As a result of carbon fibre electrode technology initially developed by Associate Professor John Abrahamson, there will soon be a UC connection to hybrid vehicles manufactured internationally.
Prof Abrahamson tells us more about his technology and the work of local company, ArcActive who will be developing it with American partners with an eye to the future of sustainable vehicles.
Q1: What was the original technology?
The original technology revolved around processing fabric made of carbon fibre in such a way that it enhanced its usefulness for building electrodes. Using processed carbon fabric in an electrode for a lead-acid battery enhanced the effective surface for producing and absorbing electrical current.
Q2: What made you realise that there was commercial potential?
In 2008 we did an international trip talking to firms with a possible interest in our technology, and had keen interest from a battery maker who turned up to see us with senior business staff in the room. We then checked out the battery use economics, which were promising.
We initially scoped out where the material could possibly have a use, and then did some initial experiments to give us a sense of the technical performance we could achieve. From this data, we arranged meetings with numerous companies in a variety of industries to discuss what we had, and gauge their interest.
From this visit, we identified a new way of using the material that opened up a new technical avenue to explore. This ultimately became the product and market that is the basis of the announced partnership.
There are many things that need to be answered to know that you have something with commercial potential, which is why it has taken 10 years to go from initial idea to partnership:
- enhanced performance on a technical attribute that solves an unmet need,
- Intellectual Property: both Freedom to Operate and your own patents,
- consistency in performance,
- manufacturing techniques suited to high volume manufacturing settings,
- partners to manufacture the product,
- a supply chain that can deliver material in a timely/quality and cost appropriate way,
- a product cost that allows everyone to make money and still have the customer buy your product,
- an investment requirement that suits doing this work in New Zealand (i.e. is not particularly capital intensive).
So, it is a long and somewhat iterative process to ensure that what you have really does have commercial potential, but the starting point is ‘are we solving a major problem for someone?’.
The more important and difficult the problem is to solve, the better the chance you have – and there is no substitute for meeting potential customers to work this out.
The thing we have observed is that if you have the “market pain” and market size well established, investors will be tolerant about technical risk – in their eyes, this becomes a risk worth taking.
Q3: What encouragement or advice would you give to other researchers / innovators / students who are wondering if their work has a commercial application?
Talk to possible commercial collaborators about the pain in the market, even though this may be risky. Choose carefully who you talk to.
Q4: What was your reaction to news of the two-year commercial deal outlined in the NBR?
It is very pleasing from a number of viewpoints. A major one is that use of our technology in the batteries of hybrid vehicles is likely to bring about a major reduction in the fuel used for transport, worldwide, and this deal is a significant step towards that result.