How a Birmingham-based startup is trying to solve the electric economy’s next big challenge
As the electric revolution—spanning from cars, to houses, to industrial sites—takes off, another crisis is already looming in the background. When we don’t need that battery anymore, where does it go?
That’s the paradox fueling Aceleron Energy, one of a new batch of upstart companies designed to create a network offering new, reused and repaired batteries.
The startup, founded in 2015 in the west England city of Birmingham by Amrit Chandan and Carlton Cummins, is taking advantage of a surge in battery manufacturing, all to support the vast electrification needed to bring global emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Under a scenario where the world is on track to fulfil the Paris Agreement, lithium batteries for light-duty cars alone will have to grow 20 times over from their 2019 base by 2030, according to projections from the International Energy Agency.
The recycling industry for those batteries is growing rapidly, too. A market research report from Research & Markets found that the sector was worth $403 million in 2019, but expected that it would be more than triple in size by 2027 as demand for electric vehicles and other infrastructure grows.
For Aceleron, what started out as a two person operation now has 30 employees with £1 million ($1.4 million) in revenue in 2020. Since its start six years ago, the company has grown to a valuation of £50 million ($70.8 million). Last year, the company raised £2 million ($2.8 million) in venture capital funding from the U.K.’s Mercia Fund Management and BGF.
The power paradox
The large-scale battery industry, much like the market for small, consumer batteries for remotes and toys, has traditionally been a one-stop industry. You buy it, you use it, it runs out and you throw it away. But as batteries have become larger and more powerful, this model looks undeniably wasteful.
Currently, when large scale batteries that could power vehicles or homes are deemed finished, around 70% of its energy hasn’t been used up, according to Aceleron Energy. And of these batteries that still have life left, only 5% are recycled.
“It’s kind of like you’re driving down the highway and something goes wrong with your vehicle,” Chandan says. “What we do at the moment with batteries is the same as scrapping the vehicle if something goes wrong with it, rather than getting it repaired.”
This throw-away model also doesn’t make sense when you consider that batteries used inside cars, houses, large-scale buildings, grid support, renewable energy—which are crucial to curbing carbon emissions—all have different requirements, meaning a battery that was deemed useless for one application could still be full of life when it comes to another.
Aceleron has developed a battery that can be serviced, maintained and reused, repurposed for, say, residential uses when they’re no longer able to be used in an electric car. Instead of selling the batteries individually, they develop partners across the world to sell the batteries and service them, much like car dealerships, across the U.K., Barbados and Kenya.
How it works
The business began as a lunchtime conversation in late 2015 according to Chandan, over the battery waste that would be generated by the EV boom.
He and Cummins recognized that there wasn’t a good way of dealing with the waste that comes from end-of-life batteries, and saw the ever-increasing demand for renewable energy did not align with the linear model of produce, use, toss.
The young company started out by taking apart lithium batteries from different sectors and trying to recycle them. But what they discovered was batteries used by their now competitors used permanent assembly technologies, like spot welding and glue to keep the technologies together.
To take them apart, “it just was dangerous or just very labor intensive,” says Cummins. “So instead of trying to focus just on reusing batteries, we actually pivoted the company and started to focus on reinventing how you assemble batteries all together,” in order to make them naturally more reusable.
The batteries are assembled using compression technology, which puts individual fuel cells into a circuit using a series of removable fasteners. Being able to take apart the battery and replace and fix certain individual fuel cells allows the battery to be serviced and replaced throughout its lifespan.
It’s a model that’s “similar to making a sandwich,” Chandal says.
This allows the company to take apart the battery and use them for what they need. Batteries for a car have very high power requirements, for example, but once they are unable to reach that load, the battery could still be used in a large apartment building generator.
That creates a “cascading” effect—allowing the battery to be used for different purposes as its power naturally degrades. At the end, it can be taken apart and its parts can be repurposed.
“If you look at the automotive industry, the maintenance and the upgrade is a whole business engine in and of itself,” says Cummins. He’s arguing that the business of batteries should be similar.
“We just don’t see it making sense to build up new manufacturing for new technologies on linear models, when we live on a planet with limited resources,” Cummins says. “It doesn’t really add up.”
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