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We speak with Carlton Cummins the co-founder of Aceleron about a new lithium battery which is more sustainable and serviceable
by Aimee Rigby/14th-December-2020
Welcome to Zero Waste Kode, thank you so much for joining us! Would you like to introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Carlton Cummins, co-founder and chief technical at Aceleron. We are focused on building sustainable batteries – I’ll dig into what that means in a bit.
Yeah, so, what do Aceleron do? Can you explain your product?
So, energy storage has become a really big part of most of our lives, especially on a grand scale, so beyond your consumer electronics; your cell phone, your laptop, a lot of big devices are now being powered using batteries: cars, homes, the national grid – they’re using batteries to help smoothen out when different types of energies are being delivered to homes. The challenge with this is that, today we still use the consumer electronics model, which was built to be used for one application and disposed of. As batteries become larger, it becomes a much more significant challenge when it comes to what you do with batteries afterward. So Aceleron, fundamentally, we came about to take a very different approach to building batteries – we wanted to take a sustainable approach, very focused on the battery design, for all of its lifecycle – when it’s produced, as well as when it comes to the end of life. And the way we’ve done that is we’ve made batteries which are serviceable. The idea with our lithium ion batteries is that they’re designed to be produced, reused, repurposed, and easily disassembled for recycling. Whereas most other batteries are designed – they’re produced, used, and then the whole product needs to be disposed. A great example would be our mobile phone – it’s very, very hard sometimes to get the battery replaced because the product wasn’t really designed to be serviceable energy storage. But we’ve really been focusing on making batteries that are really easy to service, support and maintain.
So, before we go into Aceleron batteries – you mentioned a little bit there – could we dive deeper into why we need an alternative to regular lithium batteries? What is the big problem with them?
Really good segue there, so, lithium ion batteries are great for lots of things. What lithium ion batteries have loads to do with today is they provide a lot more energy in a small footprint than lots of other technologies we use, and that’s due to several incremental improvements over the years. These batteries were actually being produced and commercialised since the 1980’s, but we just got so good at making them that we even use them in cars. While it was only possible to do 40-60 miles in a car in 1990’s lithium ion batteries, we now have cars that can do 300 miles. The challenge with lithium ion batteries is that we haven’t changed the way that we manufacture them and assemble them, the large battery packs for large scale applications. The battery that powers your car is over 400kg, so it’s a massive beast of a machine. It’s usually assembled using methods that are usually on permanent assembly techniques – a lot of adhesives, a lot of welding, a lot of things which aren’t really designed to be easily disassembled or repaired. It’s fundamentally, like if you’ve got a car, where the wheels are basically riveted onto the cars, so every time you need to change the tire, you pretty much need to look at extensive actual removal, or you just get a new car. Simply because we use the same techniques, fundamentally, for making small batteries, use the same techniques, for building larger batteries. So, what Aceleron wanted to do with the great opportunity that lithium ion batteries had provided, in that there’s a lot more energy dense, that’s a fancy term, they’re a lot more powered than it was in the 1980’s and can deliver more energy. We wanted to also make it more sustainable, but the product was not designed to be repaired, to be reused, to be recycled. We love to use the example of the automotive industry – the parts of your car that tend to have the shortest lifespan are the most likely to break off and designed to be easily repaired and replaced, but we did the same with the lithium ion batteries for all applications, where we made the battery easy to disassemble for replacement. Now, the idea is that the replacement will not be done by you, the person at home that owns that battery, but it will be done by the installer or provider of your home energy storage system. It’s a little bit like your relationship with your boiler. It’s yours, but you don’t really do the repair work upon it. Or your car, often times you will take the car to a dealer, they are the best place to do all of the maintenance work with that car. Because we’ve made the batteries serviceable, it also means that we’ve changed your relationship with the battery. It’s no longer a consumable – something you use and then you throw away, it’s now something that can actually be repaired, maintained, and repurposed for a lifespan. It’s a very different dynamic and that’s why we like to call it a sustainable battery approach.
Carlton Cummins co-founder of Aceleron
Obviously, with the lifespan, would you be able to tell us a little bit about your circular economy model? Which obviously isn’t used in things like lithium batteries.
Yeah, definitely, so, normally with batteries today – I’m going to kind of go through the scale of things so that everyone can reference it to things they know and love. With your mobile phone, that battery design will typically have a lifespan of one to two years – it doesn’t mean that it’s completely useless, but the usefulness to you, you realise, becomes a lot less and you realise in a sense that you have to charge it a lot more often. When you start dealing with things like automobiles, the lifespan for that often times is anywhere from 8-10 years depending on who the manufacturer is. And, when you start to deal with things like energy storage for your home or larger scale – container size batteries connected to the grid, that’s where you want a very long lifespan, and often time you will find 10-15 years in lifespan. Some of the challenges there though, are that if anything does go wrong in the system, with those large batteries, it can be very difficult to repair. As a result, you become predisposed to just throw away the thing that’s broken and get a new component. You’re dealing with a containerised solution, so the thing that’s broken is connected to many other things, and it can be quite costly, moreover, quite wasteful of the amount of resources you need to throw away to do the replacement.
The other challenge is, usually, when you have these types of batteries in a system, is being used in an application that has a lifespan between 5 and 30 years it’s been connected to the grid. They don’t service these things on a large scale every year, you know, it’s not like your MOT. So we wanted to try to make a battery that was designed for serviceability, such that, instead of you having to decommission a large scale battery every 10 years, that’s 3 times over 30 years, you could have a service that could actually upgrade modules, maintain modules, repurpose modules, because the whole system was designed in a way that a trained professional would be able to maintain and upgrade and replace it quite simply.
A great analogy, even though it’s a very simplified version, is like when people started making the remote controls for the TV – the batteries built into the remote control- it’s somewhat annoying sometimes because you can’t really replace the battery very easily if it completely dies, you need to buy a whole need remote control, but you know that everything else with the remote is fine, but you are forced to, because of the business model, you are forced to buy a completely new component. We wanted to change that dynamic where the batteries are seen less as the commoditious products and are also now seen as assets to deliver a service. Because, when you start thinking about a battery large scale, and this is where the whole circular economy piece comes in, when you really start thinking about batteries used large scale, you know, to take that solar energy, to take that wind power, to take that hydro energy and many other sources producing electricity, it’s delivering a service. You don’t really necessarily want to own the battery or have the hassle of replacing it every couple of years, you just want it to continue to deliver a service. So, we’ve developed the hardware where we’ve designed how the batteries are assembled, so that the hardware is more suited to be used as a service. That then lends itself to be able to use batteries in the service application far more effectively.
That’s really interesting. So, would you be able to give us a brief sort of explainer of the different components of an Aceleron battery? Which part is recycled? Which part is then replaced and serviced? Would you be able to give us an overview of that?
Yeah, definitely. So, from components, this is actually a really good comparison because all of our components are more or less the same as any other battery in the market – the big difference is how they’re put together.
So, with a typical battery, most people assume a battery is just one big block, but when you open it up you realise there are hundreds of little pieces in there. So, you will have the cells, which is the lithium ion component, so if you think about double layered batteries, that’s actually a double layer cell.
When you have a whole set of them, then it’s referred to as a battery. With some of our products we will have up to, I think, 600 cells in one group, and then you have the material that holds the cells in place physically – that’s often made of some plastic – some manufacturers may choose to go with a thermal plastic and some manufacturers will choose to go with a thermal setting plastic.
Some plastics can be recycled, and some plastics cannot. We at Aceleron go with plastic that can be recycled very easily, we also go with plastics that have a degree of recycled material already built in. The next component you will have will be the conductive materials; this is the metal that basically that connects all of the cells together.
This is often aluminium, or some copper alloy, metals are a little bit tricky because metals are often not just one type of metal, it’s usually a mix of metals combined. If you’ve ever gone to the jewellery, because I’m in Birmingham close to the Jewellery Quarter, you will always hear talk of alloys because alloys are often a mix of different metals combined, so you can get characteristics of those different metals combined.
Often, the metals in batteries are a mix of metals combined as well, the main difference with ours compared to others is that most other battery manufacturers then weld… it’s literally a metallic welding or fixing of that metal onto all of the cells. It is a permanent assembly method. A good example is the one that’s used for a handrail or something like that- that’s a permanent method to put metal together. So, you weld the metal for conduction, onto the batteries. It’s very great for quality control, it is absolutely terrible when it comes to disassembly. It is very hard to take those two materials apart easily and safely.
What we’ve done instead, and this is the key part of our technology, is instead of fusing the metals together with welding, we use compression. It’s a little bit like the springs you would use for your remote control – think of something like that on steroids.
We completely see the idea of using springs, but we use a compression technique that is held together with fastening mechanisms – and just some nuts and bolts for simplicity. So, you have the holding material, the plastic, then you lower the cells into the plastic, a bit like making a sandwich, you then put the metals into the holding materials and you then put the fasteners to compress everything together. So, when you then need to repair or recycle, it would go to a service agency that would then be taken by a service agent that would run a diagnostic test so they can identify what needs to be replaced and then they can easily remove the fasteners and then replace the individual components of the battery.
Moreover, this easy disassembly technique makes it very easy to upgrade the batteries, because lithium ion cells improve over time, which means that with the same hardware, the batteries can actually be upgraded to new hardware without having to abandon the large majority of the hardware that the battery was made of originally.
And then the last thing that’s very attractive about this approach is that it allows you to separate the materials individually for recycling. So, that’s the other key thing that’s very attracting about our technique. So, to summarise it, you have the plastic to hold everything together, the lithium ion cells, the conductive materials, you may have some bits and bobs in there for fire suppression or fire protection, of course, and then you also will have an electronic circuit board which manages things and keeps it safe. That’s pretty difficult for most batteries it’s just that most people will weld or permanently fix things together simply because it’s easier to do that. We’ve been doing that for years, but we wanted to change the game and make something that’s designed with lifecycle in mind, because at some point it will need to be repaired, at some point it will need to be recycled – so let’s make that easier! It’s good for everyone – it reduces the cost, it reduces waste, and it also enables the ability to reuse things. Why recycle, when you can reuse? That’s what we like to say.
Perfect, that was a really good explainer, thank you. So, nearing the end of the interview now, if we change the topic of the interview to yourself – what was your journey from studying your Masters degree in Business and Sustainability to being the co-founder of Aceleron?
Well, I kind of got into batteries – not the technology itself, but what the technology enables because a battery itself is not a very… sexy thing, let’s say. It’s very quiet, it doesn’t really do much, but when you start to put them together, they can do some really exciting things. I remember when I was studying and I would look up electric aeroplanes, electric motorcycles and electric cars, I thought, this is amazing. It’s the first time in a long time that it felt like we were able to move beyond using fossil fuels quite confidently. I was really excited about that, and I remember for one of these subjects that I had to do a report on, you could choose what you wanted to do a report assessment on, and I chose to focus on electric vehicles, because I found them exciting, and what I wanted to do on the flip-side, looking at it from a sustainability point of view, was beg the question of, “what happens to these vehicles after they’ve been used as vehicles and meet their end of life?”. That’s when I discovered the whole dynamic for the batteries, where the main component that was a bit contentious was recycling – people have been recycling power parts for years now, batteries in this large size and these new components was very challenging, and I kind of dug into that and I realised that all of the major challenges with the battery was just how they were assembled. They were assembled using manufacturing techniques that were designed for cell phones and laptops which means that it was a lot of permanent stuff – a lot of adhesive, literally glued, and that was really good when it comes to material usage, simply because you basically lock valuable materials into a product for a very long time. So I was thinking, maybe there’s a better way to do this, and that’s where I came up with this whole idea – at first it was called the New Cycle – so it was the idea of a new way to produce, reuse, and recycle batteries, and it was all hinged on a different way of assembling them. You could assemble them in a way that was easy to disassemble them, it meant that you could easily set up a servicing and maintenance regime or program. It also means that you can easily liaise with existing, recycling infrastructure. Companies that already do recycling, you could easily guide them on how to recycle your battery, you could easily work with existing processes. I did a lot of work into understanding how the eco-system, when it comes to the full lifecycle of a product works today, and how could I get batteries to fit into that, as opposed to treating a battery like a box where I make it, it’s used, and it’s no longer my problem, or treating it like a foreign object where the guy down the hill needs to figure out how to deal with it when it does reach him, and I try to consider that. And that’s really the origins of how Aceleron started, you know, just looking at a new thing, and of course, with new things you always get new challenges, and with new challenges you get new opportunities.
Above images; co-founders of Aceleron Amrit and Carlton.Carlton being interviewed on the issues we face for a sustainable future; The graphic shows the main premise of their products. Reuse and Recycle.
What do you think about replacing the current ‘make, use, waste’ economy with a circular economy? Is that something your business is focused on?
“Oh yeah, 100%. I’m a business student who specialises in that kind of area of sustainability and we’ve got a lot of other people on the team who have business honours or have other skills and things like that, but we’re all kind of bound by the same passion for moving away from what we’ve got now because the systems that we’ve got now, they’re just not really… they’re not doing any good. So absolutely, we need to be- in the circular economy obviously you recycle things and you kind of go back in a cycle. But at the same time, we want people to be re-using stuff instead of recycling stuff and that’s what we’re really trying to hammer home. But recycling sounds great on paper but it’s quite unreliable and a lot of things don’t get picked up to be recycled, like they say they should,
so our kind of ethos is just try your hardest to not buy things if you don’t need them, and to just reuse them, and keep on going around so you don’t have to necessarily recycle them and put them back in the system.
You can reuse them in your own household and your own life which all of us try to do at least, it’s easier said than done.”
Do you think the coronavirus is going to halt how we strive for a circular economy with the throw away masks and throw away gloves- things you can’t reuse?
“Yeah, I really hope not. I think maybe at the beginning I was seeing so many single-use everything, now everything is single-use in that regard. But I do think that hopefully we can come out of this and aim towards recovering from the climate issues that we still have to deal with, and we can focus our efforts on that, maybe with the mindset of ‘okay, well we’ve been through one crisis but this isn’t the last crisis we’re going to go through in our lives’.
So, I don’t know, you can only really hope and do the actions that you can do in your local community and I really think that works. I really think that even though we have all these global issues and we need to kind of change the system and move towards a circular economy,
that can be done just by looking around your local community and seeing what you can do and seeing who you can talk to and who can get on board with the idea. It all starts from the bottom. I am hopeful, but we are probably going to have to move and have to get things going on the movement.”
Where can people find you and follow you online?
“So you can find us on Instagram and Facebook by using @Packagefreelarder and then you can find us on Twitter, @PFL_Portsmouth. Check out our website which is launching with the click and collect options. You can start buying orders from this evening; this evening at 6:00 PM and today is Wednesday the 8th of July. Or if you are on Elm Grove [Portsmouth] just wave- because we’ve always got the door open. The committee is eight of us so I’ll shout out to like Ashleigh and Delphine and Agni, and Regine and Katy and Esther and Miguel and loads of other people who I’m sure I’ve forgotten, but you will definitely probably see one or two of us in there working tirelessly, maybe filling up food.”