Interviewed by Dr. Buncha Thanaboonsombut
Thai Transcript by Mrs. Orawan Sumriddetkajorn
English translation by Ms. Patchareeya Rerkchavee
By Dr. Pimpa Limthongkul, Team Leader of Energy Storage Technology Research Team, Energy Innovation Research Group of ENTEC
Q: We have known that you had studied and researched on energy technology, especially the batteries, since you studied a Ph.D or before that and then came to work at MTEC. Could you tell us about your educational background?
I’ve been working on batteries since 1997 and it was the first year of my Ph.D. in Materials Science department at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Q: At that time, what was the topic of your research study?
In 1997, at that time, the most common batteries were single-use alkaline batteries or a very large cell phone battery. However, in 1992, it was the beginning of laptop computers which used lithium-ion batteries. The lithium-ion battery was very new at the time. Even in 1997, it had not been used in anything else other than mobile phones and laptops as portable electronic devices.
Q: As you work in a materials science, would you have to design systems, study various materials and batteries along with consult experts from other scientific disciplines?
Most people usually think of batteries as an electrochemical system. The most familiar one, for an example, is the lead-acid batteries used in cars. However, the materials used in energy storage do not have to be liquid, but they could be a wide range of materials. Even the lithium-ion batteries also employ a variety of materials as well.
Although it is called lithium-ion, there are various materials in the system itself, such as carbon and lithium-storage agents. For example, Professor Yoshino  at Sony who had invented the storage of lithium in carbon, thus initiating a widespread use of lithium-ion batteries, which won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. However, the anode is also another material, a type of oxide compound invented by two other Nobel laureates, John Goodenough  and Professor Whittingham .
At that time, I was a scholarship student majoring in materials science and had been assigned to study ceramics. So I had to study the materials, especially ceramics, related to batteries. It is a variety of inorganic substances in batteries that can be used to store electrical charges.
Q: Since at that time, this technology was very new, so when you returned to Thailand, it would be quite difficult because our industry were not ready. How did you adapt yourself? Or how did you apply your knowledge to guide the direction of the development of battery energy storage systems?
I studied for 5 years and returned to Thailand in 2002. At that time, there was virtually no battery research in Thailand because the research would require a lot of instruments. Therefore, we decided to collaborate with foreign partners and later we worked with various companies. At the end of my study, there was a company called A123 Systems established by my advisor and his team. We had made cathode materials and launched a startup company at MIT, which still operates today. Later, we worked with the company and learned basic knowledge from professors of MIT. In 2002, Thailand had very few investors, therefore, it was very difficult to get funding from private companies. I remembered that my first fund was 200,000 baht, which I had spent half of a total fund on a scale. So the rest of the money wasn’t enough to buy other equipment, as well as I couldn’t hide other people. Thus, I had to do it all by myself together with collaborating with the professors, in which sometimes I went to his lab to work. I also helped develop the part of an energy system and the fuel cell part for my leader, Dr. Sumittra Charojrochkul, by developing materials for solid oxide fuel cells.
Q: Is it an application of your knowledge with closely-related subjects?
Yes, it is. It actually employs the same basic knowledge, but depending on what systems you want to focus, all can be applied.
Q: Well, could it be said that you were the one who set up the infrastructure in the early stage and were the key person in technology, as well as built connections with foreign partners, especially the United States?
I’m not sure, but all I could say is that I was the only one who had worked on lithium-ion battery when I came back. I’m also the one who set up cell production at the lab at MIT with my advisor. I did everything on my own starting from creating tools, a tester, cells by studying from the research paper until I was able to teach others.
Q: All of which must be considered beneficial for both MIT and Thailand because the system was set up from scratch?
Yes, it was. It was quite difficult. We had learnt everything because no one had experience in those days. That is to say, there were no course on the science of batteries. So we couldn’t find anyone to teach us how to assemble the cells. At that time, there were only a few company selling testing equipment. In China, Research in this area had not yet begun. We didn’t get funding to purchase the tools because my advisor hadn’t been recognized as an expert in this field yet. However, he is very famous now because he had set up about 4-5 companies and 4 of them are energy companies.
Q: It normally takes time to build a team. How did you train people who didn’t have direct background for this field? And how did you work with other researchers and research assistants to create a team working on batteries?
Actually, there are many people who have background in the field of fuel cell. In the beginning, Thailand had sent quite a number of people to study fuel cell technology. The knowledge of fuel cell could be easily adapted to be used in battery technology and vice versa. Sometimes, people ask whether our work would be obsolete if fuel cell became trendy. But we think we could catch up later. If fuel cells becomes more and more important, we still have people who have good background on its technology. They could perform materials characterization and share the information obtained.
I would like to add a few notes here. Right now, we have 4 or 5 new researchers at ENTEC who graduated in the battery field. I also train our assistants to work as a team. That is, there are always at least 2 researchers in a project, and both do not have expertise in the same field. For example, one with background in organic chemistry are paired with the other who has background in inorganic chemistry. One with expertise in mechanical design are paired with one who has background in electrical engineering. If a project’s main focus is on organic electrolyte, then a researcher in this field will lead and the other with inorganic chemistry will support. They will learn the system together because we can’t look at battery as a single or stand-alone material. A battery must be view as a system.
Therefore, the advantage of our team at NSTDA is that we have people who have knowledge in many disciplines working as a team, sharing ideas and discussing regularly.
Q: Let me ask you about the electric vehicles – what are the conditions that would encourage people to buy electric vehicles?
Users would consider many aspects when buying electric vehicles. The most important ones are its price and ease of maintenance. Most of them would prefer the service center to be nearby and the infrastructure to be reliable, for example, support in case that their car is broken in the middle of the road. However, I would like to stress that the rise of electric vehicles must start with acceptable price for other aspects, such as reliability, could be supported by technology.
The battery price has dropped very fast, about 3 times lower compared to that of 10 years ago. We have seen the cost curve coming down quite a lot over the past few years. Changes happen quite fast. If we look back on the news about automobiles 3 years ago, we will see that it is different from the situation today.
Q: How far can electric cars go on one charge?
As for a pure electric vehicle with no engine, it can travel about 300-500 kilometers on a single charge. A person living in Bangkok drives 40 kilometers per day on average, so this is OK. But if one drives to other provinces, such as Chiangmai which is about 700 kilometers from Bangkok, there must be charging points provided on the way. Also, there might be some concerns not only about the charging point but also about the charging time because it might take a couple of times to charge the battery and each time would take half an hour, which is longer than filling up with petrol which takes only 2 minutes. However, there is a fast-charging system which might take 15 minutes and can drive for 100-200 kilometers. All these issues are of interest to be communicated by the technologists.
Q: Is it possible to increase the battery capacity so that the electric vehicle could travel more than 300-500 km?
The battery capacity depends on the weight and size of the vehicle that is able to support the amount of battery cells. The more number of cells, the greater the distance, but the weight and price will be higher as well. Therefore, when designing a car, one need to look at the requirements, the price that the customer is willing to pay, the weight of the car that must be carried over the time as well as the energy efficiency.
Q: Does the government or the industry have a policy to increase the number of charging stations in order to boost up the confidence in using electric vehicles?
Well, the charging station is like a chicken-and-egg problem. If there were a lot of electric vehicles, there would be a lot of charging stations as well. In fact, there is a plan to install 1,000 charging stations around the country, including fast charging stations. As for highways, if the filling station were replaced by charging station or providing charging service, then the users would be more confident.
However, charging at home would not be a problem, but for charging at hotels would require infrastructure or being specified in the building code for the construction of a hotel or condominium. For example, newly-constructed houses everywhere in England are required by law to possess the charging system. In Thailand, the committee of the National Automobile Industry, an authority in charge of the transition to electric vehicle industry, is now considering about the charging stations.
Q: Has the plan been approved yet? If not, when it will be released?
Not yet, we are working on it right now but the plan should be released around the end of 2021. I would say we are not the ultimate decision makers, but as a part of the working group, we are hoping that within this year the decision will be made since the situations are rapidly changing. Therefore, if our plans were to delay, we would have to keep updating and take appropriate actions, otherwise we might lose a huge opportunity.
Q: If one looks at Tesla, which focuses on producing luxury cars for high-end customers, and then expanding its business by building a battery factory because batteries are the core component of electric cars. As for China which champions the use of electric cars, it has a policy to transform an entire city from using combustion engine cars to electric vehicles. These two strategic model seems to be quite opposite. For Thailand, what kind of model would we use?
This is all about the vision of the new s-curve industry, that is to focus on the big goals. Tesla wants to build electric vehicles because they believe that electric vehicles will be the future. However, Tesla was not the first brand to build electric car because there are many companies that has made them ages ago even the cost curve of the battery was not down and the technology is not yet mature.
Tesla waited until the cost of batteries dropped. The company started building a high-end electric vehicle model because it can deliver high torque and have an acceleration at a level of racing cars and thus can be sold with a high price. However, people don’t see it as necessary since it’s not the only type of car in the market, as well as it doesn’t have enough reliability in case that the car couldn’t be use. All in all, Tesla did intend to build electric vehicles.
In China, the electric vehicle industry has emerged from the fact that batteries are safer and more reliable. Because in the past, when the battery was not considered safe enough, it couldn’t be used in the car. The industry had to wait until the scientists who has got Nobel prizes had figured out the ways to make batteries become safer. Apart from being safe, batteries also have more capacity and are cheaper, therefore, the development of various materials for battery has initiated the electric vehicles industry.
The first 10 years (1992-2002) after I graduated, the battery employed lithium cobalt oxide (LCO), which was the only cathode material that could release high energy. However, since this material was very dangerous, it was then used at a small level. Later, there were various materials, such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP), lithium-ion manganese oxide (LMO), and lithium nickel manganese oxide (LNMO), all of which were safer and people have been assured to put them in cars.
For example, BYD (BYD Auto Co., Ltd.), one of the first company in China that manufacture electric cars, first started producing electric buses and then began to produce an electric taxi, which we used at Suvarnabhumi Airport. The company started its production using LFP and was at first being an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) for other companies. However, in the end, the company decided to switch from battery company to car manufacturing company. That is, the company had started in different ways compared to Tesla. Tesla saw itself as an automotive maker and then bought the battery, and later started to design a battery pack to put in the car. On the other hand, BYD had started from producing the battery first and then transformed itself to be a car manufacturer.
To stress this point, Tesla itself said that its competitors are not car companies, but Apple and Google. The creation of a new industry from automotive industry. In the future, the important things will be digitization, the management of the entire network, as well as the energy issue, all these will change very quickly in the automotive industry.
Q: Do you have any comments on hybrid cars? As some companies view electric vehicles as an end-point, but during the transition of 5-10 years, they place importance on hybrid vehicles since the infrastructure is not yet ready?
Thailand also supports the production of hybrid cars as well such as we have tax incentives. In the past, use of hybrid vehicles were considered a transition. Hybrid vehicles are primarily used for environmental reasons. That is, it helps reduce overall emissions, thus creating a good EURO efficiency, which is a mandate or requirement of European countries and the United States that prefer low carbon emissions. Therefore, hybrid cars can help; but back then, people didn’t expect that the battery price would go down very quickly and at the same time, the development of batteries was quite fast.
Hugh efforts has been put into research and development around the world in order to rapidly reduce the battery’s prices and increase its efficiency. In the beginning, there were not many players, but now when China starts to penetrate the market, it becomes a global leader in the electric vehicle industry. Chinese companies could be set up very easily since China has the entire value chain within the country. That is, a new industry can be created in a few years.
Q: Therefore, the transition period for hybrid vehicles in the market should be shorter due to the fast development of batteries, of which the technologies is better, higher capacity, and lower price?
Yes, in the end, hybrids will be more expensive than pure electric vehicle since they have both the internal combustion engine and the battery system. Possessing two systems are not economically viable. Battery prices have dropped dramatically because of research and development, and rapid market building. Creating demand was done by various governments, such as those of Europe or China, thus creating an economy of scale. This will lead to lower battery prices and the price of electric cars has been dropping faster than people had expected.
Q: What is the role of the Energy Storage Technology Research Team in the electric vehicle value chain?
We are technologists at the National Energy Technology Center, so our main responsibility is to work on research and development in the value chain focusing on energy storage systems. Our focus would be battery or super capacitor, or in the future, may be a hydrogen storage system, and other technologies related to energy storage system.
The battery prototype for electric vehicles
 Dr. Jiravan Mongkoltanatas, Researcher of Energy Storage Technology Research Team
Q: Well, you are also the President of Thailand Energy Storage Technology Association (TESTA). Could you tell us about TESTA?
Thailand Energy Storage Technology Association (TESTA) has been established this year (2021). However, the Thai Energy Storage Technology Network Partners was established last year since we need quite a lot of people to do a lot of things. Eventually we had gathered from network partners as a collaboration between the National Science Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Khon Kaen University, King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok, and the Electric Vehicle Association of Thailand (EVAT).
Currently, there is quite a strong push on the electric vehicle industry and the battery usage has attracted a lot of attention in Thailand. Therefore, we should work together in order to exchange knowledge by providing useful and reliable information to the general public and be able to make a decision on usage or investment of various technologies. As a result, we had registered as an association, which was established on January 25th, 2021. We want it to be a common platform where we can talk, exchange, and understand the information. We expect to perform as an intermediary to send this information to various agencies or be able to exchange information among those interested people in this field, as well as keep the information up to date.
Q: As you have told us, it can be seen that Thailand has an industry, a national policy, and ENTEC that focuses primarily on research and development, as well as other energy-related issues. At the same time, does TESTA perform as a center for all stakeholders to share their policies?
It is our vision and mission. We want TESTA to be the center of knowledge exchange and dissemination of useful information, and some are also providing information at the government level not from the academics. As we are technologists, we would like to understand the industry perspective on the problem. Because our research problem should not be of blue-sky type but must be a real-life problem or practical engineering that could also lead to a deep science. Therefore, technologists have a responsibility to help each other monitor the user as a contributor, and the manufacturer as the information provider of the problems, as well as responsible for helping to fill this gap together.
The audience can be assured that ENTEC have strong technical expertise that comes from research and development in collaboration with the manufacturing sector. Both TESTA and ENTEC are working to make the public be aware of the movements of the status and the different directions that are taking place, which can be considered to answer the needs of many levels, such as in-depth research and development, policy and others.
Well, we are willing to help each other. When it comes to energy, we are a part of ENTEC, we always see energy as an important factor in our lives. I’m glad to have the opportunity to work in many aspects for the maximum benefit to society, Dr. Pimpa said.
Lastly, we would like to thank Dr. Pimpa Limthongkul for sharing knowledge of Electric cars and energy storage technology and if there will be an opportunity in the future, we would like to invite her to share and discuss some in-depth aspects or other interesting issues. For the next episode, there will be researchers from ENTEC to provide information on various dimensions.
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