The telecommunications industry is continuously evolving, influencing unexpected industries - even the energy sector. Now that connectivity is such a vital part of modern lifestyle, people today expect telecom operators to provide them with seamless service. But that isn't always possible, especially for remote and rural regions that often suffer from power blackouts. That was, until zinc-air energy storage emerged as a promising solution.

Zinc-air energy systems allow telcos to keep cellular basestations operational during periods of grid instability, storing significant amounts of energy through charging when electricity is not available, and then discharging energy when it is. Not only is zinc-air energy storage a convenient system for telecom cell sites, but it's also environmentally sustainable, made from materials that are not harmful.

The need for new solutions to support telcos with backup power is an issue that has been growing in significance, influenced by the increased usage of electricity on a global scale. There's an increased implementation of electronic communications equipment across the world with businesses and governments constantly using the internet, which is often supported by cell sites and basestations in remote regions. With an increased utilization and reliance on microprocessor-based technologies, companies are at a higher risk of being affected by blackouts.

The only way to effectively prevent these blackouts from affecting people's day to day lives is for companies to prepare by implementing DC (Direct Current) power systems or AC (Alternating Current) power systems. Alternating Current is an electric current in which the flow of electric charge periodically reverses direction, whereas in Direct Current, the flow of electric charge is only in one direction. Traditionally, lead-acid batteries have been used by the likes of telcos for backup power infrastructure.

Telecom operations have relied on a variety of power sources to ensure their system is safe and that power quality is satisfactory. But with high power quality becoming extremely high priority, telecom backup power has taken a new direction. That's where zinc-air energy is taking hold: a clean, efficient means of energy storage.

Behind the growing success of zinc-air energy storage is a company called Fluidic Energy, a commercial-scale, zinc-air battery firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company has managed to keep a rather low profile over the years, despite having raised more than $150 million in funding from strategic, venture and government sources.

In November 2015, Fluidic Energy signed a MoU in partnership with Caterpillar and PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara, Indonesia's state-owned electric utility, kick-starting Fluidic's deployment of thousands of its battery cells as a replacement for diesel generators or lead-acid batteries.

The initial purpose of the MoU for Fluidic, as reported by GTM, was to furnish reliable and renewable energy to 500 remote villages throughout Indonesia using PV solar combined with over 250 megawatt-hours of Fluidic battery capacity. Caterpillar's involvement brought an existing, robust business in power generation for mining and remote sites, as well as a global sales and distribution network.

Speaking to GTM, Steve Scharnhorst, Fluidic Energy CEO, said zinc-air cells have potential for high energy density, high cycles and low weight. The battery has "free oxygen" as the catalyst for half of the reaction, while zinc is a cheaper commodity than lead.

"Zinc energy storage has been around forever - every button cell in a hearing aid uses it," said Scharnhorst in an interview, but also mentioned that "re-chargeability was the challenge" - an issue that Fluidic has remarkably overcome. He said that applications requiring three to four hours in duration are best for lead-acid and lithium, but "neither do well over four hours. Long-duration gets expensive quickly at $300 to $400 per kilowatt-hour. Our sweet spot is four to 24 hours, and at $200 to $300 per kilowatt-hour, we're ready to serve the long-duration market."

Fluidic Energy was fortunate to initially find those willing to prove its concept, making the risky switch from lead-acid to zinc-air. Most of Fluidic's deployments, since 2011, have been in remote, weak-grid applications. Today, most of the company's deployments are in telecoms in the 1-kilowatt to 4-kilowatt range with eight to 12 hours of backup.

Fluidic Energy has now deployed some 75,000 batteries at 1,200 different sites around the world, says a report by Fortune. With Caterpillar as its distribution partner, Fluidic Energy has managed to raise millions in funding to grow its business. The company's storage solution can be compared to lithium-ion batteries, used in a number of electronic devices today such as laptops and phones, but lithium-ion batteries are less well-suited for discharging energy over a period of time.

The rise of Fluidic Energy
For a long time, researchers have yearned to successfully implement a metal air battery. While a battery is commonly made up of an anode on one side, a cathode on the other, and an electrolyte in between, a lithium-ion battery  moves from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte during charging and discharging. A metal air battery uses air for the cathode part of the battery. The advantage is that air is free, lightweight and widely available. Metal air batteries can suck in air and ditch the heavy casing that would normally hold the anode material inside the battery.

The specific type of metal air battery made by Fluidic Energy is called a zinc-air battery. Zinc is fabulously abundant, low cost, and is the key material that sits in the electrolyte of Fluidic's batteries and moves onto the anode during charging and discharging. Fundamental to zinc-air technology is its reliance on sustainable materials in the construction of the cell and ancillary equipment. It also doesn't contaminate ground water or other sensitive natural resources, according to Caterpillar.

"Fundamentally, zinc is the lowest cost winner for energy storage," says Scharnhorst. Zinc has been used in batteries for a long time, but the main problem it always faced was that it wasn't able to be recharged, thus only able to be used once (not very environmentally friendly or cheap). That's where Fluidic made a major breakthrough, figuring out how to make a zinc battery that could be recharged.

Chuck Ensign and partner Mike Pierce are behind the zinc-air energy solution. Back in 2004 and 2005, the two investor/entrepreneurs decided to take a closer look at new ways to store energy. The duo had been working with a private equity firm called True North Partners, which invested early in solar panel giant, First Solar, and wind materials company, TPI Composites.

When the co-founder of True North Partners, John Walton, passed away in 2015, Mr. Ensign formed TN2 (True North Two), a firm which continued Walton's vision of science-based technology, formulating ideas to tackle the world's energy challenges. According to Fortune, TN2 is the largest shareholder and has invested in almost every deal that Fluidic Energy has been involved with.

TN2 was behind the initial research in energy storage about ten years ago, when many other venture capitalists were also eyeing the battery sector. Ensign's research eventually took him to Arizona State University and the labs of ASU Professor Cody Frieson, who at the time, was working on designs for a rechargeable battery. The two then worked together over the next few years, developing a zinc-air battery that would be "reliable, long-lasting, low-cost, and attractive to customers in the developing world."

The United States government also played a role in assisting with the implementation of the new zinc-air technology. The Department of Energy, back in 2009, launched its ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program, giving out small grants (about $1 million) to startups looking to achieve difficult, but ultimately beneficial goals. At the time, Fluidic Energy was a startup struggling to figure out how to get its battery to achieve ambitious milestones. Fluidic Energy was granted a sum by the department which helped to fund its research. The company now stands as a "poster child" of the ARPA-E program and what's possible.

With this new revolutionary battery product, backed by TN2 and the ARPA-E, Fluidic Energy needed a market to sell its product to. That market turned out to be telecommunications. Fluidic sold its unique batteries to telecom companies in Indonesia, Central America and Africa - telcos operating in remote or rural areas far from a reliable power grid.

Telcos in such areas require consistent cellular signals for their customers by using basestations, but without relying on a reliable grid to power them. Diesel generators were used at first for backup power, but they are environmentally damaging, inefficient and the fuel can get expensive. Fluidic Energy's zinc-air energy solution was the perfect alternative.

Scharnhorst has said that batteries (like diesel) are a high-theft item. He suggests that Fluidic's deep integration of electronics makes repurposing zinc-air batteries difficult and serves as a "theft deterrent".

Looking ahead, the biggest hurdle for Fluidic Energy will be competing against other similar enterprises that offer low-cost, lead-acid batteries for customers, including telcos. But Fluidic has the advantage that zinc-air batteries are lower cost than lead-acid batteries and can offer other enticing features such as integrated smart software, reliability, and a longer battery life.

Other startups that have succeeded in energy tech include First Solar and also Tesla. Only time will tell if Fluidic Energy's zinc-air energy product proves to be worthy enough of elevating the company to the ranks of its market rivals. But if more companies around the world, particularly those in the telecommunications industry, are prepared to take a chance and move away from diesel generators, then Fluidic Energy certainly has a strong chance of making a significant impact.

 Buildings are important to us; we spend a large portion of our lives inside buildings. Indeed, the Royal Institute of British Architects has stated that we spend an average of 20 hours each day inside commercial or residential buildings. As the planet's population continues to expand beyond the current seven-and-a-half billion people, so too will the buildings in which we live and work. They will naturally become more numerous but also more dense (people per area) as land value increases. Estimates for the total number of buildings in the world vary, but a rough estimate is that there are at least one billion buildings across the world. Whichever way we slice and dice the data, it is clear that buildings, particularly those in which we work, are a vital part of our lives.

Last year we highlighted trends pertaining to the internet of things (IoT), sensor networks, Category 6A and fiber technologies, all of which have become more topical this past year, especially in buildings. Here is a summary of what I believe are some of the key trends influencing intelligent buildings as we move forward into 2016.

People are obsessed with their mobile phones and see indoor wireless coverage as important as having access to water and electricity. Although there are about two billion smartphone users globally and about 80 percent of cellular data sessions originate or terminate inside a building, 98 percent of commercial buildings do not have dedicated systems to guarantee reliable indoor cellular coverage. Why is that?

CommScope recently commissioned a study, carried out by research firm Coleman Parkes, to find out. We surveyed the professionals who design and manage buildings-including building managers, facilities managers, real estate managers and architects-to explore their attitudes and insights about enterprise mobility.

The results show that, whilst the driving force for reliable cellular connectivity in a building is clear, the reality on the ground is that stakeholders are not invested enough in dedicated indoor systems. This is especially surprising considering that survey respondents estimated the value of a property could increase by an average of 28 percent with the implementation of a dedicated in-building wireless system.

The commercial imperative for investing in dedicated in-building wireless systems is becoming clearer as challenges associated with system costs and technical complexity are confronted and overcome. Cellular connectivity in the building is now as important as making available any basic utility for a building. After all, would you refuse to invest in a water supply within your building because it was deemed too expensive or complicated to do? 

Engaging with architects, facilities managers and enterprises at an early stage will ultimately save money - as well as providing an enhanced user experience.

The need for energy efficient low voltage power in buildings
Power loads in commercial buildings are increasing; much of this is due to the proliferation of active field devices such as: wireless access points and in-building wireless antennas; internet protocol (IP) network cameras and VoIP phones; LED light and environmental controllers.

Understanding how we power these devices efficiently and effectively in a building is a growing challenge. Traditionally the power supplied to buildings has been alternating current (AC) which is then stepped down or converted to direct current (DC) using inefficient transformers/rectifiers in order to power devices inside buildings. However, with governments now demanding that carbon dioxide emissions associated with buildings be minimized, attention has turned to improving the efficiency of low voltage power distribution network inside buildings.

In most instances, active devices in buildings are IP-enabled, driven by the need for convergence. For these devices, power can be provided via low (or extra low) voltage DC. For decades, Ethernet cabling deployed for data network connectivity in buildings has also provided DC power, an approach that has the benefit of being standards-based. IEEE Power over Ethernet (PoE) 802.3af and IEEE Power over Ethernet Plus (PoEP) 802.3at are the current standards. An IEEE taskforce is now discussing the next evolution of the PoE standard (IEEE 802.3bt) with a stated aim of 49W minimum power levels and a likely maximum of 100W. Power over HDBase-T (POH) is another approach developed by an alliance of consumer electronics manufacturers that offers a maximum power level of 100W. As DC power levels increase more and more, different IP devices will emerge, driving the need for even more efficient low voltage DC power in buildings.

Environments that improve the employee or tenant experience
The office is no longer only a place to go to work between the hours of nine to five, but also a venue where employees collaborate, create and connect at any time. Businesses understand that, in a globally competitive world they will attract employees and tenants by offering a 'best in class' work space that positively influences health/wellness and productivity.

In fact, respondents to the Coleman Parkes survey titled, "Wireless in Buildings: What Building Professionals Think", cited indoor wireless coverage as having benefits for the enterprise tenant, including an increase in workforce productivity (77%), supporting the recruitment of more talented individuals (46%) and even attracting more visitors (39%). Two-thirds of respondents also rated indoor wireless connectivity as 'essential' for employees. 

To improve an environment we need to understand its current state; this means being able to measure environmental, space and energy metrics. Embedding increasingly sophisticated sensor technology into the fabric of a building enables this data to be instantly collected, processed and acted upon. This approach offers:

  • - Capability to automatically manage space relating to desk sharing (hot desking) or conference rooms in a user friendly and optimized way
  • - Management of ambient room/building conditions, including light level, temperature and humidity, for more comfortable and productive working environments
  • - Ability to help minimize a building's carbon footprint by optimizing energy consumption in real-time; thereby improving not only operating costs but also corporate social responsibility indices or "green" credentials.

Integrated Workplace Management Systems and other software platforms will feed off this type of data to help create a superior workplace.

The workplace of the future will have a plethora of choices for connecting, and dedicated indoor cellular systems will become the norm in buildings of all sizes.

Integrating devices on a common network infrastructure
The IoT is a tangible phenomenon. If you look around any commercial building, you will notice hundreds, if not thousands, of connected devices. The reduction in costs, sensor miniaturization, plus advances in device connectivity capability has enabled a massive network of interconnected devices. However, as the IoT concept mushrooms, so do its challenges.

Going back just a few years, a commercial building had multiple, proprietary subsystems for its various management systems. The dominance of IP networking and associated global standards (like IEEE 802.3) across almost all aspects of technology has allowed all building management systems and associated devices to be interconnected through common wired or wireless infrastructure.

There is a myriad of connected devices, but are they communicating? The lack of a generally accepted protocol for device-to-device communication leads to inefficiencies. This communication 'failure' means that buildings are 'dumber' than they should be. Interoperability standards are progressing, with the AllSeen Alliance and the Industrial Internet Consortium being two of the larger groups working on this.

Devices that speak the same language and utilize the same network infrastructure can aggregate and process real-time data about their immediate environment in a highly efficient way.

As we move into 2016, I am convinced that buildings are more important to us than ever before, affecting not only our professional lives but also much of what we do personally. Organizations will start tackling the challenge of not just gathering the data, but making better use of that data to make better decisions to improve the efficiencies of the building and the people living or working in it.

By Anis Khoury, operations manager, MENA Distributed Coverage & Capacity Solutions (DCCS)

Telecom Review Summit 2016

Digital Magazine

Feb 2017

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