The startups revving up green transport by unleashing the power of EV batteries


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Jan 09, 2024

The startups revving up green transport by unleashing the power of EV batteries

May 15 - There’s a fundamental problem with the current movement towards mass

May 15 - There's a fundamental problem with the current movement towards mass electric vehicle adoption. Well, there are a few – David Oudsandjii is focusing on one. He's the co-founder of Voltfang, a rapidly expanding Germany-based startup. The company repurposes old EV batteries into energy-storage systems, a solution that addresses what he sees as a crucial oversight: the undue emphasis being placed on recycling such batteries.

In a truly sustainable and circular society, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, recycling comes bottom in the waste hierarchy – the poor cousin of reuse and refurbishment. It's almost embarrassingly basic: the slogan "reduce, reuse, recycle" was, indeed, coined more than 50 years ago.

"You see, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) just recycle the batteries without giving them a second life, which is stupid," he says.

As low-carbon forms of transport ramp up, recycling will form a necessary part of the electrification ecosystem. Manufacturers, after all, are dealing with potentially dwindling raw material shortages to create virgin batteries for instance, and new legislation, such as the proposed EU law mandating more sustainable and circular batteries, will come into force.

Some EV brands, however, are pushing for deeper circularity with regards to incorporating recycled materials within their cars. Last October, Renault Group announced plans to develop Europe's first closed-loop battery recycling system as part of its new The Future is NEUTRAL entity. Polestar, meanwhile, has partnered with Cyclic Materials to use recycled rare earth minerals, such as neodymium and dysprosium, within the magnets of its motors. Motors have the second-highest raw material footprint after batteries.

Sizeable investment is also being put towards the development of recycling infrastructure, such as the $2 billion loan from the U.S. government that Redwood Materials has recently been awarded to scale up its battery recycling facility.

But Voltfang is among a handful of pioneering startups that are developing a pre-recycling solution for batteries. As the world slowly makes the transition to more sustainable forms of mobility, a whole range of approaches will be needed. Fortunately, cleantech startups in this space are poised and ready.

With each charge cycle of a lithium-ion battery, a small proportion of its capacity is lost, which over time affects range. All EVs on the market today have an eight- to 10-year warranty, or 100,000 miles. A battery that has lost some of its capacity after 10-15 years may not be suitable any more for some EV owners (depending on their tolerance for more frequent charging), but, as Oudsandjii and his co-founders discovered several years ago, used batteries still have incredible value as part of an energy-storage system.

Voltfang's solution can provide electricity for times of peak demand, or when there are blackouts, and such systems can be part of the broader decentralisation of energy, which some argue is a crucial facet of the green transition.

Oudsandjii says providing a second life for batteries is also more cost-effective for car companies than recycling, as Voltfang typically buys the spent systems for more than it would cost for the manufacturer to have them recycled. "In the end they are cutting costs and also extending the lifetime of the batteries," he says.

The startup has just completed a successful seed round, has contracts with Aldi Nord and a major fast-food chain, and a supply contract with a "huge OEM", says Oudsandjii. With 53 employees and an expanding network of partners, the future is bright.

So too, for other startups working in the sustainable mobility space, which these days has become synonymous with electrification.

WiTricity, a startup with offices in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Mägenwil, Switzerland, is eager to scale up another EV innovation: wireless charging. Replacing powering up via plug, the company's technology allows EV owners to charge their vehicles by parking over a special pad.

Chief executive Alex Gruzen says it's taken them 10 years to get the industry aligned on a common standard, but now things are taking off. "We've been working with the automakers for years to get a global standard around this technology, which was ratified in 2020, and now the first products are starting to come to market," he says.

These include Hyundai Genesis models available in South Korea, and a luxury subcompact SUV made by Chinese automaker FAW. WiTricity has also recently announced it will be working with technology company ABT e-Line to upgrade the Volkswagen ID.4 to support wireless charging.

But can the technology move beyond the premium EV market? Gruzen thinks so, in time. "Anything new has an adoption curve, just because of the pace of how often automakers can refresh their (models). If they see something hot right now, it still takes them three years to get it into production," he says.

WiTricity also recently announced a collaboration with Yutong Bus, which has a 38% share of China's bus market, to provide wireless charging for its autonomous electric buses. Gruzen enthusiastically calls up a video in which a flock of driverless buses glide into a wireless charging depot.

With investment from Siemens, announced last year, Gruzen is optimistic about the company's ability to make wireless charging more mainstream.

"With Siemens as a partner, we can now go after parking lots, office building garages, commercial depots," he says.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the U.S. will also help to keep things moving briskly along, he says: "Because of the dedicated funds available in the IRA, Americans will soon have access to a greatly expanded EV charging ecosystem, which we believe will include WiTricity's wireless charging."

He also espouses the idea of "snackable" charging, where smaller charging sessions via wireless points that are dotted around anywhere a car may need to stop replace longer plug-in events. Particularly for larger vehicles, such as delivery vans or trucks, this type of more periodic charging could "reduce the battery pack size dramatically," says Gruzen, thereby reducing the volume of critical minerals needed.

Such "power snacking" fits well with the model that Spain-based Trucksters has developed, as it targets a new era of electric logistics.

The trucking company's AI-powered relay system means that when a driver takes a break, the goods are transferred to another vehicle, where they continue on their way. "Imagine a route from, let's say Madrid to Dusseldorf," says Marta Gomez-Navarro Montes, VP of fleet quality and retention, plus sustainability.

"Instead of doing it in one truck all the way, with the mandatory stops, it does three relays, in this case. So it will stop, change the head and the load continues." With this model, goods get to their destination faster, and empty miles are reduced by up to 50%, compared to the industry average, she explains. Driver wellbeing is also improved: "They are able to go back to their base or home significantly more often than the industry average."

And where does electrification come in? Charging can be done at the same time as a relay changeover. Trucksters aims to have one of its trucking corridors fully electric by the end of the year, with pilots beginning this quarter. Battery range is a sticking point, but the company has a solution. "In nine hours, a driver can do up to 750km … (but) the current range of batteries is about 300km, depending on the load and various things," says Gomez-Navarro Montes. "So, the idea is that we just do relays more often."

As startups plough ahead with their innovations, money is flowing into earlier-stage research. Shima Hamidi is the principal investigator and director of the Center for Climate-Smart Transportation at Johns Hopkins University. The centre has recently been awarded $10 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation to lead on research to mitigate climate change in the transport sector.

"The transportation industry is very much moving towards electric vehicles," says Hamidi. "Sales and adoption are rapidly growing, but there are a few problems with that." The first, of course, is that the grid is still heavily powered by fossil fuels. While we wait for it to transition, "we need to focus on alternative fuels," she continues.

Some of Hamidi's colleagues are researching solar-powered cars, which she says hold great promise for the future of sustainable transportation. "We’re looking at new solutions: creating lightweight, light-absorbing and energy-storing materials to make solar-powered cars."

Other researchers within the group are working on new types of batteries with superior range. "Lithium-sulphur batteries can store twice as much energy as traditional batteries," says Hamidi, adding that they could potentially increase range to 1,750 miles.

Still, fundamental problems around electrification remain: a lack of focus on true circularity; the environmental effects of mineral extraction, not to mention land and human rights implications; an energy system that's still dependent on fossil fuels. It's a long list, but there are lots of solutions, and an abundance of creativity.

Back in Germany, Voltfang's co-founder thinks his energy-storage technology will be critical.

"Everybody who has invested time into this topic and can use a calculator knows what's necessary," says Oudsandjii. "In the end, (sustainable) mobility needs renewable energy from the grid… (but) our grid in Germany, for example, or in Europe is not made for this, it's not sufficient. To really be able to get through the energy transition, we need capacity to store these renewables."

Sarah LaBrecque is a freelance writer who splits her time between Ottawa, Canada, and Hertfordshire. She writes about sustainable business and ethical living for publications such as the Guardian, Positive News, and for a range of B2B clients.

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