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21 September 2018
Li-ion Battery Innovation Could Empower Africa - UWC Energy Storage Innovation Lab

(Published - 21 September 2018)

South Africa has almost 80% of the world’s known reserves of manganese – an important component in a popular Li-ion battery. But there’s only one facility on the African continent that has the capability to produce Li-ion battery cells at pilot scale: UWC’s Energy Storage Innovation Lab (ESIL).

Renewable energy resources such as wind, water or solar solutions have shown that clean energy is not only a viable alternative to traditional power solutions, but also carries additional benefits such as on-the-spot delivery, cutting down significantly on infrastructure costs.

“But the ability to produce power when the sun shines or the wind blows is only part of the solution. We also need to be able to store power efficiently and discharge it effectively at the appropriate time. For that we need batteries - and Lithium-ion batteries might just be the kind Africa needs,” as ESIL Director Professor Bernard Bladergroen explains.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels are common, and the energy they produce in South Africa is approximately 40% cheaper than that generated from fossil or nuclear fuelled power stations. The main drawback: PV power can only really be generated between 10am and 5pm (when the sun is shining, basically). As electrical peak demand in South Africa is between 7-9am and 6-8pm, a cost effective way to store energy would be of great assistance.

“Renewable energy – such as wind or solar solutions – combined with an energy storage device that could deliver electricity at the cost of electricity from a power station would be a game changer,” Prof Bladergroen says.

Lithium ion, or Li-ion, batteries are a type of rechargeable battery that most of us make use of practically every day. When well looked after, they can be drained and charged literally thousands of times, unlike commonly-used lead acid batteries - one reason they’re used in power tools, toys, electric bikes, laptops and cellular phones. And large Li-ion battery packs in home and grid-power applications are becoming rapidly more popular in many countries, including countries in Africa.

“And because Africa’s power distribution network is still underdeveloped, investors in the device could see returns sooner than in regions with a fully-developed transmission network that’s already paid for.”

Lithium-Ion Battery Power: It’s Time For Africa

There are only a few Li-ion battery factories in the US, Poland, South Korea, Japan and China - most of them at companies working closely with electric vehicle manufacturers and consumer goods production sites, including Panasonic, Toshiba, Samsung, SDI and Tesla.

“The Energy Storage Innovation Lab has already been laying the groundwork for industrial Li-ion batteries assembly,” Prof Bladergroen explains. “And a growing market will eventually justify the creation of a local battery production plant. But to produce batteries at a competitive price, a large scale facility with an investment of several billion rands is required.”

The desired shift away from our unsustainable fossil-fuel-based economy can be realised when we produce Li-ion batteries that last many years and cost as little as $150/kWh. Economy of scale is crucial to achieve these costs.

The electrification gains could be huge - and underdeveloped rural areas will benefit most from this technology.

“Energy storage solutions will enable us to leapfrog many of the traditional aspects of the energy grid. With the implementation of wind and solar, and with storage, you can penetrate the areas that are not currently on the grid.”

If Li-ion batteries could be manufactured in Africa, on the appropriate scale, they would become cheaper, and power users could rely more on renewable energy than they do now. This would open the path for clean, sustainable energy, mitigating the effects of climate change. It could also boost economies.

“We are right on that pivot point where the combination of renewable energy plus efficient storage becomes the cheapest way of doing things. This is a very exciting time - and the future could be bright for Africa.”

Want to know more about Lithium-ion batteries and their potential for powering Africa’s energy future? Just view Prof Bernard Bladergroen’s original explainer article, Why lithium ion batteries could be a game changer in Africa on The Conversation Africa. And view more UWC academics discussing their work and its implications here.