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[ALUMNI INTERVIEW] Professor Lu Yi-chun and Alumnus Simon Wang – Founding Luquos Energy to Promote Flow Battery Decade-long R&D Journey to Replace Lithium Battery

Professor Lu Yi-chun and Alumnus Simon Wang
Founding Luquos Energy to Promote Flow Battery
Decade-long R&D Journey to Replace Lithium Battery

Despite frequent news reports of fires caused by overheating lithium battery, it is still commonly used in mobile phones, cameras and even electric cars in the past few decades. A key reason is that a low-cost and safe alternative to lithium battery has yet to be found. Professor Lu Yi-chun from the CUHK Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering has dedicated 10 years to research and develop flow batteries with an aim to replace lithium batteries. She has led the start-up team, Luquos Energy, to not only win third place in the inaugural "TERA-Award Smart Energy Innovation Competition" organised by Towngas, but also the champion in the recent CUHK Entrepreneurship Competition. Professor Lu and Luquos Energy's CEO, Simon Wang (15/SH/Mechanical and Automation Engineering; 21/GS/PhD in Mechanical and Automation Engineering) spoke to "CU Alumni" to share the story behind their tremendous R&D efforts.

Professor Lu Yi-chun and Alumnus Simon Wang are excited to introduce the development of flow batteries.

With the looming energy crisis and frequent extreme weather events, nations around the world are placing greater emphasis on the use of renewable energy. Professor Lu pointed out a fundamental issue: "Whether it is solar or wind energy, a stable supply cannot be guaranteed. On days without sunlight or wind, we must rely on the storage of excess energy from other days.” Adding that the such storage relies heavily on lithium batteries, Simon says: "Typically, these lithium batteries are installed inside shipping containers. They cannot be densely packed or stacked together due to concern about the risk of chain reactions in case of a fire. Therefore, safety passages must be reserved at the site, so that emergency vehicles such as fire engines can access in case of fires. This consumes a significant amount of land."

About 10 years ago, Professor Lu began conceptualising a battery that would not catch fire. "Flow battery is not a new concept. By storing energy using aqueous solutions, it eliminates the risk of fires. There are already mature technologies available in the market, like vanadium flow batteries. The high cost of vanadium, however, makes it much more expensive than lithium batteries, therefore hindering its widespread adoption," she explained. Therefore, Professor Lu began to explore other affordable elements as substitutes and eventually discovered sulfur as an alternative. "While sulfur is a low-cost option, it came with a fatal flaw. That it tends to migrate from the negative electrode to the positive electrode. If the materials on both sides are not set up to block this migration, the battery cannot function properly for an extended period. The technical challenge lies in the identification of a material with high selectivity, allowing ions to pass while blocking the passage of sulfur. After investing a significant amount of time, we finally developed a new generation of ion exchange membranes which enables the battery to be used for 15 to 20 years without replacement, surpassing the approximately 10-year lifespan of lithium batteries."

Replacing Parking Meters with Flow Batteries
The true benefits of sulfur-based flow batteries are not their lifespan, but the low production cost and high level of safety. Professor Lu also emphasises on another significant advantage — ease of recycling: "Lithium batteries are solid. Considering  their size and weight, the cost of recycling is inevitably higher than that of aqueous solutions. Moreover, the extraction of useful components in the recycling process involves more expensive technology. In contrast, flow batteries only contain electrolyte, making recycling or battery replacement simpler than with lithium batteries." She uses roadside parking metres as an example. "I talked with people responsible for managing Octopus-enabled parking metres and asked how they charge the lithium batteries inside the metres. It turned out that due to safety reasons, they cannot charge the batteries in public areas, and instead of having to dismantle them and transport them back to the factory for charging. This incurs high labour costs. Hence, we came up with the idea of converting the metres to use flow batteries. By adding solar panels to the metres, the batteries are able to charge themselves. While this is in a trial phase, we hope to implement it throughout Hong Kong in the near future."

The Shenzhen-based R&D centre focuses on solving issues on the mass production of flow batteries.

In an effort to commercialise the fruits of their research, Professor Lu and her team established Luquos Energy at the end of 2020. She explains that Luquos is like their own child, with "Lu" being her surname and "quos" evolving from the word "aqua”, representing the aqueous solution used in their batteries. Alumnus Simon Wang elaborates: “The first word in the company's Chinese name, ‘Yi’ (易), carries the meaning of replaceability and iteration, symbolising the introduction of a new generation of batteries. Additionally, ‘Yi’ is associated with the concept of ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ in the book of ‘Yijing’, which coincides the positive and negative poles of a battery. While we have some way to go before the batteries are commercially available, we are confident in mass production by 2024 or 2025. After we won the TERA-Award, in particular, we secured an investment from a leading gas company and the largest energy supplier in Hong Kong. I hope we can take our batteries from the laboratory to small-scale trial, and subsequently expand to wide-spread adaptation. We have invested these funds to establish a research and development centre in Shenzhen, aiming to overcome production challenges as soon as possible.”

Luquos Energy wins third place in the inaugural TERA-Award Smart Energy Innovation Competition organised by Towngas.

CUHK Supports Entrepreneurship and Strives with Students
Professor Lu admits that entrepreneurship is not as easy as research and teaching. "After forming the company, it is challenging to meet the set milestones within a short period of time. Funding and talent acquisition are the most difficult aspects. We are always meeting potential investors to help them understand what we are trying to achieve. Fortunately, our company was spun off from CUHK, we can find the best students to strive for our goals together." Meanwhile, Simon explains in a humorous way that since he became CEO of the company, there are many things to consider: "From finance and human resources to even discussing office design with interior decorators, these tasks are very different from my research work. Without a doubt, it is a great learning opportunity in a rapid pace. It is the same when we take part in entrepreneurship competitions. We need to think outside of the box. As the judges come from different fields, we had to approach things from their perspectives. Personally, I have learned so much from the process."

For younger students who aspire to venture into innovation and technology, Simon urges them to be prepared mentally, “Innovation is never an easy task, and there are no shortcuts. If you want to start a business, you need to understand market demands and know what customers need." Professor Lu also agrees, "You must have a strong understanding of the market, think about how to leverage technology and apply the products to specific scenarios. In recent years, the Hong Kong SAR Government has shown great support for innovation and technology, and CUHK is actively assisting in entrepreneurship. Being a part of the Greater Bay Area, Hong Kong enjoys the backing of vast opportunities and resources. It is now the best time for those with the passion and innovative ideas to develop their ventures."

Simon Wang’s Profile

  • 2015    ‧Bachelor of Engineering, CUHK
  • 2020    ‧CEO, Luquos Energy
  • 2021    ‧PhD in Mechanical and Automation Engineering, CUHK

"CU Alumni Magazine" Video Interview: (Chinese only)
Published on CU Alumni Magazine Issue 116 by Alumni Affairs Office 2023

Read online: CU Alumni Magazine Issue No. 116 (Chinese Version Only)
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