The Hard Cell: Dukosi, E-Vehicles And The Future Of Batteries
Since the invention of the very first electric car in 1837, to the introduction of the Nissan Leaf in 2010, electric vehicles have long been presented to the world as the bright new future of the motoring industry. Despite this, we have yet to see the mass adoption that advocates have been hoping for. Whilst UK electric vehicle sales hit record levels in 2016, the International Energy Agency predicts that they will account for only 3% of global vehicle stock by 2020.
There are many limiting factors preventing EV’s from overtaking their traditional counterparts, most of which concern the future of batteries. Insecurities regarding charging times, access to charging points, driving range, and the long-term health of batteries are frequently cited as the greatest concerns to would-be consumers.
Enter Dukosi, an Edinburgh-based CleanTech firm seeking to address the limitations of traditional EV batteries with an innovative approach to cell monitoring systems (CMS).
Dukosi is developing a technology that will allow them to deliver intelligence on the real-time performance of every cell within a battery, in an effort to reduce battery downtime, improve reliability and performance, enhance rapid charging, and allow cell by cell modelling.
“We’re delivering a novel cell monitoring system that takes some of the key parameters, such as temperature, voltage and current measurement, and adds memory onto that so we can collect data about what happens to the cell during its life cycle,” George Paterson, Customer Solutions and Programme Director told DIGIT. “We’re also putting a microprocessor on there to calculate things such as the state of charge, and the state of health at a cell level.”
The separate devices are combined onto one chip, known as an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC), which is then embedded into each individual cell within a battery. The technology is designed for large application batteries, such as those found in automotive vehicles, robotics, RV’s, and even large-scale drones. It can also be used for different levels of grid energy storage, such as large-scale wind or solar farms, or for community energy storage.
Fundamentally, it is the electric car industry that will reap the full benefits of Dukosi’s technology. As an EV car owner, Paterson is well aware of the shortfalls of traditional battery technology, and the impact that this is having on consumer confidence.
“In my household, we’ve got three plug-in cars, so I’m very aware of the problems. I’ve got battery leases on some because frankly, I don’t want to own a battery for the two vehicles that I intend to keep for a long time, as I don’t know how long they are going to last. I’ve worked in the industry for seventeen years, and I’m only too aware of what can go wrong.”
Tracking Every Cell
Paterson believes that Dukosi’s approach to cell management can be used to tackle customer insecurities regarding battery health and life cycles.
“A current Battery Management System (BMS) in an electric car, will only give you access to 80-90% of the battery, to try and prevent it from ageing quickly. We believe that because we’re accurately measuring and working out the state of charge, and the state of health, we can be a bit more dynamic, We can either allow more of the battery to be used, or – if the battery is unhealthy, being mistreated, or being used in harsh conditions – we can identify that.
“A battery pack is only as good as its weakest cell. Therefore, it is important to always try and protect that cell. We could recommend when to replace it to keep the rest of the battery healthy. We could predict failures before they even happen because we might see fluctuations in the cell, in very small voltage, current, or temperature variations, that current systems don’t pick up. We’re never going to be able to make a bad cell good, but we are going to be able to inform you when bad things are happening, to enable preventative maintenance.”
This could prove game changing for the second-hand EV sales market, which is currently hindered by insecurities regarding long-term battery health. The cost of replacing a faulty battery can be astronomical, with the used price of EV’s often falling below battery replacement.
“As an electric car owner, it’s questionable how much second-hand cars are worth, because of the issue with battery health. With our system, because we’re looking at each individual cell, we’ll be able to detect whether, within a battery, there are a certain number of cells that are in poor health. Maybe they will all be within a single module, or maybe they will be dotted about in different modules. If every module is affected, the battery is not much use. If it’s limited to one module, that can be replaced.”
To Paterson, it’s about making a decision based on knowledge and information. “Are the cells looking healthy? If yes, then it’s worth buying the car. If the measurements are a bit erratic, then you know there is something potentially faulty.”
This knowledge is critical to making informed decisions and safe investments, but it’s also important to ensure that the data gathered can’t be tampered with to give misleading readings.
“A few years ago, people were winding back the clocks in cars to make them seem younger. Our data has to be secure, so we’ll be building in security mechanisms to make sure that it’s locked down. Nobody can rewind the clock on the health of the battery and make a cell that’s weak look good again.”
Dukosi’s technology could also prove vital in detecting fake and replacement parts in electric vehicles. As the EV market continues to grow, Paterson predicts that counterfeit components will become a bigger issue, especially in the sale of second-hand vehicles. As batteries weaken and require maintenance, more and more battery specialists will appear, to replace cells and swap modules. It’s important that EV owners can be sure that they are getting genuine parts, as fake components could significantly affect the value of a car and lead to potential safety issues.
Again, Paterson believes that Dukosi’s technology will help to combat this challenge:
“Because our device is embedded in the cell, you’ll make sure you get genuine parts. It won’t work unless it sees the official cell of the official module being put into a battery. By having our chip in there, it gives vehicle manufacturers, the battery makers, and the cell makers, some provenance. It knows that there are genuine parts present.
“If there is an incident down the road, such as an accident, or a problem with the battery, being able to trace back to where the cell or module came from, and proving it’s genuine, is going to be very important in the future.”
Whole Life-Cycle Tracking
Dukosi’s technology also ensures supply chain accountability, by monitoring the integrity of a battery from the point of manufacture to the end of it’s life. This is particularly important for battery transportation, as it ensures components have not been damaged in transit.
Even with recycling, the lithium batteries used in electric vehicles need to be handled differently to traditional batteries. Dukosi’s technology can provide detailed information on the chemistry of a battery to recyclers, and help ensure that they are re-processed safely and responsibly.
“Although at the moment you have to pay to have them recycled, hopefully in the future there will be value in recycling lithium cells. If we can see what the chemistry is wirelessly – and see how it can be recycled, all of that data is available to the person doing the re-processing.”
Ultimately, the practical application of Dukosi’s technology is dependent on the wants and needs of the end user. Their data can be used for annual servicing or maintenance, or to provide a constant stream of real-time information; the end user or application decides how and when they want to make use of it.
Design & Development
It was a little bit of luck, a little bit of fate, and a lot of hard work that brought Dukosi to where it is today. Founded by a couple of friends after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, the firm found its beginnings as a sub-contracting chip design company. It was soon approached by a large automotive organisation to develop a cell monitoring system, which ultimately decided that the time ‘wasn’t right,’ for their technology. Despite this, it allowed Dukosi to use the IP that was generated from the project. A subsequent tragedy within the company led to a change in direction and a decision to focus their efforts on management systems and the future of batteries. According to Paterson, the business is growing rapidly.
“Different customers are jumping on different aspects of our technology. For example, vehicle manufacturers like the fact that they don’t need wiring harnesses. They can save weight and money on that front, and they can increase the reliability because they don’t have thousands of wires running all over the place.”
From Scotland To The World
Paterson attributes some of the company’s success to their decision to establish their base of operations in Scotland. Good access to funding and skills were vital in their early days, with Paterson describing the support they received from commercial development agencies such as Scottish Enterprise as ‘tremendous.’ Their proximity to region’s best Universities has also reaped benefits with regards to recruitment, providing them with access to a diverse and highly skilled workforce.
“On the recruitment side, we’ve been recruiting multinationally. We have employed people from around the world – Poland, France, Sweden, England, Northern Ireland, Malta, India – and this is all within a business of eighteen people. Scotland’s Universities have a great reputation and attract students from all over. People then stay in Scotland because of the appeal of the lifestyle here.”
Paterson believes that the smaller size of Scotland’s tech community has allowed Dukosi to become a ‘bigger fish in a smaller sea.’ He predicts that had the company been established in larger clusters such as Cambridge or London, they may have struggled to stand out.
“In other locations, we might have been just another very small start-up looking to be noticed. Whereas here in Scotland, we are starting to get better known and are local to the community. There is a smaller community here, and that has made it easier for us to get funding and to get started. We are now getting our Dukosi brand out there in the battery and investment world.”
The Future Of Batteries
Dukosi’s success is illustrated by their recent partnership with Swindon Silicon Systems, who will manufacture the physical chips needed to implement their software. They also secured £2M in funding from IP Group plc in March, who said they looked forward to backing transformative approaches to providing clean energy.
“Different sectors of the industry like our technology for various reasons,” Paterson explains. “It hits a note with everybody that we speak to. Whereas a lot of products maybe hit just one person in the supply chain, our technology really helps everybody.”