Colin: In October 2016, Samsung took the decision to suspend the commercialization of its new flagship product, the Galaxy Note 7, after cases of fire or even explosions were disclosed. Responsible for these accidents was the lithium-ion battery, whose ill-adapted design caused overheat and eventually fire to the whole device. This was one of the incidents involving lithium-ion batteries that have been the most covered by the media and it reinforced global suspicions toward this battery technology, at a time where electric cars, drones, and hoverboards also occasionally burst into flames. Yet numbers of applications for lithium-ion batteries kept on growing; I am joined here by Autonom’s co-founder and CEO, Hugues Marceau, whose company seeks to make an impact on the telecommunications sector. Hello there! In a few words, can you tell us about what your company is doing?

Hugues: Hello! Autonom’s mission is to improve telecom companies’ operational efficiency with smart backup power solutions. In a nutshell, we make sure that telecommunications’ infrastructure is always powered, no matter what can happen on the grid. To do so, we have designed efficient, remote-monitored and compact batteries that free the mind of telecom operators. The best way to think of it is probably to consider our batteries as a sort of insurance policy. 

Since you’re talking about insurance policy, is it safe for an operator to rely on lithium-ion batteries? Considering that they have a tendency to, say, end up in a deep-fried-piece-of-junk’s state?

Hugues: Lithium-ion batteries are very safe! Yes, their safety relies on a fragile equilibrium to be maintained, but redundant safety mechanisms minimize dangers. In fact, lithium-ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte which, triggered by a short circuit or an overcharge could cause an explosion: both events causing an uncontrolled increase of the battery’s temperature also known as thermal runaway.

A properly designed charge system would have a minimum of two systems that stop the charge once a maximum voltage is achieved, reducing to near zero the probability of overcharge, since both systems would have to fail at the same time to cause a fire hazard.

There are two types of short circuits: internal and external. External can be detected easily and can be stopped by simple measures like the usage of a fuse. Internals are more problematic. High-quality cells have many redundant last resort mechanisms that act as an internal fuse and that can prevent thermal runaway, however, the most adopted way to prevent such failures is to ensure very high-quality control within the cells’ manufacturing process. The lithium-ion technology being very mature now – commercialization started in 1991 – the manufacturing process is automated and refined, reducing to near zero the probability of internal short circuits in standard cell formats.

So no need for me to store them in my fridge then – to make sure they are cooled enough to be used?

Hugues: Lithium-ion batteries are not performing at their best in the cold. They perform better at warmer temperatures but their calendar life decreases with increasing temperature. The optimal battery temperature is often considered to be 25℃.

It comes down to the fact that the speed at which chemical reactions can happen increases with temperature; batteries being the result of an electrochemical reaction, more power is available at higher temperatures. However, for the same reason, at very high temperatures, parasitic reactions are becoming so prominent that they can quickly degrade the available capacity, even when not in use.

The measure of the battery shelf life, when unused,  is called the battery calendar life. All lithium-ion batteries are not created equal. Some have a high calendar life, other a long cycle life, some have both. One of the best all-round compromise currently available on the market is a cobalt-based cathode called NMC, standing for Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt. It benefits from a long life, reasonable cost and high performance.

I am glad you mentioned the materials within a lithium-ion battery because they seem to raise just as many concerns as the explosions issue. It is widely known that lithium-ion batteries require cobalt, which not only is expensive but whose extraction process in the Democratic Republic of Congo causes indignation. What are your thoughts on that?

Hugues: The global demand for cobalt is ramping up because we need more and more rechargeable batteries for our future electric vehicles and smartphones and so far we haven’t been able to find an alternative in our laboratories. Although Cobalt can be found on almost every continents, only a few countries – notably the DRC – have been able to scale up production, thanks to a cheap labor price. Socio-political tensions in those countries have an impact on the supply chain and result in high prices. The industry is well aware of the ethical questions surrounding the mining of cobalt and is currently trying to reduce its dependency on that resource. One way is to find new recipes of NMC which contains less cobalt, and more Nickel. I would say manufacturers are making progress in that respect; it will take time, no question about it, but a Cobalt-free lithium-ion battery has already been heralded by big battery players like Panasonic. 

Finally, one good news is that the recycling of lithium-ion batteries has been proven feasible, now it needs to be adopted. We are quite efficient in recycling old batteries like lead-acid batteries, so I don’t see why it would go otherwise for lithium-ion batteries.

Moving on to the battery industry itself, it seems that everything is going so fast! Could you please help us identify some trends or milestones?

Hugues: Lithium-ion technology is now very mature: the trend is now to cost reduction and mass adoption. Regarding the telecommunications sector, things are definitely going the way of lithium-ion battery packs, as operators are replacing generators and lead-acid batteries by lithium-ion batteries and solar panels. On a global note, battery manufacturers set their eyes on electric vehicles. Once the demand for EVs will start ramping up, the battery industry as a whole will likely be reshaped, given the size and importance of the automotive market.

What gives you ground to be optimistic regarding Autonom’s future development?

Hugues: Well, first of all, I don’t envision society becoming less dependant on connectivity than what we currently are. In Asia, a constantly growing fraction of day to day payments (around 400 million people use the app WechatPay on a daily basis in China alone! ) are cashless and rely on connectivity. The number of connected devices is always on the rise (we expect 50 billion of them by 2023, twice the number we have now) which means that more and more backup batteries will be needed in the future, so the market is growing bigger. The more devices around, the more infrastructure is needed to support these devices, it’s as simple as that. Since the beginning of the Internet, I keep being amazed by how consumers have found ways to make use of the greater bandwidth that has become available. I remember the days I had a cellular data plan of 4 MB/month.  I have no doubts that the new infrastructure that is currently being built will deliver value to end customers. People are already making use of smart IoT devices: I can guarantee you that Autonom will do its best to power those great innovations!

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