“The analogy I like to use is of a car. If you’re driving down the road and something goes wrong, you get it repaired – it doesn’t make sense to scrap such a high value asset, yet we do this with batteries all the time.”
This is Amrit Chandan speaking, the cofounder and CEO of Aceleron – a firm set up in 2016 to develop sustainable lithium battery technology.
As the popularity of electric vehicles continues and enterprises look to ‘cleaner’ energy sources, so the demand for lithium-ion batteries has grown.
Tesla’s Model S vehicle runs on batteries that require around 12kg of lithium and, driven largely by Elon Musk’s Gigafactory battery plant in the US, manufacturers are currently trying to triple global capacity this year.
Countries worldwide meanwhile, are committing to battery power as part of their carbon-neutrality goals.
President Joe Biden has made batteries a key component of America’s carbon neutral initiatives, with hopes that increased domestic production will also help create jobs and reduce unemployment levels.
However, as Chandan points out, there’s a danger we’ll end up replacing one environment challenge with another as these batteries create a huge waste management problem.
According to Chandan, by 2040 there will be enough lithium batteries that are considered ‘end of life’ to have filled Wembley Stadium 25 times over. “And this waste will be generated every single year. This is not a small problem,” he adds.
“What many people don’t realise is that lithium batteries are made up of lots of components and often it can be just a few of those which no longer work.
“Because of the way they’ve been designed they can’t be repaired or maintained overnight – which is the challenge we set out to solve: we’ve redesigned the way lithium batteries can be put together to enable and facilitate their maintenance and upgrade over time,” he explains.
Over a Zoom call from his Birmingham home the chemical engineering PHD – who made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2017 together with cofounder Carlton Cummins – will explain over the next 25 minutes why enterprises should care about extending the life of the increasingly popular lithium battery.
Most of those batteries in Wembley Stadium could, with better maintenance, Chandan claims, be used again and supply power for much longer. Aceleron offers firms batteries that have been designed to be kept, upgraded and extended easily.
Right now, most of Aceleron’s use cases involve applications that are either stationary or light two- or three-wheel vehicles. In the UK, its batteries were used in the Government’s Track and Trace vehicles during the pandemic when their engines weren’t running.
In Africa, where the firm received investment from the Toyota Group’s Mobility 54 earlier this year, Aceleron is hoping to drive forward the use of batteries for solar panels and e scooters.
The firm is also looking into a programme where they can add their batteries into last mile delivery vehicles for the agricultural sector.
Out of Africa
Africa is a big market for Aceleron, as developing regions leapfrog centralised grid energy infrastructures and adopt smaller, solar generated energy farms powered by lithium batteries.
There’s also a growing market for EVs, a factor that – as Toyota is already anticipating through its deal with Aceleron – will be both an opportunity as well as an environmental challenge in a continent that offers little in the way of formal waste management infrastructure.
“It’s about looking ahead and trying to come to a solution for something that is not only a high-tech challenge but one that also addresses health risks,” Chandan continues.
“Some people try and recover materials from the batteries in whatever way they can – smelting these batteries down for their raw materials and that’s really harmful to people’s health.”
Another uncomfortable truth about lithium batteries is the cobalt which is used to helps make them more suitable for use in the automotive sector.
Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining operations are linked to both environmental and human-rights abuses.
According to Chandan, Aceleron “tries its best to avoid using” cobalt-based chemistries – although he adds that this is another challenge, as the traceability of minerals, he says, is “hugely complex”.
Battery manufacturers are currently working to reduce the amount of cobalt in their lithium cells or are turning towards cobalt-free chemistries, such as lithium iron phosphate, which is prevalent in many stationary-power applications.
Aceleron is mainly focused on these lithium phosphate chemistries, traditionally used for less high-powered vehicles and static applications – and these resources are abundant in places such as China, Venezuela, South Africa and even Cornwall in the UK.
According to Chandan, while his firm’s battery technology can work in cars, for the time being the plan is to stick with these other use cases and not the automotive sector because of the long development cycles.
“If we started talking this year with the carmakers, the earliest our technology would be adopted into their vehicles – providing they were happy with all their safety and all the due diligence – would be in the 2030s. It’s not like you can just rock up and the technology goes to play – we are talking very, very long cycles,” he says.
So, for now the focus remains expanding in the UK and in developing countries, partnering with big enterprises like Toyota as well as smaller, niche players producing monitors and robots for various industrial and agricultural applications.
The firm is also currently exploring a batteries-as-a-service (BaaS) subscription model that it hopes to offer to companies, likely to be based on a monthly or annual fee for the use of power that they need.
Above all however, Chandan says that he wants to harness the business to create positive global impact. “For us, that means positively impacting the environment and positively impacting society as well. It’s one of the reasons why we’re really keen on Africa – and India where we’ve only just really started – there’s so much more to do.”
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