Big smart batteries fight heat and hackers
A giga-factory to manufacture big smart batteries is taking shape in the land of coal.
Many scientists, miners and engineers want to exploit what Australia already has in abundance – ideas, sunshine and battery minerals.
The unique hot-climate lithium technology that can also withstand the world’s best hackers is developed by energy pioneer Brian Craighead.
“It’s like a dot com for energy,” says the founder of Energy Renaissance.
“The market is changing very rapidly. Sovereign supply chains have become increasingly crucial with security challenges expected to survive the pandemic.
“Now the informed buyer knows what they’re doing and they’re like, ‘Look, I don’t want to put a potential bomb where my people are, I need to know where this is coming from. software sound? Is the system sound? Is it sure? »
At first, says Craighead, everyone warned him that Australia didn’t make anything, so forget about making a high-tech battery management system.
“They said, ‘It’s not possible, you can’t compete with the Chinese, you can’t compete with the Europeans, you’re too small.’
“It took a while but eventually things changed to the opposite.”
Craighead’s quest began almost seven years ago.
“It was clear as day what was missing as a country,” he says.
Regardless of the environmental impact, saving coal no longer made sense.
“For the first time in my life, seven years ago, I found myself screaming over clouds, listening to these politicians and getting more and more frustrated.”
But the inventor realized that he didn’t just want to complain.
He took his ideas to his friend Mark Chilcote, then head of the engineering and construction arm of the electricity company UGL and now managing director of Energy Renaissance.
Craighead asked a group of engineers what, if they could wave a magic wand, was the best way to accelerate Australia’s transition to renewable energy?
“These guys had built a career in coal and gas plants.”
He says they all knew generation would be solved by solar and wind power becoming cheaper, but the “unlocking key” was reliable and safe storage.
In other words: “If we can make big batteries safer and we can make them here, then the economy will flip and that’s a big accelerator.”
The next step was to figure out how to manufacture and design batteries in Australia and compete with those who would always be bigger and richer.
What became very clear, very quickly, was that a successful startup had to have something unique.
For ER, hot climate technology and Australian design could be the winning combination.
The developers say heat is a problem because it makes conventional systems more expensive – you have to buy more batteries than you need because they degrade faster or you need extra batteries for cooling systems.
Battery systems and their potential connection to thousands or even millions of devices can also create huge vulnerability as a primary target for hackers.
This matters even more when they are the backbone of a power grid or used by the military.
CSIRO’s lead scientist, Dr. Adam Best, a key advisor to the startup, says the cybersecurity aspect is key.
“Particularly with our ‘Internet of Things’ network now, where everything is connected and you can talk to it and solve all sorts of power management issues,” he says.
Pioneers took the time to work with potential customers to understand their needs.
“Defence, in our view, was the hardest to hit, if we could design something that would be good for the Australian defense then everyone would have a lower bar,” Craighead said.
“The battery management system, the brains of the battery, is really the most important part.”
“Whether it’s bad actors or just bad software, either way, the bigger the battery, the bigger the problem.”
He says it’s remarkable that with most grid-connected batteries in Australia, you can’t be sure what this software actually does, where it came from and who it really belongs to.
Teaming up with top Australian government scientists almost five years ago, the start-up has been testing and developing the idea of a sovereign battery system ever since.
CSIRO has written all-Australian cyber-secure software and has been involved in everything from product design to cooling system testing.
“We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are without CSIRO, because they’re just a collection of geniuses,” says Craighead.
“We used them on many levels, not just for the deep hairy electrochemical stuff. CSIRO was the only one we could trust to do it.”
Best first met Craighead in 2018 through the industry-led Advanced Manufacturing Growth Center where people can share ideas and network.
“We have a lot of people in Australia who want to do these things,” he says.
“The key thing that differentiates ER from other companies in Australia is that they’re going to do things at scale, they’re going to do things in volume.”
CSIRO worked with the company on early designs for the now trademarked battery management system.
“The original version looked more like a bread cart from Brumbys or Bakers Delight,” Best says.
Now there’s a nifty rack of high-tech magic.
“Australia’s climate is very different from many climates around the world and many of our batteries are products that come into the country from cold climates, particularly North America and North Asia,” he said. he declared.
“We started digging deeper into what we needed to give this an Australian flavor and what would give us the supply chain security that would mean we could design, build and supply in-country.”
Along with CSIRO’s Chris Vernon, Best authored a landmark study of battery industries in 2020 that found Australia could be a trusted supplier and exporter of value-added products, not just raw materials.
Containing no systems from China, Israel or other potential cyber espionage powers, Energy Renaissance’s sovereign product offers a potential breakthrough for sovereign sourcing.
There is an interface board that talks to all cells in the pack to provide a window into voltage, current, temperature and other information.
Another board that combines all pack boards together to ensure that all parts of the rack are at the same state of charge, balanced, and working properly.
“We can also access it for diagnostic information, so we can see how customers are using it and the lifecycle,” Best says.
The product was designed with weight and shipping in mind, to travel long distances more easily.
But what is still missing is the ability to manufacture a cell.
“It’s the gaping hole in Australia’s battery capacity,” says Best.
Australia is one of the world’s leading sources of minerals that go into batteries, including lithium, nickel and cobalt.
Onshore processing is a work in progress, with players big and small looking to provide ingredients that can go straight into a battery.
“What’s missing is how to put it all together, because we just don’t have that manufacturing capability,” says Best.
“It’s something that Energy Renaissance is trying to pursue.”
A gigafactory called Renaissance One is being built in Tomago, NSW alongside a temporary facility known as Apollo.
A large federal grant for advanced manufacturing at the plant could spur Australia’s quest to do more than extract minerals from the ground.
It’s election year and Craighead is based on prime political territory in NSW’s Hunter Valley.
Once Renaissance One opens, the racks will be made in Australia
“It won’t be a one-off piece of work assembled once never to be seen again,” Best says.
“These will be able to be ordered, manufactured and delivered from the factory. This helps to reduce costs.”