Carlton Cummins has a lot on his mind: more than 290,000 metric tons worth. That’s how much carbon-dioxide emissions could be eliminated by reusing all the lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles (EVs) sold in the UK through 2015. And that’s why the 29-year-old Cummins cofounded Aceleron, a UK startup developing technology to reuse lithium-ion batteries and produce recyclable versions.
Cummins’ journey toward bettering energy storage began in the Caribbean at the solar-installation company Innogen Technologies, where he helped more than 100 families replace expensive fossil fuel with clean solar electricity. But that sparked a bigger idea: “The problem of capturing and storing energy became the next frontier,” he says.
Cummins united his mechanical-engineering background with his passion for sustainability by completing the master’s program in Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Design at Brunel University in London. “Along the way, I researched EVs’ end of life and found that everything was waste managed normally—except the battery,” he says. “Over 3 million kilograms of lithium-ion batteries are exported for costly recycling from the UK per year because there are no national facilities for Li-ion batteries. That’s enough to power 55,000 UK homes and is rising with the adoption of battery-powered transportation. Reusing one EV battery for renewable energy storage reduces emissions similarly to removing three compact cars from London’s roads for three years.”
Such motivation and drive landed Cummins on Forbes’ 2017 “30 Under 30” list for Europe (Science & Healthcare), and he won the 2017 Shell LiveWIRE Top 10 Innovators competition. Yet still he remains in the lab after everyone has gone home; throws on some easy listening; and resumes saving the planet, one refurbished battery at a time.
Here, Cummins illuminates the circuitous journey his batteries take and the journey his life has taken with them.
Is it true that lithium-ion batteries don’t just die, they degrade?
Exactly. They degrade over time, so it’s a matter of cross-matching what the state of its life is most suited to. And that’s the first thing Aceleron started working on: developing the process to collect, test, and identify used lithium-ion batteries for reuse.
What did you discover?
It’s like nobody ever thought about dealing with them afterward. The way batteries are made now, the technical term is that they use permanent assembly techniques. But if the hardware is fine—the casing and everything—why do we need to throw all of that away? Aceleron collects used lithium-ion batteries and identifies good cells for reuse with our processing method that’s three times faster than conventional techniques. Then we repackage these good cells into battery packs for renewable energy storage using our own battery-assembly hardware that we designed in Autodesk Fusion 360.
We specifically make our batteries to be serviced as they age instead of becoming a waste burden at end of life. Our process reduces waste and creates a truly circular product designed from the beginning for repair, reuse, and recycling. When we send a battery out there, we are one of the few companies willing to take them back.
What is the lifecycle of a traditional laptop battery?
Most batteries, because they’re made of cells, if only one or two cells have a problem, the battery will cease to work. The battery goes to your waste-collection firm, where it’s separated as hazardous material and sent to a specialist recycler, where they crush it for raw materials. So Aceleron started thinking, what if we intercepted this just before they’re going to the crusher and we say, “Hey, we know you usually send x amount for recycling. Why don’t you give a couple of them to us for reuse?”
Some are quite amenable to that for two reasons: It’s good for their corporate social responsibility, and they usually have to pay to send them to recycling. From there, we liberate the batteries from their old application, disassemble them, and change the application entirely.
A laptop battery usually has about six cells inside. We take laptop batteries from several sources, combine cells with similar behavior, and put them in a battery pack. And this battery pack looks, smells, and behaves like a 12-volt battery, but inside is an army of lithium-ion cells. The key is that when our batteries get tired, regardless of whether they were new or used cells, we take them back, we refurbish our packs, and we send them back out.
How long can that process go on before the law of diminishing returns kicks in?
It does have a lifespan that’s a little bit shorter, but it depends on the application. Renewable energy storage actually has a long lifespan. In a laptop battery, all six cells are working really hard every day. Our battery for renewable energy storage is comprised of 192 cells.
So it can share the load?
Exactly, and now we can understand why this battery could last seven years; we have a whole army of cells working together with similar characteristics.
What are some initiatives that these energy-storage compartments are helping with?
Our recyclable-battery platform, the Circa platform, we’re using for a solar-home-energy storage unit. The battery is comprised of 192 cells, and we use about six to eight [batteries] combined to power a house. The batteries are charged by solar panels on the roof and then inverted into energy that the house can use. In the UK market, we’re targeting caravans, canal boats, and we might be going into the coach market as well.
What about outside the UK?
Solar is really a particular target in the Central American market. I’m in Barbados now overseeing a trial, and we’re doing a [similar] trial in April in East Africa. The key strategy is targeting a battery to succeed the performance of the existing lead-acid battery. Amazon doesn’t deliver batteries here, so if you need stuff quickly, it’s to your advantage to be able to repair it in the market. That was a key selling point in developing regions: the fact that it can be repaired, refurbished, and brought back to life.
What motivates you to keep pushing through?
One truth I’ve had to learn to accept is that, to some degree, I actually enjoy the chaos. I tend to need a certain measure of intensity; I like solving real problems. I come from the Caribbean. I saw that access to energy was limited because it wasn’t within the price point of people. And you feel that, right? I used to coordinate the installations, so I met directly with the customers, and they explain the challenges they’re having with the electricity bills. You feel that. As an engineer, you dig into your tools, you pick up that hammer, and you hit something until it works.
I thoroughly enjoy the journey. People have very quantifiable metrics when it comes to the success of their business, and we do, as well, at Aceleron. But me personally, I enjoy the journey, the learning, the process, meeting people, guiding, solving the problem, the winning, the losing—all of that makes for my story. What you really own at the end of your life is your journey. Whatever else is afterwards, that is your legacy.