Cultivating innovation in UK batteries

Louise Smyth

Michele Windsor looks at the state of the UK battery industry and how it could be UK-based manufacturers who offer the next great contribution to battery science

Did you know that it was British chemist Joseph Swan who invented the lightbulb? While Thomas Edison frequently receives the praise for the lightbulb moment, it was Swan who first developed the incandescent bulb and lit his house with electricity. This is one of many great contributions that the UK has made to the field of science and technology, with the industry showing little signs of slowing down.

If you were to believe the fears of critics in the engineering and manufacturing sector, you would likely believe that the UK was falling behind in the technical arms race. However, this is simply not the case. The UK remains one of the world’s leading countries for technology, producing the second most cited research papers in the world as well as providing a surprisingly thriving landscape for development.

We need to look no further than the battery sector to confirm this. While many countries turn their attentions to more glamorous technical fields such as robotics, it is UK original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the battery sector that are continuing to make improvements in the way we power the future effectively and efficiently.

For example, a number of promising new proposals for battery technologies, such as sodium-ion and even unlikely chemistries such as copper-foam, have emerged from the UK in recent years. This is only possible due to the quality of battery research funding that is available in the country, such as the government’s Innovate UK research grant.

The Innovate UK grant has previously been awarded to a start-up battery OEM for its research into sodium-ion technologies. These batteries would be used in electric vehicles, which is a rapidly expanding market in the UK. In fact, electric vehicles currently represent 1.4 percent of all new car registrations in the country in 2016, with an average of 3,000 being sold per month between January and May 2016. This is driving a need for high performance vehicle batteries.

Of course, the humble lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery doesn’t get lost in all the excitement. OEMs in the UK are working to ensure that this staple of modern power is able to keep up with the demands and challenges presented by a rapidly changing industry.

At Accutronics, for example, we identified growing concerns over battery counterfeiting compromising electronic devices and making them unreliable. To tackle this problem, we introduced secure hashing algorithm encryption, known as algorithmic security, into our batteries as well as into the medical devices they power, to ensure that fake batteries are rejected by the device.

Portable protection

Recently, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) provided a £6.8 million grant to a team looking to develop next-generation lithium batteries. This was fuelled by the recent widespread uptake of portable and wearable electronics, a technology trend that has stretched from the commercial sector to professional industries such as medical technology (medtech).

The trend for portable and wearable devices was recently reflected in the NHS’ new nationwide system for purchasing medical devices, including implantable defibrillators. Implantable electronics such as these present the challenge of delivering adequate battery life from a primary, non-rechargeable cell. Doctors in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) also recently highlighted this problem, arguing that the battery life of implantable medical devices (IMDs) needs to be longer to avoid the frequency of surgery currently required and to remove the subsequent risk of infection.

Careful consideration of battery chemistry, power discharge characteristics, as well as the ease of charging should be at the top of design engineers' lists when they approach a new project. Combine this with smart battery features such as accurate fuel gauging, as well as continued innovation into new materials, it is not beyond reason that UK- OEMs could be the ones to have the lightbulb moments that make the next great scientific contribution.

Michele Windsor is direct sales and marketing manager of Accutronics