The year in review: AA Thornton on Battery Technology

 AA Thornton reflect on the past year in the battery and energy storage industries

On the 4th and 5th of December, Patent Attorneys Marianne Privett and David Blair attended the ‘Battery and Energy Storage Show 2018’ hosted by Warwick University (with Matt Havron joining them on the 5th December). At the event, Marianne and David greatly enjoyed listening to Jacqui Murray (Innovate UK), David Greenwood (WMG, University of Warwick), Faithful Chanda (Western Power Distribution), and Julian Jansen (IHS Markit) reflect on the past year in the battery and energy storage industries. Inspired by this panel discussion, Marianne and David reflect on AA Thornton’s year in battery and automotive events.

It has been an exciting year for battery technology and, in particular, automotive battery innovation. Trends now clearly show that the number of patents published in the field of batteries is outstripping those for combustion energy technologies (~54,000 compared to ~35,000, respectively, in 2018). The rate of innovation in what could be considered ‘conventional’ powertrain technologies appears to be on the decline. Batteries are now leading the innovation race.

Faraday Battery Challenge

January 2018 heralded the launch of the second round funding competition in the ‘Faraday Battery Challenge’. For those unaware, the Faraday Battery Challenge is the UK Government’s programme to advance both battery technology and its surrounding industry in the UK. The Challenge is supported via Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund with a mission to “develop cost-effective, high-performance, durable, safe, low-weight, and recyclable batteries”. The programme thinks big and aims to position the UK as a global leader in the technical field going forward. The Challenge’s initial fast start projects have made considerable progress already. The Faraday Battery Challenge has grown a strong core team since its launch in 2017 and the end of 2018 sees the programme guided by Director Tony Harper, Deputy Director Jacqui Murray, Deputy Director Kathryn Magnay and Faraday Institute Chief Executive Neil Morris, each of whom AA Thornton has had the pleasure of meeting over the past year. Now at the end of 2018, the third round of Faraday funding recently closed, and we are excited to see which cutting edge projects receive funding and how they will drive the UK’s battery sector for years to come.

Battery Tech Expo

In March of 2018, AA Thornton attended the Battery Tech Expo in Telford, UK where we were fortunate enough to be introduced to Anna Wise, Innovation Lead for Batteries at Innovate UK and Garry Wilson, Director at the Advanced Propulsion Centre; both of whom were promoting the Faraday initiative. In Telford, the message from many of the exhibitors was that the sector was concerned with global pressures on the supply of lithium-ion cells to end users, as the rise of electric cars (particularly, the increase in Tesla’s manufacturing output) alongside pressures from the e-cigarette market were causing shortages of some of the fundamental cell components for commercial battery packs. At the end of 2018, the situation does not yet seem to be resolved, although progress continues on the construction of numerous ‘Gigafactories’ in Germany, the United States, Thailand, and China to name but a few. The industry waits to see whether these factories serve to lower global costs, or whether the costs of raw materials rise alongside the vast new manufacturing capacities.

Batteries in the motorsport industry

AA Thornton are members of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) and July saw the MIA host the annual House of Lords MIA Summer Reception where Martin Brundle received the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Motorsport Industry award. During the event MIA Chief Executive Chris Aylett spoke of the challenges facing the motorsport industry including the availability of R&D tax credits, the rise of electrification, and the potential impact of the VNUK decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Chris provided the gathered attendees with a moment for pause, by cautioning that motorsport should embrace and exploit the opportunities of battery technology now before batteries are forced upon them. The reception Chairman of the MIA, Iain Wight, also delivered a speech praising the MIA and the UK motorsport sector for its technological and economic contributions.

It seems likely, as in many aspects of automotive development, that motorsport will push the boundaries of batteries as they apply to cars. At the Battery and Energy Storage Show 2018, representatives from both Williams Advanced Engineering and McLaren Applied Technologies gave presentations on how motorsport is helping to push innovation in the battery and automotive field. McLaren are the current suppliers of batteries to Formula E and seek to stay ahead of Williams who are striving to develop better and more effective motorsport batteries. The technological rivalry can only serve to provide better and better batteries as innovators fight for every percentage gain in performance. Moving into 2019, AA Thornton looks forward to watching new developments in battery powered motorsport through its continued membership of the MIA.

Other developments in the battery storage industry

Moving away from motorsport and back to batteries in general, it is clear that many working in the automotive and energy storage industries believe that battery technology will develop in a similar manner to solar technology, which saw gradual and consistent increases in performance as opposed to the sudden technological leap that many had predicted. However, this view is not shared by all companies, especially those working in fundamental batteries research, many of whom are developing new materials chemistry. Only time will tell if current research into solid state materials, lithium air, sodium ion, metal oxide-graphene architectures, or other new materials will provide the sought after leap.

New commercial products in the field of batteries have centred around new and more efficient pack designs, with innovations in the arrangement of cells, battery monitoring, battery management systems, and thermal control. Dukosi’s integrated circuit designs and embedded software enable intelligent monitoring of individual cells within a battery pack to improve pack performance. The intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and computer based learning has also begun to yield some exciting developments in the sector. For example, at the Battery Technology Show 2018, Diabatix demonstrated how AI can develop unique heat sinks to allow even distribution of heat around a battery, with shapes and patterns that would not be considered by a human designer. The use of AI is becoming more and more common in the field of patents and innovation, and AA Thornton expects to see its use grow across all sectors of technology in the coming years.

The battery good news story of 2018 is that the automotive and energy storage sectors have embraced batteries as a means of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The environmental benefits of long term battery usage, supported by renewable energy sources is obvious. This year, Vattenfall successfully demonstrated how a community of several hundred homes could be taken off-grid for extended periods using a combination of wind and solar generation alongside storage batteries. In 2019, the company plans on extending the length of time its trial community spends off-grid.

Large investments in renewable energy battery technology demonstrate commercial willingness to engage with the low carbon agenda. The extent of industry’s engagement at events such as ‘Cenex Low Carbon Vehicles 2018’ at the Millbrook test centre in September shows how important the reduction of our carbon footprint has become to industry. Exhibitors in Millbrook postulated a future where vehicular transport is purely a distributed service to offset the high capital costs of batteries. The event imagined a future where an autonomous battery powered vehicle picks you up to deliver you to your destination and drops you off at a second charged and waiting vehicle if the journey proves too long for the first vehicle to cover with a single charge. To many members of the public, such a future will seem very distant. However, the pace of change in the transport sector in 2018 alone makes it clear that change is already upon us.

No matter what impact you believe developing battery technology will have upon our lives, it’s clear that 2019 and beyond will bring unexpected changes.

AA Thornton would like to wish the battery industry and our friends both old and new, an exciting and innovative 2019.

Category: News | Author: Marianne Privett | Published: | Read more