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Batteries – it’s time we got to know each other better

19 April 2023

Batteries are increasingly becoming a foundation on which society is built. Whilst the modern lithium-ion battery was largely developed to serve consumer electronics, its potential to fundamentally transform mobility and future green energy systems has led to something of a ‘second advent’ in this space.

Timothy Engström
Technical Lead

Batteries are increasingly becoming a foundation on which society is built. Whilst the modern lithium-ion battery was largely developed to serve consumer electronics, its potential to fundamentally transform mobility and future green energy systems has led to something of a ‘second advent’ in this space.

However, with this opportunity for battery technology comes challenges. Much is made in the media of issues in the supply chain, cost pressures, and recycling infrastructure of Li-ion batteries. But a more fundamental issue has not yet reached the headlines: how our understanding of those same batteries, which we so desperately need for the next generation of mobility and energy, is not evolving at the pace required for their full potential to be realised.

Meanwhile, the electrification market is becoming fiercely competitive, as countries all around the world pledge to phase out internal combustion engines as part of their net-zero targets. With year-on-year EV sales having more than doubled in 2021 alone, electrification has well and truly transitioned to the mainstream. But the global battery ‘arms race’ which this popularity surge has triggered is a distraction from the storm brewing in the background around battery quality (both hardware and software), which will only intensify as millions of new electric vehicles reach maturity. And this is just the beginning; as these cars move into the latter half of their warranty periods, we find ourselves on a trajectory that risks leaving us stranded on the roadside, and an automotive industry stranded in the so-called ‘trough of disillusionment’.

But the purpose of this article isn’t to condemn the future of the lithium-ion battery; far from it. Here is an opportunity for the world to do better; an opportunity to fully utilise the tools available to make batteries work for both businesses and the planet as we go through this ‘second advent’.

Image of Timothy Engstrom, Technical Lead alongside his quoted text 'Here is an opportunity for the world to do better; to make batteries work for both businesses and the planet'
A new era of mobility 

Between 2008 and 2010, several notable electric vehicles were unveiled to the world including the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf. These products dominated the market for years, until 2017, when the concept of electric mobility entered the mainstream with a series of announcements from major automakers, including Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and VW. In a period of 5 years, the number of EV models would increase by a factor of 5. By 2025, Lithium-ion battery demand was projected to grow by a factor of 25 versus 2015 levels, with over 90% of supply serving the mobility sector. Panic buying and land-grabs ensued in an attempt to seize the market and satisfy enormous demand forecasts. Hastily signed contracts and unprecedented sums were agreed between automotive OEMs and an oligopoly of largely Chinese and Korean cell suppliers.

Aware of the increasingly competitive landscape, and the waning year-on-year battery cost reductions, automotive manufacturers were now in an existential race to offer new, improved electric vehicles at higher volumes and lower cost whilst maintaining quality. Cue the battery manufacturing localisation push from 2019 onwards, driven by a shared desire from governments and Industry alike, to take control of their destinies through the vertical integration of this critical component of the automotive supply chain. A combination of government legislation and subsidies kick-started a slew of western battery manufacturing start-ups, upon which automakers were now reliant to scale to Gigafactory volumes within a few short years. Fast-forward to 2023, the cracks are beginning to show. With Britishvolt entering administration in February, and multiple battery manufacturers facing delays, the challenges in building a home-grown battery manufacturing industry are coming to the fore.

Since this investment drive, at least seven automakers have recalled EVs for battery issues, with some spending into the billions of dollars. But although high profile safety recalls like these send shockwaves through the industry when they hit headlines, the range of battery related risks is much broader. Lifetime is a constant anxiety, particularly given its sensitivity on cell production parameters which are difficult to track. Reliability is another, and for good reason: J.D. Power found that EV owners in 2022 experienced 39% more issues than conventional combustion engine vehicles.

By 2025, Lithium-ion battery demand is going to grow by a factor of 25 versus 2015 levels
The ‘catch-22’ of battery management 

Some of the risks around lifetime and quality were (and still are) unknown to engineering teams, while others remain limited to a subjective understanding. This uncertainty, combined with a growing talent deficit in the battery space, has resulted in overly conservative battery management strategies and avoidable limitations in range, charging rates and performance, compensated for through battery pack ‘oversizing’. Meanwhile, paradoxically, billions of dollars are being invested into novel cell chemistries and more efficient packaging densities with direct compromises to materials cost, manufacturability, serviceability, and ultimately, sustainability.

While these developments are certainly important, engineering leadership teams must manage development costs, and therefore will be looking to their teams to unlock the ‘easy’ wins through software. However, these ‘easy software wins’ are not so easy, and the devil is in the detail. Battery degradation is a complex interplay of electrochemical and mechanical processes with highly interactive usage dependencies; empirical lab testing can drive a false sense of security as some degradation effects are latent in nature, with delayed effect ‘knee-points’, while others occur only in the presence of compounding factors in usage or production; the unknown ‘unknowns’ which fall outside the tested conditions (including manufacturing variability). Without adequate insight, these changes may constitute a metaphorical roll of the dice – the performance may be enhanced, but at what cost to warranty or safety?

Knock-on effects 

These issues in design, control, and production have knock-on effects upon the owner-operators far beyond the point where the vehicle comes off the assembly line. Electrification is hugely reliant on Lease Companies; according to Bloomberg NEF, almost 80% of EVs in the United States are leased, vs. about 1/3rd across all car types.  This tendency for leasing is driven by consumer uncertainty in depreciation: due in part to the rate of technology progress, but primarily due to low confidence in battery lifetime. A significant issue here is the lack of transparency from automakers as to the health state of existing fleets, and their predicted trajectories, which directly results in higher lease costs for the consumer.

Ultimately, the success of electrification industries relies on addressing three simple KPIs – Lifetime, Safety and Performance. Lifetime ensures affordability and sustainability, and Safety is critical for maintaining consumer confidence. Performance is what remains; it’s the degree to which we can ‘open the taps’, once the other two have been achieved. Generally, failure to understand these KPIs results in automotive companies defaulting to overly conservative BMS control, leaving performance on the table, or worse, recklessly prioritising headline figures over reliability.

The success of electrification industries relies on addressing three simple KPIs. Lifetime, Safety and Performance.
The opportunity 

There is an opportunity to do better. Li-ion batteries have come a long way over the last two decades; now it’s time for Battery Management Systems (BMS) to do the same. Not only does this mean improving the BMS as we know it today, but also exploiting the wealth of battery data through cloud-based workflows. The physical and the metaphysical: together.

Embedded in silicon: 

  • Whilst the first generation of BMS algorithms were adequate for the ‘first advent’ of Li-ion batteries in consumer electronics, we arguably haven’t fully harnessed the maximum potential of the computational power available, even in today’s electric vehicles. For too long, Industry has defaulted to viewing the BMS as a cost-down opportunity; a basic requirement, rather than an opportunity to unlock performance and create better products. The perceived ‘high performance’ alternative has been viewed as a luxury, out of reach for the mass market, using computationally intensive ‘physics-based’ models. However, this is a false dilemma: cost and performance are not mutually exclusive when it comes to battery management. We can unlock untapped performance, safely, without fundamentally altering assumptions on hardware costs, as is commonly assumed.

A new era of data availability:  

  • The last five years have seen a step-change in data streaming from battery powered devices. The arrival of mainstream, low-cost telematics has afforded manufacturers and fleet owners the ability to understand more about their vehicles than ever before. That said, the transformative opportunities from data and connectivity for batteries have remained largely untapped; with the sheer volume of data, compounded by the need for hard-to-find battery-domain knowledge, resulting in an ‘analysis paralysis’ for manufacturers and fleet owners alike. Following a major push on connectivity, we must harness battery data to our advantage, to inform decision making across the battery lifecycle, with insights and recommendations that are actionable in the real world.

Understanding batteries isn’t just about developing the most accurate electrochemical models. Neither is it a problem that’s solved by throwing lots of data at ‘AI’ models. Battery intelligence is a new discipline that connects battery data seamlessly with electrochemists, battery systems engineers, and data scientists with the sole goal of delivering actionable insights to enhance and protect value across the battery lifecycle.

Unlocking performance through software requires a holistic approach that appreciates the intricate links between lifetime, safety and performance. It requires deep collaboration with the most industry-relevant academic institutions. Most importantly, it requires practical experience in battery systems that can only be learnt the hard way: by establishing a culture of chasing advantage at every stage encompassing design, manufacturing, and deployment.

WAE has its heritage in motorsport, a fast-paced, data-rich environment where competitive advantage is found in the ability to separate the signal from the noise within a vast ocean of data, through applying pragmatic understanding of the underlying science; be it in optimising designs, or in the tactical decisions made on the racetrack.

On 20th April we will be unveiling Elysia, unlocking a new era of electrification for everyone.

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