The Engineer Q&A: Battery technology and the future of electrification

Battery development is a key component of our electric future.  The Engineer asked four leading figures in the battery sector how they see this important technology developing in the coming years.

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Image: ra2 srudio/stock.adobe.com

Energy storage is increasingly vital, both for the ongoing shift from fossil-fuel powered to electric vehicles and to bolster the grid to cope with generation from intermittent renewables. Batteries are a major focus for engineering research and a key part of UK industrial strategy. The Engineer quizzed UK-based and British experts on what’s to come.

 

Meet the experts

Dr Amrit Chandan – chief executive of Aceleron, a clean technology company which builds lithium ion battery packs using recycled cells from automotive systems.

Dave Sandells, chief technology officer of Hyperdrive, a designer, developer and manufacturer of battery systems with a 9000 square foot, 30,000 unit/year factory in Northeast England

Scott McGregor, chief executive of RedT, a Jersey-based specialist in vanadium redox flow industrial energy storage systems

Alan Greenshields, chairman, Innolith, Switzerland-based innovative battery developer

Are you seeing new battery technologies (i.e. non-conventional lithium ion) getting close to the markets now?

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Amrit Chandan

AC: We’re really excited about the future of battery chemistry development. Battery technologies are constantly improving and advancements, such as exploring graphene as an alternative to lithium-ion or ditching the precious metals entirely, are continually advancing the sector.

DS: There are a lot of developments happening at an R&D level right now, with people trying to overcome limitations of Li-ion batteries – increased life, increased energy density and improvements in safety being the main challenges that are being worked upon. It’s worth remembering that Li-ion has been commercially available since the 1970s and it’s taken 50 years to get to the stage that we’re at now. New technologies will need to be revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, to effectively displace Li-ion in the near future.

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Alan Greenshields

AG: There is always a lot of innovation in battery research; the big question is which of the technologies will make it into a commercial product.  Right now, the world’s attention is on solid state batteries and the promise they have of higher energy densities and lower fire risk, but the jury is out on just how long these batteries will take to come to market (if ever).  There has also been some interesting work on flow batteries and for some applications these could be very useful. I would, of course, also have to mention the rise of inorganic electrolyte systems and Innolith’s development of new batteries with very interesting characteristics including exceptionally long cycle life, ultra-high energy densities and zero fire risk,  as the electrolyte is non-flammable.

“New technologies will need to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary to displace lithium-ion in the near future” Dave Sandells, Hyperdrive

Will incremental development of current technology be sufficient for our needs in automotive and grid storage?

AC: There is a critical mass behind lithium-ion and incremental development in this established technology has the benefit of widespread innovation and progress. But a radical step change could address some of the current issues faced by the industry, such as cost, supply of components and waste.

A step change is certainly required in battery recycling to ensure all the parts and metals are captured. We don’t want a new ‘fossil fuels’ situation when lithium reserves run low.

DS: I think that we do need a step change to make batteries the ‘go-to’ technology in applications such as grid storage. At present there are corner-cases where battery technology absolutely makes sense – but to become the de-facto standard more innovation is required.

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Scott McGregor

SM: New technology in this sector is very difficult to take from research project through to a durable infrastructure application. There are now multiple mature storage technologies which are capable of meeting our needs.

AG: To truly cross the chasm to electrification of transport and renewable energy storage we need much higher energy densities as this would both enable applications and drastically cut costs.  Traditional Li-ion using organic electrolyte is neither going to be able to reach the energy densities that will be needed nor usable life.  It is widely accepted that there is a theoretical limit of 500 Wh/kg for traditional Li-ion, and a practical limit of 400 Wh/kg, the world needs batteries for cars and storage that can achieve 600 – 1000 Wh/kg. Concerns about safely disposing of or recycling used batteries are growing – increasing usable life is probably the biggest lever to slow down exponential growth of scrap batteries.

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Further reading

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Is the UK well-placed to make the advances needed in battery technologies?

AC: The UK is in a strong position. We have numerous pioneering individuals and organisations leading the advancement of battery storage technology, but we would like to see more support from the government. Energy storage technology will play an important role in mitigating the climate crisis. We would like to encourage the government to invest more in this technology to speed up innovation and maintain the UK’s leading position in the global market.

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Dave Sandells

DS: The UK is well placed with organisations such as the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) and initiatives like the Faraday Battery Challenge and Driving the Electric Revolution (DER) ensuring that the UK takes a leading role in the battery industry. Finding truly compelling answers to questions surrounding battery manufacture, battery recycling and battery technologies will ensure the UK stays at the forefront of the industry.

SM: Our Prime Minister has proudly asserted the UK’s leading role in the development of battery technology and there’s definitely justification for his optimism. One example of that is a project we’re a part of called Energy Superhub Oxford (ESO) – which aims to deploy one of the world’s largest hybrid battery systems to support the acceleration of Oxford’s electric vehicle charging capacity and power ground-source heat pumps for residential properties.

However, much more could be done when it comes to practical policy, allowing electricity network operators to contract more flexibly across the market and also offer more attractive long term ancillary service contracts which provide the right incentives to achieve the UK’s decarbonisation goals.

AG: The UK has first class universities and a great track record in battery research.  In fact, the pioneering work on organic Li-ion batteries was undertaken at Oxford University.  What the UK lacks is the means to encourage and nurture the battery technology innovators it creates.

“We would like to encourage the government to invest more… to speed innovation”  Amrit Chandan, Aceleron

What role are automotive OEMs likely to play in battery development and testing?

DS: Automotive OEMs have the size and the power to help define the future of battery development and testing. A current strength of OEMs is their ability to optimise costs at high volume, which is key to widespread adoption of battery technologies in the future. A potential weakness of OEMs is their reluctance to invest for the very long-term future. To develop new technology takes significant time and investment before appreciable returns are seen.

SM: Automotive OEMs have played a major role in bringing the cost of conventional lithium and lead-acid batteries down significantly. It does however remain to be seen whether these technologies, originally designed for e-mobility and consumer electronics will prove to be the optimum choice for grid-scale applications in the future.

AG:  The automotive manufacturers are undoubtedly going to be leaders in this movement, but they are aware that the partnerships with battery manufacturers and the battery innovators are going to be critically important to being new technologies to market.  It can take 10-20 years for a battery technology to move from lab research to a commercial product, but the world is starting to rely on batteries in every facet of people’s lives. We need to accelerate the time to market by a factor of three of four if we are truly going to make the transition to electrification happen.