oh, in business now we do. Yeah.

Richard Miles:

Right. So that’s interesting. I mean my wife and I founded the Cade Museum and worked together for a number of years and we were surprised by the number of husband-wife teams that we’ve come across. And usually they compliment each other in exactly the way you described someone once maybe the vision person, others the implementer. But our architects are husband and wife. We have some designers, husband and wife. So anyway, uh, I understand exactly what you’re talking about. Um, final question Phil, and this is one we ask of most everyone on the show. If you had a young researcher coming to you or any researcher, you don’t have to be young, but they want to follow a similar trajectory. They’ve got a great idea and they’re thinking about taking it to market. What words of wisdom would you give to that person about things they need to look out for things they need to avoid things they need to do, that sort of thing?

Phil Bennett:

Probably one of the most important things is the determination to continue pursuing what you feel that you’ve invented and make sure that you don’t give up hope and keep going. There will always be things that will get in the way and you just can’t let those bother you. You, you just can’t even think that it’s an obstruction. You just have to think, okay, well this is just another problem that I have to get over. That’s one of the most important things. I think the other thing is recognize that this is probably not going to be the final invention of your product or your idea that there’s going to be other things that are going to come along that will supplement and compliment the product that you have so that it makes it better and it puts it in a position where it can then be sold. Put it in a position where people are going to want your product. And in order to do that, you need to have other people around that have good ideas. You have to be able to be open to their ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to always use their ideas, but you have to be able to bring them in and make them feel comfortable enough to generate the ideas that you want to hear. And that takes a lot of skill. That takes a lot of effort and a lot of communication. So communication skills are critically important in making this happen.

Richard Miles:

So one point you brought up, Phil, I think is fascinating insight and that is an inventor has to kind of exist in this state of not knowing, right. You don’t know exactly if it’s going to work out and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out.

Phil Bennett:

Yeah.

Richard Miles:

And since you don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s why you need to depend on other people.

Phil Bennett:

Yeah. I never really thought of it that way, but yes, I think that’s absolutely right. There’s always going to be something that will get in your way and you just have to overcome that and you may not know how you’re going to do it and that’s when you need to bring other people in that you can trust, that you can rely on, that you can feel comfortable talking to them and saying “Hey, we’ve got this problem. We’ve got to get over it. Tell me what you think.”

Richard Miles:

Excellent Advice Phil and I really appreciate your time this morning and when the next great battery technology comes out, I’m going to give you a call and have you explain it to me.

Phil Bennett:

Oh I’d love to do it.

Richard Miles:

Thanks very much for being on the show. Okay, thank you for having me.

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and inventor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist Jacob Lawson. And special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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