Lithium-ion battery packs are ubiquitous – powering laptops, electric cars, and even Mars-faring vehicles such as the Curiosity rover. They have a problem, though: if one of their cells – or any other component – breaks down, the whole pack stops working. Because of the way batteries are built, by welding or glueing parts tightly together, to fix one is almost impossible.
“It’s a lot like a safe,” says Amrit Chandan, who holds a PhD in fuel-cells technology. “You open it, you destroy it – and you can’t put it back together. You can’t repair it.”
Recycling the lithium is also inefficient; the result is simply that a lot of batteries are disposed of having still years-worth of life left in them.
Concerned at the situation, and worried that it would only worsen as electric vehiclesbecome more commonplace, in 2015 Chandan joined forces with mechanical engineer Carlton Cummins, in order to find a solution. Following months spent disassembling batteries, Cummins came up with a new lithium-ion battery design: it keeps cells together by means of compression, making it possible to service the pack when individual parts fail.
“You take a cell out, and replace it with a new one. We extract all of the value from the cells, which are no longer thrown away when they still work,” Chandan says.
He and Cummins’s 20-people-strong company, Aceleron, is now selling packs of various voltages and sizes, used in vehicles, watercrafts, and buildings – working with partners including oil and gas giant Total and energy companies BuffaloGrid and Innogen to bring their technology to developing regions in Africa and the Caribbean.
“Our product is really a solution for a lifetime,” Cummins says. It’s about time someone took charge.