At the University of Warwick, located in the heart of England only an hour’s journey from London, resides a £13m battery research facility that is unique in the UK. As the only battery facility in the UK of its kind, the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is capable of taking battery materials from laboratory scale to commercial scale pilot line manufacture of pouch cells; through to full battery characterization, aggressive testing and finally testing in a complete electric/hybrid drive train all in one location. The University and WMG provide a one-stop-shop for the development of new battery chemistries from concept to fully proven traction batteries.
In a beneficial partnership Altairnano has sent one of their Application Engineers, Michael Brunell, to pursue an Engineering Doctorate degree at the University with a research focus on Altairnano’s nLTO batteries. While attending the full-time, four year residency program Michael has full access and use of the state-of-the-art facilities in support of his research goals. Michael’s research focuses on improving the prediction and modelling capabilities utilized by Altairnano in sizing and estimating the lifetime of their systems as well as increasing the general knowledge base of nLTO batteries.
Between Michael’s research, partnership with WMG and the University of Warwick, Altairnano is committed to continuing as an industry leading LTO energy storage system provider for all industries worldwide.
Interview with Michael
Athena Reed: What factors made you choose Warwick?
Michael Brunell: Opportunity and the chance to get some international experience. Warwick was building a brand new battery testing facility and was looking to grow their team, at the same time they were interested in doing some research Altairnano’s lithium titanate. From Altairnano’s side it provided an opportunity to continue the research on their technology and continue to do some development work one of the main tools, the modelling calculator. As for me, it provided an opportunity to continue to work with Altairnano while at the same time go back to school to continue my education which had been a goal of mine. What better opportunity than for me to join a growing research group based internationally at Warwick, which was ranked this year as one of the top 100 universities in the world, continue to work with Altairnano and help them grow as a company? All of this went into my decision to choose Warwick.
AR: Are there other companies that have engineers attending and doing research at Warwick? Can you expand on who they are or what industry they are in?
MB: Most companies sponsor a PhD or Engineering Doctorate student, my situation is unique that Altairnano has chosen to sponsor me in my doctorate, but often the students go on to join the company after studies. Additionally while there may not be others in my situation, WMG has very close ties with a number of companies who send their engineers, managers and others to take a number of training courses taught by WMG in our facilities on actual production scale equipment. The companies that send their employees include a number of industry leaders in aerospace, rail, transportation, steel, manufacturing. Some of the largest and most well-known companies are Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Tata Steel. The latter three companies actually house a number of their engineers and large teams permanently in the WMG building so that they may foster a greater interaction between industry and academia. Additionally the facilities are available for use by outside industry (WMG is well-known and build its reputation on its close integration with industry). So often outside industrial companies will utilize the equipment WMG has for studies that they may not have the ability to do at their own facilities. One of the best examples is the linked twin dynamometers which are setup so that industry can test a full hybrid powertrain system (the electric and fuel motors simultaneously, plus a full battery pack and controls) in a truly dynamic setting. This was used recently by a racing company to tweak and optimize their system prior to implementation on the vehicle.
AR: You mentioned it’s beneficial to both EIC and Altairnano. Can you explain more on how each side benefit from the relationship?
MB: From the EIC’s perspective they are getting access to a relatively unique lithium ion chemistry which allows them to build their expertise in the technology, which is often touted as a promising technology of the future, which helps to further their mission to be a world leader in battery research and provide them with a unique selling point to entice future partners. This familiarity with the technology has enabled the EIC to pursue a number of projects where LTO is an ideal solution, which other applicants may not have access to. These projects include rail and bus applications so far, with more in the pipeline.
From Altairnano’s perspective, they gain access to a leading research facility and team, as well as access to possible projects through the various bids, customers and partners of the EIC. Additionally Altairnano receives focused attention on research beneficial to creating wider familiarity with their chemistry and developing better tools and knowledge of their technology to support current and future customers. Beyond the research side Altairnano benefits by having an employee based in the UK allows Altairnano greater access and support to new and existing customers in Europe.
AR: Does the EIC only focus on transportation? If not, what other industries or applications can benefit from the research?
MB: The EIC’s main focus has been transportation due to the close partnership with Jaguar Land Rover and the local automotive industry, but it is expanding to grid applications as well. By nature of the facilities and kit available, the battery systems that can be tested can be for just about any application up to about 500 kW characterization of a battery cells for grid does not differ to much from characterization of a battery cell for vehicle or use in a power tool. They aren’t quite ready to handle full tractor trailer sized systems yet for grid research, but they are doing research into the grid side application of batteries. Some of it is by virtue of their previous experience with vehicles, such as Vehicle to Grid (V2G) applications, but there is also some work entirely focused on grid applications. Even within the focus of transportation they look at is quite wide spectrum of applications from consumer vehicles, to high end racing, to buses, as well as trains and trams.
AR: Where do you see the future of Lithium battery technology headed?
MB: I see the future of lithium battery technology as one with a number of different chemistries to meet the various different applications and environments, similar the various car models that are available to meet people’s needs in that sense. At the same time while there will be a number of different chemistries I do see some consolidation into a top few select chemistries for a majority of applications such as LTO, LFP, as well as some high voltage cathode chemistries which when combined with some high voltage or novel electrolytes may help to enable some new chemistries. Part of this will be driven by consolidation in the industry, but also standards. Currently with so many different chemistries that are available that are just slightly different, it is hard to create standards and everything becomes custom or locked-in which can hinder the adoption by other industries such as the automotive world which is used to one option lead acid, but with a few select different form factors based on need. The standards around lead acid allow batteries to be swapped easily, but with the current state of Li-ion batteries you don’t have that option to easily switch or change your battery or battery pack to another manufacture due to differences in behaviour, form factors, control, safety, just about anything that can be different from one battery or battery pack manufacture to another is different.
One thing I don’t see in the near future, just yet, is any significant step change in Lithium ion batteries and their performance. While the world would like significant improvements similar to computer chips it just won’t happen in the battery industry unfortunately, it will be incremental improvements. But there’s still always hope that some researcher will make that amazing breakthrough that no one else thought of which could change the game entirely.
AR: How does the focus on green energy (renewables) differ between the UK and the states?
MB: The UK is a few years behind the US in terms of getting green energy and renewables (especially energy storage on the grid barring the few large hydro plants from a number of years ago). But they are farther ahead in terms of offshore wind power. Part of this I believe has been the strong grid connections with Europe which has allowed it to delay greater implantation of renewables as Europe has a huge proportion of clean power in the form of nuclear and hydro. Additionally the lack of large sources for renewables including a lack of hydro, geothermal and solar opportunities has limited its implantation in the UK. Approximately only 1.8% of the UK’s power production is from hydro where as in the US it is near 7%, lack of significant geothermal resources has also limited the development on that front. Solar implementation is starting to pick up as efficiencies increase and cost come down which makes it more viable in the UK’s traditionally cloudy climate. Regarding wind, with a significant amount of coastline as some windy regions the UK has grown to be the 6th largest wind power producer in the world as of 2012 and accounts for greater than 9% of its total power production.
In contrast the US is blessed with its access to an abundance of various climates providing a platform which has enabled the growth of all forms of renewable energy.
AR: Do you think any of the research at EIC will be commercialized?
MB: One of WMGs main focus and modus operandi, is that the research done here is for the benefit of industry directly as such much of the research done at WMG and the EIC is commercialize. WMG has built a reputation within industry for its industrial focus in manufacturing and that ethos carries over to the EIC. One of the biggest examples of this is the research being pursued by Jaguar Land Rover which has been implemented into their vehicles already. Another example is some of the electric buses running in London where the manufacturer made a switch to the batteries chemistry they are using in their fleet due to their research into life time performance which was conducted at the EIC.
AR: Is there anything else you would like to share about Warwick and the research that goes on there?
MB: Warwick and WMG are continuing to rapidly grow and expand their reputation and standing in the world, as such it is an exciting time to be here and to be part of the amazing work going. What I’ve talked about is just a small sliver of the research that goes on here and I encourage anyone interested for more information to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Warwick and WMG’s websites for more information. Below is a list of the various research groups and topics that WMG contains. With a driven focus on industry and improving a business’s bottom line through their research WMG is a unique academic setting with exciting opportunities.
- Automation Systems
- Biomedical Informatics, Imaging and Healthcare Technologies
- Business Transformation
- Cyber Security
- Digital Lifecycle Management
- Electrochemical Engineering
- Energy and Electrical Systems
- Engineering Materials and Manufacturing
- Experiential Engineering
- Net-Shape Manufacturing
- Steels Processing
- Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing