Kathy Gibson reports – As South Africa aims to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), power is crucial – and the battery has a key role to play.

Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, senior economist at Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), points out that batteries are at the core of any modern energy system, and any sustainable society going forward.

It enables power that is stable, resilient, affordable and clean, he adds.

And there are opportunities to develop industries around battery technology that can help drive the country’s economy forward as well, he adds.

“In the South African context, we have been looking at how to grow the value chain, to get battery manufacturing into the value chain,” Montmasson-Clair says.

“Because the demand for batteries is set to rise globally, prices are also going up.”

Globally, battery manufacture is dominated by a few countries, with Africa as a whole not featuring prominently at all. “A few key companies dominate the space, most of them from Asia, with a couple in Europe and the US.”

But South Africa could play a role in the lithium-ion battery value chain, Montmasson-Clair believes.

“In terms of research and development (R&D), we have a wide array of institutions that work on these issues.

“We are nowhere near many others in terms of competitive edge, but we have been good at developing skills that feed into the private sector, even developing intellectual property (IP).

“We are quite small compared to other countries, but it does provide us with a base of skills to leverage a value chain going forward.”

The country is also well-endowed with minerals and, together with neighbouring countries, can produce all the minerals needed in batteries.

“It is all well and good to have the minerals,” Montmasson-Clair says. “But how do we move up the value chain to beneficiation and then manufacturing?

“We do have some beneficiation in South Africa, but very little of it to battery grade. Only manganese and aluminium are refined to battery grade now, with nickel and lithium in the pipeline.”

In terms of manufacturing, South Africa has plenty of industrial capacity and know-how, but no experience in the commercial production of battery cells.”

Currently, battery manufacturing based on imported cells is a vibrant industry in South Africa, Montmasson-Clair says. “Numerous firms have developed the IP and expertise in the manufacture of specific components, parts and assembly of battery packs. Some have even leveraged capacity further to develop niche vehicle offerings.”

South Africa could find a niche in the battery value chain the second-life battery market, he adds.

“We have a vibrant value chain at some levels – mining, beneficiation, cell research and battery assembly. We need to put emphasis on those areas to support a second-life battery industry going forward.”

Lance Dickerson, MD of Revov, which is the leader in 2nd LiFe battery technology in South Africa, believes that the re-purposing of electric vehicle (EV) batteries into stationary storage, the second life that is referred to, not only avoids EV batteries ending up in landfills but they also provide massive opportunities for many different energy applications.

“These batteries are a third of the weight of lead acid ones and a quarter of the size in their second life configurations. Automotive grade cells are better than any other as they are designed to adhere to a 20-year life, withstand vibrations and high temperatures, as well as high charge and discharge currents. From a backup power storage perspective, this makes second life batteries an exciting prospect,” he says.

Contrary to popular belief, a second life battery and a second-hand battery are not the same thing. The former is when the purpose of the battery is changed from providing a primary power source to delivering a secondary source of power. For instance, as a storage unit for solar and wind generated power or as a standby application when load shedding or a power failure occurs. A second-hand battery is when it is used to provide the same function for a second time, like moving it from one vehicle into another.

A second life battery can be packaged into almost any size or shape depending on the application required. This means a company like Revov can literally build almost any type of battery using the basis of the cells coming out of an EV battery.

“These batteries are an ideal solution to help address the energy crisis South Africa is experiencing. While the road ahead is still long and complex, there is a reliable alternative when it comes to backup energy for the country,” says Dickerson.