Caroline Tung speaks with Energy Renaissance development director, Brian Craighead, and Innovative Manufacturing CRC CEO, David Chuter, about the advent of lithium-ion battery manufacturing in Australia, and how it could spur an entire industry.
Lithium has been touted as the new power source that will revolutionise energy production in Australia.
The big ambition for Energy Renaissance, Australia’s first lithium-ion battery manufacturer, is to use Australian resources to build great batteries, while reducing the country’s climate footprint.
After it surveyed the market, Energy Renaissance sought to produce batteries that would work well in Australia’s hot climate, are easy to transport and deploy, are safe, and were less expensive.
Energy Renaissance technology and development director, Brian Craighead, said the current demand for batteries was “incredible”, and the company was already in the early stages of talking about building a second facility.
“When we first started the business, we didn’t come up with the ideas, or the design, the market did,” he said.
While lithium batteries are optimised at 25°C worldwide, making the batteries in Australia that can operate in harsh conditions meant adding more cooling to the battery.
“We have a module system where we can plug any chemistry, LFP, NMC, NMC+, plugs and plays into our system,” Craighead said. “It’s the same battery management system that runs everything.”
Although the company has become what Craighead calls a “five-year overnight success story” their business idea was initially met with a lot of resistance.
He believes the attitude that Australia cannot manufacture batteries is inherited from the cultural scar from the 80s – that Australia thinks it can no longer manufacture, based on cars and various products that have been offshored.
“When we first said five years ago, we’re going to build a battery manufacturing facility, people thought it was just Powerpoints and enthusiasm, and nothing was going to happen,” Craighead said.
He divides the history of getting to the production stage into three parts.
The first part of the journey was convincing naysayers that manufacturing batteries in Australia was possible. The second part was that people started to see the demand for batteries, and that Australia had all the raw materials to make it happen. And then, COVID-19 happened, and it changed everything.
“People could see there was money to be made, and their mindset shifted from we can’t manufacture to we can manufacture,” Craighead said.
“We have big ambitions to be a trigger for the upstream in Australia and also encourage export.”
Innovative Manufacturing CRC CEO, David Chuter, said was imperative that energy securency is part of Australia’s national resilience against COVID-19.
“Battery manufacturing in Australia has got to be part of the broader solution about renewables transition,” he said.
He believes it is a critical area that requires a national focus.
“We have some amazing strength and capability, but we haven’t don’t have the value add or complexity,” he said. “We tend to let all that production happen overseas.”
An independent study conducted by CIS Solutions for Energy Renaissance has projected $7.3 trillion in export revenue for Australian made lithium-ion batteries.
“You need batteries that are going to work well in tough conditions, easy to transport, safe less expensive, so defence was a big part of our early planning,” Craighead said.
Energy Renaissance will develop a defence-grade cybersecure Battery Management System (BMS) that is the “nerve centre” of its batteries that will be manufactured in Tomago, New South Wales.
The $1.46 million BMS project is a joint venture by Energy Renaissance with the national science agency, CSIRO and the Innovative Manufacturing CRC.
The BMS will monitor and report on the battery’s usage, lifespan and faults through a mobile network to Energy Renaissance and their customers.
Communicating through an inverter, the system will enable secure real time data, analytics and remote management to drive down the risk of battery failure and operating costs for grid-scale energy storage users.
Chuter said the export potential for the batteries was an important criterion in their selection process, as the IMCRC focuses on projects that present the opportunity to contribute to global supply chains.
“I don’t think there’s any project across the 50 we’ve funded that hasn’t required a strong focus on the global market,” he said. “From our perspective, it is critical that Australia manufacturing looks at the world despite covid.”
Chuter recalls in the automotive industry, it was galling to see Hyundai put an advert on TV saying their cars were made from Australian steel.
“They were made from ore that was shipped overseas, that was then sent back to us at to us that was probably 3000 times the value of the ore,” he said.
“As recently as three years ago, I remember travelling across to Western Australia and trying to enquire why we couldn’t build batteries.”
Chuter said Australia has global best-in-class capability in the mining industry, and that the country is more advanced than any other country in terms of advanced manufacturing technologies, Industry 4.0, and IIoT intelligence, in the mining sector.
“The challenge is when you enter the critical battery manufacturing, you don’t want to ship these minerals all the way across the world, and find that you have a yield issue, or a quality issue,” he said.
“I think to be able to build scale in battery manufacturing, you need to add value at the raw material source, because then you know you’ve got the guarantee, and you’ve got the quality approved,” Chuter said.
He believes supporting companies such as Energy Renaissance by funding their research, people will start to recognise Australia as a place to make batteries.
“It’s really exciting we’ve got a company committed to making large-scale batteries. We’ve got lot’s of battery manufacturers in Australia, but not in this space, and not really focusing on the uniqueness that we need,” Chuter said.
Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, said energy storage is one the priority technologies under the federal government’s Technology Investment Roadmap.
He said bringing down the cost down for battery manufacturing is key.
“As Australia’s energy mix continues to change, we need all levels of government working together to achieve strong results for consumers,” Minister Taylor said.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the site of Energy Renaissance’s future manufacturing facility.
“It is a sovereign and strategic priority for Australia to ensure we are hardwired into this supply chain around the world and a supply chain that Australia and our partners can rely on,” he told the ABC. “These rare earths and critical minerals are what literally pulls together the technology we’ll be relying on into the future.”
For a country of 25 million people, Craighead believes the way to compete in a global market is not on skill. He said the company had assumed the battery manufacturing was an economy of skill business, because every factory they had visited was enormous.
“If everybody else is going to be an aircraft carrier, we’ve got to be a speedboat. That means being much nimbler,” he said.