The remote far north of Scotland may seem like an unlikely destination for cutting-edge innovation, but a battery plant here is leading the vanguard of some of Europe’s most promising energy storage technology.
Based in Thurso, AGM Batteries is an early stage developer for battery and cell technologies. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between what is available and what is commercial, and its model is somewhat different to what we have come to expect from either the nascent, venture capital backed battery firms of Silicon Valley, or the Asian technology giants like Panasonic, LG and Sony.
AGM business development director Ian Whiting explains that this mainly involves “working with people who have new technologies, pulling them out of the laboratory and into early stage production.” That remit allows the company to research proprietary cell and electro-chemistries, but also includes engineering bespoke and niche applications for customers, many of whom have very specific operating and performance requirements.
That work is informed by a remarkable pedigree. In the 90s, the company was conceived as a joint venture between AEA Technology, GS (GS-Yuasa) and Mitsubishi Materials, and pioneered lithium-ion batteries. AEA Technology’s patents were licensed to Sony, whose clout transformed the market for li-ion-based consumer electronics, but did not bring the same accolades and rewards to the inventors.
In the following years, the company developed a number of bespoke batteries for oil and gas, defence and automotive applications. But in taking over the business around two years ago, AGM’s present owners saw the opportunity to help scale up the work of other companies, rather than concentrating solely on proprietary technology. Reiterating the parable of the UK’s history with li-ion, Whiting notes: “There’s a lot of good technology development and research done in the UK, but when you try to commercialise it, there’s really just nowhere to go. What happens is that it goes offshore and gets licensed to someone else before you even know what it’s worth.” AGM’s goal is to prevent that from happening.
The UK is similarly keen to stop its best technologies disappearing, and a recently launched partnership to develop new electric vehicle (EV) battery technology highlights the role that AGM and its facility can play. A GBP5.4 million (US$7.7 million) project, backed by a GBP2.7 million (US$3.8 million) grant from the UK government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), the UK Automotive Battery Supply Chain project is a venture between five of the sector’s brightest firms – AGM, Dukosi (which has developed a chip for smart battery management), Johnson Matthey Battery Systems (a battery pack manufacturer), Warwick Manufacturing Group (an academic group with specialist battery knowledge and facilities) and Cosworth (the high-performance powertrain developer).
The objective is straightforward – develop a high-performance, competitive battery for use in EVs. Whiting describes the group as “the basis of a complete UK supply chain for automotive batteries from ‘powder to power’.” Inherent in that research is the understanding that this technology has to be scalable and commercial – at the end of the process, batteries will need to be built and supplied to customers who have already stated their interest.
The project partners are aware of this, and most have a great deal of proven applications outside the lab. Johnson Matthey worked on battery packs for Maclaren’s P1 supercar, while the expertise of automotive consultancy Cosworth, Whiting says, will enable powertrain technologies to be adopted and scaled for the mass market. The grant funding makes it viable for these firms to work together, he adds. “We were aware of the companies and the materials we’d like to use, but the difficulty we have is that these are quite big programmes… Fundamentally it was a case of how we could bring in the cash to do it. It’s about accelerating [development], and we couldn’t have afforded to do it on our own.”
The APC’s focus on commerciality is refreshing. Whiting says it is very different to the existing Innovate programmes – other government-funded early stage research – in that “it’s looking for stuff that within 3-4 years could go into volume manufacturing. From a manufacturer’s point of view, that’s a really good strategy, and that’s why we’re keen to be involved.”
AGM is already equipped to deliver batteries at medium-scale. Capable of producing about 30 MWh per year of cells, working flat out its plant could build around 3 million standard 18650 cells per year – enough to fill about 350 large-pack Teslas. It is not quite the Gigafactory, but it is one of the largest plants in Europe, Whiting says.
Details on the final form of the battery are, unsurprisingly, thin at present, though Whiting assured us that “we won’t be building a bog-standard li-ion cell; we’ll be building an advanced cell using new materials and advanced electronics and try to keep that in the UK and grow the use of that and enable battery pack builds here.”
Now with more sodium
Aside from EVs, AGM has its eyes on the wider implications of better energy storage. Its latest partnership, announced in early February, is with sodium-ion battery firm Faradion. This, Whiting says, is “next-generation technology which can be lower-cost, as small and light, and potentially more reliable than existing li-ion systems.”
It is quite a pitch. Sodium-ion batteries are more chemically stable for storage and shipment than their lithium-based cousins. That stability and improved safety would make them sought after for potential applications in ATEX zones – such as in oil and gas infrastructure or aviation – but prototypes have long suffered from poor lifecycles and issues around electrode architecture.
While it potentially offers material cost benefits over lithium – sodium carbonate is abundant and retails for less than 10% of the cost of lithium salts – these problems have yet to be overcome. France’s CNRS recently announced it had devised a comparable sodium-ion battery around the size of a conventional AA. The drawback is that it had an energy density of around 90Wh/kg – about 60% less than the best Li-ions at 250Wh/kg.
Nevertheless, Faradion already claims 150Wh/kg and their roadmap takes them to 200Wh/kg by 2017. They claim that unlike Li-ion, it is possible to achieve 100% depth of discharge, meaning that you can extract most of the stored energy whilst still achieving thousands of cycles. If it is scalable, reliable and as safe as is claimed, it could be a very sensible choice as a next step in energy storage. At 200Wh/kg or better, full cell cycling and potentially lower costs could put the technology in a sound position for EVs too.
Using alternative materials means that Faradion can provide comparable performance at a lower cost; instead of the copper anode collectors in lithium cells, it uses aluminium, for example. All in all, it says its technology offers a cost reduction of up to 30% compared to li-ion cells.
That, Whiting believes, is a crucial step in being able to deploy cost-effective storage for industries such as oil and gas or renewable energy – potentially even at grid scale. “One of the key things is cost. If you’re looking at renewables and a remote generator site, the issue of energy storage becomes a key thing: can you do that cost-effectively, compared with running a diesel generator, for example? We’re keen to take [the battery] out into some energy storage development programmes. Our long-term goal is to be working in that field.”
What remains to be seen is the market appetite. Li-ion, though expensive, still remains the go-to choice for most small-scale storage applications – the venture may be best to concentrate on the advantages of economies of scale in grid and off-grid applications. Even if their costs can be brought down, EV manufacturers are unlikely to overhaul their production lines for “comparable” performance, especially those looking to lower the costs of the established li-ion to around US$100 per kWh.
Yet, across the EV and wider energy storage market, AGM’s commitment to enabling the most effective technologies – rather than the coolest – should be noted. “Our projects are really about getting the same performance at lower cost,” Whiting concludes, “And that’s maybe where we differ from the research community. The science is brilliant, but it needs to be cost-effective.”