Battery technology - from chemistry to recycling

The recent CENEX-LCV event in the UK saw many lively debates on the future of EV and hybrid battery technology. Speakers and delegates presented and discussed the challenges of bringing the UK into the fore of the global battery making scene, to benefit from the enormous opportunities in the EV and other battery usage space

Mike Richardson, Principal Consultant in the Energy Innovation Centre at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) with responsibilities in the area of Advanced Propulsion and skills development, opened the seminar programme with a short address on the need for revised legislation on battery safety, handing procedures and formalising the protocols for measurement of battery performance, temperatures, gas emissions and safe handling. 

Richardson then introduced David Greenwood, Professor of Advanced Propulsion Systems and Director of Energy at WMG, The University of Warwick who gave a keynote address on ‘Battery Safety - from Research to Implementation’. This focused on the challenges facing the industry, from commissioning the most appropriate research within and without academic institutions, and how more streamlined and efficient academic and industry alliances could be forged. He spoke on the whole range of battery safety issues and commented on how the aftermarket is woefully unprepared for handling electric vehicles’ batteries as they age and require replacing.

Jonathan Buston, Principal Scientist at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Buston leads the HSE’s Sustainable Development (SD) team’s work in the field of Battery Safety and has delivered projects for both HSE and industry customers. He spoke on the HSE SD’s dedicated Battery Safety Test Facility, which he designed and commissioned and of the importance of standardising regulations in this area.

Battery testing and regulation in the UK

Dr Anna Wise, Innovation Lead – Batteries at Innovate UK then took to the stage and posed the question: The UK’s Battery Testing Capability: Does the UK have enough? Wise presented a gap analysis of the testing demands and current and projected supply. She said that there are many areas of potential bottlenecks in the testing and verification arena; one of these is in the cell/module lifecycle testing area. Wise talked of pack level abuse testing and how destruction testing is now considered simply too dangerous.

Abuse testing of of packs over 700kg is a limitation factor, as Wise says, and she pointed out that there is a critical shortage of climatic chambers in the UK, “Big investment is needed in this area if we are to stay ahead of the global battery development and manufacturing game.”

Wise was then joined on the stage by Mike Richardson, David Greenwood and Jonathan Buston; a delegate asked if it is clear yet what the industry actually wants from test facilities? Anna Wise answered this: “It is clear that as the product technology is changing, and we are moving to lower and lower impedance cells, we need to upgrade testing equipment.”

David Greenwood took a question on second life battery usage and said that, “Batteries coming from damaged vehicles are assumed [by vehicle dismantlers and recyclers] to be badly damaged and so are getting scrapped.”

Jacqui Murray, Deputy Director of The Faraday Battery Challenge at Innovate UK asked the panel how much government intervention is there, or should there be? Jonathan Buston said that the large scale of testing that will be required will need government investment as costs will be very high.

David Greenwood said that commercial decisions will be made on how profitable the various enterprises will be but in the short term - over the first five to 10 years - infrastructures will need government investment as this time period is not enough to guarantee sustainable commercial returns on investment.

Asked if the UK was developing and manufacturing the required test equipment, Anna Wise said that some very advanced equipment was being developed in the UK but at present the majority is imported from the US and Japan.

Battery management systems and thermal runaway dangers

Dr Paul Faithfull, Managing Director of Potenza Technology took to the stage and talked of battery management systems, posing the question: are all battery cells created equal? He spoke of how thermal runaway can lead to fires and how he does not charge his EV in his garage or any enclosed space. This led him onto the subject of battery management systems and how they need to predict problems, by constantly measuring voltages but also measuring temperatures. He said that in most applications, two temperature sensors are adequate - as in the Nissan LEAF but that these two sensors need to ‘find’ the most active cells to ensure safe charging and usage, and also to allow for a redundant sensor check. Discovering one overheating cell is not an accurate enough parameter to apply to the whole battery pack’s condition. On the business front, Faithfull said that the cost of effective testing could well rule out many smaller companies. 

Cell anatomy and sensors

Neil Roberts, EMEA Product Manager of Amphenol Sensors talked of how the ‘anatomy of cell failure’ was still developing and how spurious readings of pressures can be recorded and warned of, leading to the condemnation of cells when they are not actually faulty. He spoke of planned regulation and specifications from China and how these were welcome but may not be applicable to all global cell and battery pack manufacturing and usage.

Christoph Birkl, CEO and co-founder of Brill Power talked of the many varied reports of the life expectancy of EV batteries and said how typically there was a dramatic loss of range with as little as a 20% loss of battery capacity, showing a slide illustrating this with a data survey on Nissan LEAF usage. He talked of how uneven temperature and current in batteries can lead to local hot spots, uneven cell ageing and risk of thermal runaway. 

Birkl then showed slides of conventional BMS’s which pass the same current to all cells and thus the capacity, life and charge rate are dictated by the weakest cell. His next slide showed the Brill Power BMS, which passes current proportional to capacity, to try and give maximal battery capacity, life and charge rates. 

Andrew Cowie, SLICE Product Manager of Large Lithium-Ion Battery Design at Denchi Power, talked of the importance of bespoke battery design and BMS’s to give simple voltage and impedance control through to deep host integration. 

He spoke of the SLICE Industrial data capture scheme, using sophisticated AC/DC power conversion control, a battery array controller and ancillary measurements to maximise data capture opportunities and how this could use cloud processing across multiple systems, giving far greater visibility of battery and cell performance, trend analysis and work towards predictive maintenance.

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Legislation and standardisation

Jacqui Murray, Deputy Director of The Faraday Battery Challenge at Innovate UK gave a keynote address about the need for legislation and standardisation for lithium-ion batteries. She talked of how the majority of the value of a battery pack is in its cells and chemical components, rating proportions in a slide as: 25% cell and pack making, 56% cell materials, and 19% other pack components. She spoke of how the [battey] value chain is an entire eco-system for the exploitation of great UK science and innovation, charting the raw material and processing steps, all the way through to OEM demand. Murray talked of the Public Available Specifications (PASs) and how these will form the basis of a wider, long term standardisation approach to battery manufacturing - in the UK and also internationally.

UK battery making developments

Tony Richardson, Environment, Health and Safety Manager of the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC), sought to show ‘What does battery making in the UK really look like’. He spoke of battery making facilities, and not battery manufacturing, as the industry is in its infancy in the UK and there is still so much development going on. He pointed out that the UK does not make the primary parts of the cell - there is not enough cheap raw materials and the required chemistry facilities, he said. He talked of the non availability or application of, ‘powders in, electrode mixing, and cylinder and pouch assembly’. Richardson spoke of UK government investment in the Faraday Battery Challenge and of how different the EV battery supply chain is for OEMs and suppliers when compared to ‘conventional’ vehicle technology.

He said that much more regulation is needed to help financiers who are interested in investing, understand the size and location of the great opportunities in the field. 

Richardson moved on to safety and talked of concerns in battery module assembly areas, particularly in the possible dangers associated with high voltage components but also the handling of chemicals.

He went on to talk of the necessity and opportunities afforded by building ‘giga-factories’ and showed slides illustrating how all the elements of building and specifying these units can come together. He said that the ‘customer journey’ needed to be carefully planned, to help gauge which new systems and protocols were needed in the design, architecture and even staff safety training, to ensure that the UK could succeed in the face of increasingly stiff global competition.

Indeed, Richardson’s observations really summed up the day’s discussions; the opportunities in the battery space are enormous but the UK must grasp the nettle as early as possible, to benefit from this fourth industrial revolution. 

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