Aceleron: Advancing the circular economy through sustainable battery technology

November 08, 2022 00:24:10
Aceleron: Advancing the circular economy through sustainable battery technology
ESI Africa Podcast
Aceleron: Advancing the circular economy through sustainable battery technology

Nov 08 2022 | 00:24:10

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Show Notes

Listen as ESI Africa speaks to Amrit Chandan, CEO and co-founder of UK-based advanced lithium battery developer Aceleron, about empowering people to benefit from sustainable battery technology through the use of a modular battery that can be easily serviced, maintained and upgraded.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:01 The sheer number of batteries forecast to be used in the renewable energy and electric vehicles worldwide is actually growing. But if you think about it, batteries are not inherently designed to be easy to recycle or maintain. So this could become a problem down the line, but where some of us see challenges, they are people who see solutions. ESI Africa talks to am Chand co-founder of UK based advanced lithium battery developer Acceleron, which wants to accelerate the uptake of clean energy and empower people to benefit from sustainable battery technology. They specifically aim to do this by encouraging the use of a model, a battery that can be easily serviced, maintained, and upgraded. As in this is a battery for the circular economy. Speaker 2 00:00:56 Welcome to the ESI Africa podcast, brought to you by your trusted power and energy multimedia journal. You can download this and all other episodes on esi hyphen africa.com/podcasts. Let's get into today's conversation. Speaker 0 00:01:16 Hello, I'm Rich and welcome to the ESI Africa podcast. Speaker 3 00:01:21 Hi Teresa. Speaker 0 00:01:22 Let's start off with a brief introduction to Acceleron. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Speaker 3 00:01:29 Yes. Speaker 0 00:01:30 You co-founded the company around this idea of a sustainable battery technology. So please tell us about the innovation that lies at the heart of the company. Speaker 3 00:01:39 Absolutely. So I started this journey, um, six years ago now. Um, with Acceleron my background, I, I studied a PhD in chemical engineering and, um, I met my co-founder Carlton. We were both working in the same place. He's, he's a mechanical engineer by training and we both saw that the number of batteries that would be used both for renewable energy and for luxury vehicles was increasing significantly the, the forecast deployments. And we both recognized that there was a challenge with this because batteries are not inherently designed to be maintained or to be easily decommissioned. So we decided, um, that this is enough of a challenge to, to try and solve this. Um, it's, the analogy I like to use is imagine if you're driving down the road in your vehicle and something goes wrong with the vehicle. You don't scrap the vehicle, you get it repaired. Speaker 3 00:02:35 It doesn't make any sense to scrap something which has got such a high material value to it. But we do this with batteries all the time. So what many people don't realize is it's a lithium battery pack is made up of many smaller components and often it's a few of these components, which I mean, the whole battery doesn't work, uh, to the best extent over time, but we at the moment, there's no way of accessing it because batteries are constructed with permanent assembly techniques. So there's structural, structural adhesives, glues, um, spot welding, and that makes it impossible to repair them. So the only option is to get rid of it on the scale of this challenge is huge. So we think that by 2040 there will be enough batteries that will need to be dealt with to fill Wembley Stadium 23 times over every single year. So it's a huge, uh, number of batteries that will need to be dealt with. And, and really for us, that's a shame because surely we should be used looking at this technology and looking to make it as sustainable as possible and ultimately as successful as possible. Because if you can repair something and maintain it and decommission it safely, then actually many more people around the world can use it. It's not just restricted to those areas which have got the high tech skills to deal with something like this. Speaker 0 00:03:55 So I was gonna say, what is the challenge that you are trying to meet with your technology, but clearly the challenge you are trying to meet is sustainability. You're looking at the idea of the circular economy and the recycling of something that could become quite a problem. Speaker 3 00:04:10 Yes, absolutely. And actually it's, for me it's circular economy that's inclusive or circular economy. That's just because we can't achieve net zero or ultimately a positive contribution where we extract or emit significantly less carbon without sort of, with owning sort of the developed bug in mind. So we need to make sure that actually we leave no one behind and we shouldn't have a situation in the future where people in order to access the opportunities and access this cleaner future, they end up doing that at the expense of opportunities or their, or their health and wellbeing. So for me, it's about actually making sure that this technology, we have all technology, When you use the technology, it considers not just the financial return, but also what impact is it having on society and the people that use the technology and what impact is it having on the environment as well. And if they're all positive, then it's a business that's worthwhile working in not only those businesses which consider solely the financial return. Speaker 0 00:05:16 Now I've looked at, um, your website and the picture of what this thing looks like. Uh, it's almost like a framework and then you can put things into it and it looks like you can scale the size of it because of that bit. Speaker 3 00:05:30 Yes. So we, we've designed the battery to be, um, as disassemblable, if that's the word, as possible. Uh, so we, we've designed it with no permanent techniques. There's no glues, there's no adhesives, there's no, um, there's no, there's no welding involved. And that means that we can easily take it apart, pull it together again very quickly to enable and facilitate easy decommissioning, easy repair, remanufacture, um, and maintenance of the battery over time. And that's really important, especially in places in the world where you might be quite rural and the time to replace is significantly longer than the time to repair. Speaker 0 00:06:09 And is it something that you have your sit standard sizes of how big it should be, or you can create that or of the technician opposite together creates that? Speaker 3 00:06:19 So at the moment we have, um, batteries that are designed around sort of, uh, one kilowatt hour modules. Um, so and, and they can be stacked together. So we, we have, uh, we're gonna come onto this a little bit, but one of our projects with Energy Catalyst is looking at scalable mini grids where we are putting these batteries together into, into a mini grid. Speaker 0 00:06:42 That sounds like a cool idea. Now, um, what are the territories that you have actually started growing out these ideas in? Speaker 3 00:06:50 So we've predominantly worked in East Africa. Um, so we started our first projects in, in, um, in Kenya. And we've received quite a bit of support from the UK government to do that, both through Energy Catalyst, but also from, well, what used to be known as the Department for International Development, but now as part of the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office, the F CDOs. So through their T program, we've achieved, we've, we've received quite a bit of support, um, and, and partnership to look at not just producing these batteries, um, and put deploying them, but actually can we make them from recovered waste? So can we use, can we use Second Life or repurposed batteries? Um, and also the, the sort of job creation aspect. And, and most recently, um, and we're really excited about this project, we've just deployed a, a modularized container which has all the testing equipment, the processes, the know-how, um, two repurposed batteries and e-waste. And that's just been deployed into the, uh, BD BD migrant camp in Uganda. So we're taking waste that would otherwise be burnt from the camp and converting that into useful products that could be used in mini grids, used in local street lighting for powering local houses. Really exciting project. Speaker 0 00:08:14 Cool. When did that Uganda project start? Speaker 3 00:08:18 Um, so we've been developing this, actually the partners involved are the un uh, international organization for migrants, um, Total Energies, um, and the Shell Foundation as the sort of three key stakeholders, uh, in the project. And so we've been developing this over the last year and we've just now, um, deployed this unit into the camp that'll be running hopefully for a year to see how, um, how the, how the, the waste, how much we can recover, how much we can stop from being burnt, and um, what can be what can be used, uh, locally for, for the local people. Speaker 0 00:08:55 So I've heard Kenya and Uganda so far. Speaker 3 00:08:59 We've just in the latest round of Energy Catalyst projects, um, we've just won a project, uh, to deploy some mini grids with partners, mesh power and, uh, Victoria Energy, um, in both Rwanda and Uganda as well. So, um, still very much sort East Africa. And you know, for us, one of the really interesting pieces as well is, is sort of looking at recovery of batteries, looking at sort of stationary applications, but increasingly e mobility is becoming, um, very interesting. So we've got some very interesting projects with, uh, partners, particularly with Toyota. Um, so we, we have, uh, Mobility 54 is one of our investors and we're, we're fully aligned with them where the, the thinking is, you know, everything we're doing is with Africa, for Africa. Um, and so we're, we're deploying batteries that are being used in EACs with partners in Uganda. Um, so we work with a company called Embo who another part of, uh, Mobility 50 fours family. Um, and also, um, we are doing some work for, uh, crop delivery vehicles where we putting batteries into these sort of E three wheelers, which are being used in rural locations in Kenya as well. Um, so really, really cool to see these projects take off and, and the, the impacts that that more sustainable batteries can have. Speaker 0 00:10:30 Um, there, there really seems to be immobility seems to be the thing that's happening in East Africa around bikes and tracks and swapping batteries and, um, small vehicles way more than any other part of, of Africa. And there's some very interesting, um, research around can electric vehicles be used as a productive use of energy thing that is associated with a mini grit? Can, can the one help the other? I'm curious to see how your idea fits into that idea for, you know, just making this, the whole idea, a little circle of sustainability. Speaker 3 00:11:14 Yes, uh, absolutely. So actually that's the, the trial we're doing in, in rural Kenya is with that in mind. So taking the batteries, using them to expand the capability of the mini grid that's in the, in the village, and also then enabling people to use the batteries from the, from the e vehicles to power appliances in the home. So it's very much that sort of ecosystem, ecosystem, uh, opportunity. And you know, I think rolling out infrastructure across Africa as a whole, you know, um, particularly sort of the less developed parts of Africa will be really challenging if you try and do it just in isolation. It's not like, it's not like the, you know, the gas stations where you can just put them down and they immediately start, you know, become profitable, um, because the demand is so, uh, it, it's, it's a much higher frequency, but it's, it's very kind of, everyone wants to charge their commuters, for example. Speaker 3 00:12:10 They will want to charge their electric bikes at certain times in the day and everyone wants hear it at the same time. So we need to think about this infrastructure in a very different way. And so you need, you actually need to, in my view, think about sort of how the battery, which is the key enabling technology can be used, not just in sort of swapping stations, but you know, powering the local buildings, powering other things within the sort of local region in order to, in order to make a financial return for the infrastructure owners. Speaker 0 00:12:41 So speaking of that idea, um, what is it that you are learning from local partners around developing the exact products that are needed in those spaces? Because yes, you are in East Africa, but in very different countries with very different needs and you don't actually physically live right there in that spot. So how are you tapping into that kind of local knowledge? Speaker 3 00:13:07 So, so we, we've always held the belief that we can only be successful through partnership and taking on feedback and learning. And I think one of the, the clearest learnings for me is you, it's very difficult to take something which has been designed for one market, one application, one use case, and expect to work straight away in, in another. So for example, if we have a e mobility battery that's in, primarily used in electric or train vehicles in the uk, that will the chance it will work without any problems in a e motorcycle in Uganda that's traveling on what I think would be generous to call roads, um, and often sort of, you know, really off-road, very rough terrain is, is very slim. So I think one of the key learnings for us has been that, and, and I'll borrow mobility 50 fours phrase again, we have to design these products with Africa. For Africa they have to be, they're very specific to the market because there is nothing off the shelf that will just work because of how dynamic and how unique the, the, the, the place is. Speaker 0 00:14:25 So, um, did you come into this idea right from the beginning when you and Carlton started the, the, the first round of let's figure out what we're going to do? Or is this something you have learned as you went along and started dealing with different countries that you need to be quite flexible about how you're going to be doing something? Speaker 3 00:14:46 I think the whole journey has been a learning curve. Um, when we started this, this is our first dementia. Uh, and I certainly speak for myself, if not, if not Carlton as well, I believe he'll share the same view that starting this, I think we were really quite naively optimistic that everything would be much easier than it is because on paper it sounds very easy, you know, build batteries are gonna do it in this different way and it's gonna just work and it's gonna be great. But as you go through it, you realize that actually there's a lot that needs to be learned and there's a lot that needs to be developed. So it's all about transferring those unknown unknowns into known unknowns and then eventually, you know, known knowns and how to deal with them and sort of maintaining that open mind and, and trying to learn as much as possible because there are great people, you know, doing excellent work in the region already. And, um, you don't do yourself any favors if you kind of come in waving the flag and saying, this is the way it should be done and we're not gonna listen to anyone else. Um, so it's much better to learn from the experience because it just means everything happens faster and um, we can make a bigger impact. Speaker 0 00:15:55 Oh, since you mentioned the word impact, let's talk about the impact that you are having. Um, what are you finding, how are people using it and is it different to what you expected and then how do you actually use that going forward about maybe do you need to change something or is this working? Do I need to go into a different space? Speaker 3 00:16:15 Yeah, so, um, we, so we, we work primarily business to business, um, because the batteries are being used often in an application or they're being used in a, in a, in a different, in a different product. So for us, the feedback from, from our partners and customers is, is critical. Um, and there are always, always, uh, differences in how we think the product will be used versus how it's actually used. So, and, and that is really interesting then when it comes to designing the product and feeding that back into, into the next, into the next element or the iteration of, of the product. So yeah, absolutely the, the feedback from, from partners in the way the products are used and sort of seeing that in the field. Um, in terms of feedback, it's been, it's been really great to see the, the feedback from um, users, especially end users. Speaker 3 00:17:06 So the e motorcycles for example, um, that, that feedback has been, the batteries are, are fantastic. They do what they, they say, cuz quality's a really big problem when you buy these batteries that come from, from far away, often the far east. Um, they, they don't always do what you think they will do and they don't perform as, as you think they, they, they will, um, but they're impossible to repair. So we, you know, we, we've seen challenges with some of the first deployments, uh, as you'd expect. Cause we don't really know, so how they will work in the field before you test and trial them. But actually I think the, the, the really important thing is the value of being able to locally repair, maintain and be responsive to those changes has been really appreciated by our partners. Speaker 4 00:18:03 So have you actually got, um, local factories for the actual creation of the product? Speaker 3 00:18:08 Product, product? So we, we are building these batteries, um, in Nairobi at the moment. And um, now with the deployment of this, of this, uh, we, we call bat lab this facility in the, in the migrant camp that will also, uh, be producing batteries as well. Speaker 4 00:18:25 Okay. And then you train local people how to actually work on them and replace them? Speaker 3 00:18:32 Yes, that's right. So within Nairobi, we have a, a small team at the moment, but it's growing, um, of people that are, before they worked with us had had very limited experience with batteries. Um, and in the migrant camp, uh, we've been working with, I think we have three refugee, um, uh, three, three migrants who, who are technical. So they do have a level of technical experience. One, I think one of them is a mechanical engineer. Um, and they're, they're really keen to work on this. Um, and you know, these are really, these are people who are just looking to, to learn something new, to contribute to their local, to their local people and ultimately to make their lives better as well. So, um, absolutely, it's all about, um, educating, empowering and having that positive social impact. Speaker 4 00:19:25 Do you use, um, these Speaker 0 00:19:26 Batteries at your own home? Speaker 3 00:19:29 <laugh>? I, I will. Um, so I'm actually at the moment going through, we're going through, uh, it's a bit more regulated here, but the planning, the planning permissions to, to get the batteries in. Um, but we will. Speaker 0 00:19:42 Cool. Now Acceleron is one of the companies that has received a lot of support from energy catalysts. So was it financial or advisory? How did they actually help you? Speaker 3 00:19:54 So the Energy Cash program is, um, it's one of, it's, it's run by what used to be called Innovate uk. Um, I think it's UK Research Innovation now. I can't remember the, the name's changed a bit. Um, but the, the funding has been, the support has primarily been through funding. Um, but then also through, uh, partnership events are helping us find partners, um, some advisory work as well, particularly sort of, you know, when it comes to how these models work and how they, how they could work particularly in, in, um, in the, in the region. And then, you know, particularly through the Energy Catalyst, because it is supported by F C D O as well, it's those links with, with the department directly who can then provide extra support within the region as well. So it's, it's quite wide ranging in terms of support. Speaker 0 00:20:44 You actually mentioned how, um, where you live, uh, the rules are a little bit different, so you're having to just check how that works out when it comes to policy and regulation of the industry. In the different territories that you're working in Africa though, are you finding that there are things that you have to change because of that? Or are you finding there's not enough policy and regulation that you're thinking there should be something more? Speaker 3 00:21:10 So the policy and regulation is developing, um, Kenya is at the forefront of this, um, and they've just brought out extended producer responsibility laws, um, for electronics, which is fantastic because what that does is it puts the, it puts the onus on making sure these products, these electronic products are being dealt with responsibly, um, by the companies that put them in the market. So historically what you've seen is many of the companies operating in the region would import many of these electronic products, and it was the lowest cost approach because ultimately the buying power within, within Kenya, within sort of sub-Saharan Africa is not the greatest. So in order to make models where accessor technology is, is possible, that's been done through rental models. Um, and that means you need the lowest cost products possible. But what that does is it actually, well, it, it shifts or ignores the cost of safety commissioning and ultimate recycling and repair was not really a consideration either, but it shifts those costs to someone else. Um, and it's not considered within those models. And because of these, these regulation changes, they are now, they will have to be, um, if not, if not already considered within the, within the economic model. And that's really important because it means that the, the waste, um, is dealt with properly. Speaker 0 00:22:44 So now what are the future plans and ambitions for the company? Speaker 3 00:22:47 We want to be, uh, global. Um, so Africa is a really important part of that for us. Um, and you know, we, we've set some targets. So we, I mentioned already we want to be sort of, uh, financially sustainable, but we also want to positively impact people. So we've set a target for ourselves that we want to, we want to positively impact more than a hundred million people, uh, in the world, um, with our technology. And we also want to abate or help with the abatement of 25 million tons of common dioxide. So there's just some numbers that we've kind of set for ourselves, uh, and we're working our way towards that. Speaker 0 00:23:29 Okay. Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me. It's fascinating and I'd love to see what's gonna happen next. Speaker 3 00:23:36 Thank you so much, Theresa. It's been a pleasure having a conversation. Speaker 2 00:23:44 You have been listening to an ESI Africa podcast. For the latest news reports and interviews on power, energy, and related industries, visit the ESI Africa website on esi hyphen africa.com or follow us on social media. Until next time, thank you for tuning in.

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