Carlton Cummins (pictured) and his cofounder Amrit Chandan have developed a new way to repower old batteries. He has won LOMGroup-Shell Award for innovationhub 2018.
Breathing new life into waste batteries
Clean + Cool 2017 Mission alumni Aceleron is collecting old lithium batteries from cars and laptops and reprocessing them to deliver low cost energy storage capacity.
The world is going crazy for battery power right now. For many industries, from the energy sector and automotives to shipping and buildings, battery storage represents one of the best hopes for delivering deep decarbonisation. The ability to store electricity from intermittent renewables for use when and where it is needed promises to revolutionise not just the power grid, but the entire economy.
It should come as no surprise that the energy storage market - with batteries in the forefront - is expected to boom in the coming years. Influential analyst firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance last month predicted the lithium ion battery market for energy storage technologies will be worth at least $239bn between now and 2040 as it becomes a crucial component of the global energy system.
Solar power company BBOXX sells power packs with in-built Aceleron batteries through its network of shops in Kenya.
But as electric vehicles pour off production lines and onto the streets, eager consumers install home battery packs, and utilities design increasingly powerful storage units to provide grid-scale power supplies, is anyone asking what happens at the end of the line?
Huge numbers of companies are focused on getting lithium ion batteries out into the market, but very few have an adequate plan to dispose of them at the end of their life, argues Carlton Cummins, co-founder of UK start-up Aceleron.
"Literally, we were all focused on building new batteries and nobody was having a serious conversation about what you do with them after," he told BusinessGreen during last month's Clean + Cool Mission to San Francisco.
That is where Aceleron comes in. Only incorporated last year, the young start-up has grand ambitions to transform the waste battery market by turning old lithium ion batteries into new cheap energy storage systems for consumers around the world.
The batteries themselves come from a host of sources, from medical equipment to old office laptops and electric cars. Lithium ion batteries might seem like they only emerged a few years ago, but already millions of batteries are thrown out each year well before they are completely exhausted. Often batteries are thrown out when only one cell in the module fails in a test - a scenario that is particularly common for high stakes uses such as medical technologies. Others are discarded according to arbitrary product replacement cycles, a situation that poccure frequently in corporate settings where all the laptops in an office may be replaced every two to three years regardless of their condition.
Consequently, there are plenty of old batteries out there with lots of storage potential left in them - the challenge is finding them and accessing that power. To achieve this, Cummins along with his co-founder Amrit Chandan, have developed new technology to quickly and cheaply test old batteries, disassemble them and reform them into new modules that can power a laptop, canal boat, or even a house.
Aceleron collects used lithium-ion batteries, identifies “good cells” and then uses its patented method to assemble new battery units to help power home lighting and phone charging.
Each battery is first tested using Aceleron's unique algorithm, which allows Cummins and Chandan to identify the quality and use potential of each battery three times faster than a standard test.
The next step is to take the promising batteries with useable juice left inside and reform them into a viable product. But reforming lithium ion batteries is not a straightforward task. Firstly, despite the technology's central role in the low-carbon transition, lithium ion batteries are not currently built with sustainability in mind.
Chandan explained: "Normally when you assemble the battery pack you do a technique called spot welding, where you literally weld the connections together. The problem with that is that you can't dissemble it - it's a permanent fixing method - and other companies then also use adhesive to fix the batteries in place. The key problem is when you take apart the spot weld the surface of the battery has debris left on it. That means that if you want to reuse that battery you have to put a lot of effort into cleaning the surface otherwise you don't get a good contact."
But Aceleron has developed a new, and less time-consuming method of reprocessing the battery.
"What we do is assemble a module with a technique called compression," said Cummins. "It's like making a sandwich - you have got a base and in that base you have a space where you embed all the electronics. You load the cells into that base tray and then you put the top onto it. Instead of spot welding the connection you just put screws through the base and fasten them together, and through compression it holds everything together." This approach means there's no need to scrub off the debris from the old spot weld, a time saver that makes the production of new batteries economically viable, he added.
The upcycled batteries could then be deployed around the world for a fraction of the cost of a new lithium ion battery, the pair say. Aceleron estimate the company will be able to produce its batteries at the same price as a lead acid unit, around £150-200 per kWh, compared to a cost of £250 per kWh for lithium ion.
A deliberate strategy uis being developed to target low income countries, Cummins revealed. "Everybody knows that the price of new lithium ion batteries is falling," he said. "That's not a problem and it tends to service very well the high income countries. So that's where all the premium energy storage products that you hear about are selling very well. All the way on the other end of the spectrum is the lead acid battery, and that is a poorly serviced market because lead acid batteries typically are designed to start things, not to continually deliver power. So what we decided to do was build a lithium ion replacement for the lead acid battery."
Refurbished battery packs act as back-up energy storage for homes with solar panels in rural areas that have no access to the power grid.
The solution is likely to be a perfect fit for many countries where the falling cost of solar panels has made deployment widespread, but patchy or unreliable grids render reliable night-time or back-up power out of reach. "You could address two problems at the same time, reducing waste by using these batteries to produce low cost energy storage," explained Cummins.
Aceleron is currently preparing to launch a pre-seed funding round to raise money for its first pilot project in the UK next year, to demonstrate the collection, testing and manufacturing stages of the process. It's also in talks with two potential battery suppliers, which could see it secure 25 tonnes a month of old batteries to play with. In addition, work is underway on a series of demonstrator units, from a laptop charger later this year to a turnkey solution for powering an entire house. Finally, Cummins and Chandan are in talks with development agencies about exporting their model overseas to East Africa and Central America, in a bid to create closed loop battery recycling and processing facilities in those markets.
"It's been a whirlwind," admitted Chandan.
As the rollout of high end batteries continues apace, it looks like there's a bright future ahead for innovative firms addressing the other end of energy storage spectrum.
Basics like watching TV are beyond the reach of the 1.2 billion people who, according to the International Energy Agency, have no access to a power grid.
The story has been covered by Tom Zengin