Batteries Are Complicated

  • Eli Leland
  • April 25, 2022

“Batteries are complicated.” It’s the name of this publication, and it’s been the driving force propelling an entirely new software category that has arisen over the last decade. But before we get into what this means, exactly, let’s focus on the question of why you should care in the first place.

A few of the many dimensions of battery complexity

The stakes

While batteries have been around since Alessandro Volta made the first one back in 1800 (and perhaps even for thousands of years before that), advances over the last few decades in lithium-ion batteries in particular lead us to a striking observation: batteries are changing the world. As inexpensive, ubiquitous, storable power becomes a reality, batteries are impacting every technology application, and every corner of our lives. The way we connect and communicate, the way we find information, the way we move people and goods, the way we power homes and buildings — batteries are touching everything around us.

What’s more, we’re still at the very early stages of the transition to a battery-powered world. As this technology progresses toward its full potential, batteries and their applications will grow into a multi-trillion dollar market, rivaling the scale of the fossil fuel infrastructure they will largely replace.

Much like other global platform technologies that came before them (e.g. the internet, microchips), batteries represent for today’s businesses both enormous challenge and enormous opportunity. Get batteries right, and you can create a huge competitive advantage and trillions of dollars of value (see Apple, Tesla). Get them wrong, and face multi-billion dollar recalls and incalculable brand damage.

Manufacturers must make sure they end up on the right side of that equation. If your business is impacted by electrification, and it probably is, you should care that batteries are complicated.

Batteries are complicated how?

With the stakes established, let’s talk about how “batteries are complicated” — what we mean by that, and what it means for you. Batteries contain multitudes and there are a lot of dimensions to it, but here are a few ways to break it down:

Batteries are like organisms

Unlike other inanimate mechanical or electrical components, batteries are like living organisms. Myriad chemical and physical processes constantly evolve inside of them. With every charge-discharge cycle, billions of tiny particles (lithium ions) have to diffuse from a battery’s cathode into its anode and back again, almost as if the battery is breathing. Unlike other inanimate parts, production, storage and operation require great care. Performance variability is part of the fundamental make-up; batteries can degrade slowly or suddenly. Like most living things, there is no simple equation or model that can tell you how healthy a battery is or how long it will last.

The only way to really understand batteries is to collect data on how they were made, how they were operated, and how they perform, on as many batteries as possible, and analyze this data to gain empirical insight. You cannot learn if you do not respect the inherent physical complexity of batteries.

Continuous and constant change

Battery technology is constantly changing and evolving. While lithium-ion batteries have established market dominance in the last few years, there is still enormous variation across form factors, chemical formulations, internal components, and other characteristics. The complexity is compounded as OEMs innovate and improve their offerings, new players enter the market, and research advancements break through to the commercial market. A couple present-day examples include the phasing out of cobalt from battery formulations due to both economic and ethical concerns, or the gradual incorporation of silicon into lithium-ion battery anodes in pursuit of better performance.

As more companies find that business success is tied in some way to batteries, it can be overwhelming trying to stay on top of these trends, or determine which battery to bet on for your business. New tools are needed in order to maximize value from batteries and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid costly missteps.

Batteries can blow up

In the inventory of make-or-break success factors, safety is a crucial part of the calculus. Put simply, batteries can explode. Lithium-ion batteries are packed with flammable materials, and it’s a fundamental fact of the universe that when you pack a lot of energy into a small space there is increased risk of an explosive event. Samsung lost billions when the Galaxy Note caught fire in people’s pockets. High profile battery fires affecting cars and grid energy storage deployments continue to make headlines as well.

High-profile recalls of battery-powered devices will cost companies billions in damages and even more in reputation due to fires and explosions. With this much at stake, it is vital to engineer batteries and battery systems correctly from the start. This is easier said than done when product launch timelines are tight and battery engineering talent is in short supply, but today’s companies have no choice but to get smart about batteries, and fast.

Big battery packs are a whole new flavor of complicated

As batteries grow into grid storage, automotive, and heavy industrial applications, a new engineering discipline has arisen around combining large numbers of relatively small battery cells into monolithic, large-scale battery systems. Engineering these systems to perform as needed while lasting the requisite ten to twenty years that these applications demand is a new and significant challenge. Companies must procure huge numbers of battery cells while maintaining adequate quality and consistency, and they must develop new processes and expertise around packaging, controlling, and cooling these systems.

It is a set of challenges every bit as complex as, say, engineering a new internal combustion engine. At the same time, the industry is facing a shortage of human capital and suitable modern tools to do this work at scale.

Let’s demystify batteries, together

So, friends, batteries are indeed complicated, and the battery revolution is coming to your business whether you like it or not. The good news is that there is a new software category aimed directly at helping companies to navigate these challenges: Enterprise Battery Intelligence (EBI).

Ten years ago Tal Sholklapper and I were working to develop and commercialize new energy storage technologies when we started to experience some of these challenges ourselves. We also recognized the power of data and analytics to address them, with first-hand conviction from having built some basic software tools to help streamline and accelerate our day-to-day work. Armed with this insight, inspired by the potential of batteries to change the world for the better, and convinced that we could build software that would help drive the transition to battery power, we founded Voltaiq. In doing so we created this new category of Enterprise Battery Intelligence software, and today Voltaiq works with some of the largest automotive, consumer electronics, and battery companies on the planet.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll use this publication, “Batteries are Complicated”, to share our perspectives on the global transition to battery power, how we can get there faster, and how companies can make the most of the opportunities that batteries will bring to their business. We hope you’ll join us for the ride!

  • Eli Leland
  • April 25, 2022