Batteries are central to the function and delivery of renewable energy technologies, but how renewable are the batteries themselves? Brisbane start-up Vaulta is seeking to resolve this question before it becomes a global headache.
Battery technology is spearheading the world’s move away from fossil fuels, but for this energy revolution to maintain momentum, follow-up research and development (R&D) is needed to keep improving battery functionality.
It’s this next wave of research and innovation that widens the commercial opportunities that arise from a disruptive technology – and it’s where a small Brisbane-based battery development company, Vaulta, is positioning itself.
The company has developed a new approach to battery manufacturing that makes faulty or poorly performing batteries repairable rather than having to be replaced. This same repair and maintenance functionality also improves battery recyclability. The development addresses concerns around the world about these current limitations, particularly as the volume of batteries being developed for electric vehicles and solar power storage is surging.
Not surprisingly, Vaulta has progressed rapidly from ‘lab bench’ to contracts with leading global battery manufacturers. Its founder and CEO, Dominic Spooner, expects the young company, barely three years old, to reach the $1 million turnover mark in the next 12 months and achieve a company valuation of $100 million in the next few years.
“By the end of this calendar year we’ll be exporting to three continents,” he adds.
In explaining the difference between a conventional battery and the Vaulta system, Spooner points out that the components of a typical lead-acid battery, for example, are connected and packed into a housing with welding and glue: “This is an irreversible process and means if just one cell is damaged or fails the whole battery is discarded.”
In a Vaulta battery the welding is replaced by a patented inner polymer/graphene housing that provides the connectivity. The cells are connected by simply clipping them into this conductive housing … and just as simply unclipped if they need to be replaced.
“A technician can access and test cells, replace under-performers, and quickly have a battery back to full performance,” says
Spooner. “And this can be done in the field so batteries being used for electricity storage or power can be repaired in situ. This eliminates the cost and logistics of replacement and disposal, which is a particular problem for batteries being used in remote locations.”
Aside from the technical development, a major impetus behind the company’s rapid advance came from an Accelerating Commercialisation $297,500 grant under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. This was used to scale up from prototype to commercial product and to put in place a business management structure.
“Two years ago when we were awarded the grant, our office was a room in a rented house and our workshop was its garage,” says Spooner. “Today we occupy 200 square metres of workspace and we are steadily building both the technical team and the management needed to run a growing business.”
Spooner worked closely with i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Donna Patane on the grant proposal and subsequent business development – “all the accounting and financial aspects that I’m not good at”, says Spooner – and also the many regulatory approvals that had to be worked through.
Patane says she noted from the outset that the company had identified a need and opportunity in something that other manufacturers and developers seemed to be overlooking … the casing.
Turning inside out
“Everyone else was concentrating on what’s inside a battery. Dominic and his team were looking to improve the serviceability and life of batteries and had realised that a conductive housing could achieve this and change the way batteries are made.”
The idea arose when Spooner was working for a battery-pack company while he was studying industrial design and becoming frustrated with the lack of repairability and poor recycling options. He was convinced there had to be a way to make a battery so that its components could be replaced and the battery repaired, rather than discarded.
Through the Accelerating Commercialisation guidance stage it was identified that i4 Connect could help in commercialising the product, Spooner had developed a small proof-of-concept battery that was powering a skateboard. He needed to scale up: first to a battery with enough cells for stationary applications and then larger again for moving applications such as an electric vehicle.
“It is expensive to step from bench-scale to commercial-scale. You need more inputs, more testing and more people. More regulatory bodies become involved and then you need to establish a relationship with an organisation like an established potential customer willing to do all the testing and provide feedback. And that’s just one step. You also need to secure your IP, obtain numerous licences and then find battery manufacturers willing to partner with you.
“So after we had done our due diligence and started working with Vaulta, a lot of my role was to provide guidance for working through these stages, advising where the focus should be, and how to articulate the novelty and value proposition of the development in ways that third parties could understand.”
Patane says she immediately recognised the business potential and was confident Vaulta was going to be successful: “It’s a small niche in battery R&D overall, but with the potential to make a really big difference.”