cars21.com: What is Lithium Balance’s unique selling point with regard to the manufacturing of battery management systems for automotive applications? How do you distinguish yourself from the competition?
Mr Tunji Adebusuyi: We break it down to what we call USA: Universal, Safe, Affordable. With sufficient money, time, and knowledge you can always make a great battery management system (BMS). At Lithium Balance, however, we are trying to make battery management an affordable commodity. This does not only mean offering the BMS at a good price, but also making it highly customisable, without specialist programming.
In other words, our battery management system comes with the tools that allow the customer to input the correct battery specifications along with other settings that they might request specifically for their application.
It is the scalability, configurability, affordability and on top of that, the safety aspects, that make our BMS a very attractive proposition.
cars21.com: There is a lot of talk about battery technology, moving from Lithium-ion to Zinc-air, Lithium-Sulphur or Lithium-Air. How will this influence Lithium Balance?
Tunji: Our primary focus at the moment is on lithium-ion, because we think that lithium-ion still has a long way to run. It is currently the best of the commercially available battery technologies.
There are other technologies coming to the market but we have to recognise that it has taken from 1991 up until about 5-6 years ago for us to have decent, reliable large format lithium-ion cells. So, any new technologies are not going to arrive on the market tomorrow.
cars21.com: During your presentation you mentioned “balancing the pack” as an important tool in battery management. Could you explain what that means and how it works?
Tunji: The idea behind battery management and balancing the pack is quite simple. The pack always performs as well as the least charged cell. So, the cell with the least energy is what determines the overall pack performance. In balancing the pack we bring all the cells up to the same state of charge.
There are two major types of balancing: active and passive.
Passive balancing is the dissipation of energy from the cells with the highest voltages using a resistor, so the pack can be charged up without overcharging individual cells. This way the pack can either be fully charged or all cells can be charged at the same level. During discharge, the higher charged cells can also be “bled” down so that all the cells are equally discharged.
Active balancing, on the other hand, comes into play when cells have already started to degrade and loose capacity. In this case, energy is transferred from the strongest cells to the weakest cells. The industry would like to achieve active balancing but for large scale applications this technology is not ready yet.
cars21.com: Do you see the potential for supercapacitor technology to be taken up in mass marketed EVs? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using supercapacitors in EVs?
Tunji: Capacitors need sophisticated management, and they have a fairly high cost in relation to the energy they store, which adds complexity and cost. The added power density they can provide is already achievable to some degree with certain types of lithium-ion chemistry. So for high power demand, it is possible and probably easier to have a bigger battery with the right chemistry instead of having a hybrid system with supercapacitors.
Whether supercapacitors can compete with lithium-ion cells really depends on the application. There are some applications with high power density and life cycle requirements where supercapacitors could maybe take over, but for any energy storage requirements there are good alternatives such as lithium titanate cells. The Altairnano cells, for example, or even the A123 nanophosphate cells that offer up to 20C discharge and charge capabilities. They too, give incredible power density but with a decent energy density, and more importantly, a linear range in the battery. This means that the cells are able of producing this energy at a fairly constant voltage, whereas the capacitor always has a falling voltage, requiring a DC/DC converter, which adds extra cost and complexity.
cars21.com: Given the impressive sums that are invested into battery companies around the world, how do you evaluate the risk of a “battery bubble”?
Tunji: There has been so much money invested! Do we want to say it has been well invested from a shareholder point of view? That is not for us to say, but what we can say is that it has kick-started a genuine change. We are all being forced to raise our game in terms of sustainable technologies and energy efficiency and there is no denying the importance of energy storage. If batteries are the way we are going to store that energy, then it is a good investment of the money.
cars21.com: If you look at the development rates of batteries and the uptake rate of EVs, it looks like the demand will match the supply, or do you see a big gap coming?
Tunji: There are potentially many problems with the large proliferation of EVs but they are not going to be serious problems in the near future, because the uptake of EVs is pretty slow. Tesla says that they have sold close to 2,000 vehicles and they have probably produced more than anybody else. We are only talking in thousands, whilst prior to the 2008 crash, the global automotive industry was building about 50 million cars a year.
Volumes of EV passenger cars are low, but there are other industries that are leveraging this technology such as the material handling industry with electric forklifts and pallet trucks etc. They will generate real volume, likely to be in the tens of thousands, or the hundreds of thousands, and that will happen fairly quickly, within the next few years unless some competing technology can prevent that from happening.
cars21.com: Standardisation is one of the key issues being discussed. What kinds of standards are relevant and important for battery manufacturers (and especially for the BMS)?
Tunji: There are certain standard protocols that would need to be in place because BMSs are a bit like mobile phones: they can all work on the same network but are different in terms of performance and there is still branding in them.
We would need agreed charging protocols for intelligent charging. Typically the local grid cannot handle the addition of large numbers of electric vehicles being charged simultaneously. There is a need for the power grid to send a message to say “you charge now but the other vehicles in the area do not”.
Other kinds of protocols that need to be standardised are the DC fast charging in public places, so that the BMS can handle the energy while ensuring that it fits to the requirements of the managed battery.
There are some issues related to telematics and billing and so on – again similar to the issues we had with mobile phones. We need some kind of unique identifier. There are also security issues, because we need to make sure that people cannot steal batteries and if they do, ensure that the battery will not work elsewhere.
These are the things that we might want to embed in the BMS and have some sort of standard protocol for.
cars21.com: What kind of developments do you expect in the EV battery market in the short-term, over the next 6-12 months?
Tunji: It is becoming clearer and clearer that electric passenger vehicles, privately owned EVs, are not quite where they need to be. However, for commercial applications there is a very strong business case. My hope is that we will see a much bigger commercial vehicle footprint in the EV market over the next 12 months.
We have been involved with 12 ton heavy goods vehicle conversions and these are extremely successful. Our expectation is to see more of these for localised distribution. Local distribution from a warehouse to a local site within the town is a good application for electric vehicles and we think that this will pick up. We also know that the material handling section is also picking up quite strongly.
cars21.com: If you were asked to formulate a global action plan for a rapid introduction of electric vehicles, what would be your top 3 points for the agenda?
Tunji: What we know about human beings is they react to incentives. The rate of innovation is directly linked to the amount of investments, so the first point has to be incentivisation. Cost of electricity and tax regimes need to be addressed in such a way as to make it financially very attractive for a lot of commercial vehicle operators to move to electric.
That would be the carrot. If you are the people with a distribution network of vehicles, such as UPS, the government is in a position to greatly reduce taxation and at the same time maybe even provide free electricity. That can really drive a change. We can have millions of electric vehicles in commercial applications long before you actually get to private passenger vehicles in any real volume.
Then there would be the stick. In certain areas, for certain applications, regulation could simply say you have 36 months to phase out your combustion engines. That would be for certain types of warehouse applications, local garbage collection vehicles and things like that. These are particularly polluting because the vehicles drive a hundred meters, then stop, and the engine is left running to run the compactor. Governments should give a timescale and say “you have this amount of time and after that they are gone”.
The third point, I guess, has got to be related to pricing. I am not quite sure how you could achieve this but the pricing of some of the key components simply needs to come down, such as electric motors, electric drivetrains and batteries.
cars21.com: What are your impressions from the Electric Land, Air and Sea conference that took place 28-29 June in Stuttgart, Germany?
Tunji: I came here with an open-mind. The idea I think is really good because marine applications are starting to take off, with the use of hybrid drivetrains and renewables, as are some aircrafts. It is really good to pull them all together because up until now the real talk has been about the automotive sector. The event has a really good atmosphere and has been well organised so I have to give it a thumbs up!
cars21.com: Many thanks, Mr. Adebusuyi!