Q&A with Ilika CEO Graeme Purdy

A battery breakthrough that’s not about setting the world on fire

Materials and battery technology company Ilika is targeting such Industrial IoT sectors as factory automation, automotive, transportation, and more with a high-temperature battery suitable for hostile environments, the Stereax P180.

Materials and battery technology company Ilika is targeting such Industrial IoT sectors as factory automation, automotive, transportation, and more with a high-temperature battery suitable for hostile environments, the Stereax P180.

Around a decade ago Toyota sought know-how in materials and solid-state battery technology to help it transition away from flammable lithium-ion batteries in Prius automobiles. During our EECatalog conversation with Ilika CEO Graeme Purdy, following the company’s April announcement of its Stereax P180 extended temperature range solid state battery, he noted what happened after Toyota turned to Ilika:  “We identified the material sets that were suitable,” Purdy told us. That’s an understated way of saying what an individual (or company) focused more on attention than solutions might have worded differently. “Whooh!! We discovered what materials make avoiding flammability possible and had the foresight to apply the technology to miniature batteries, like those which Industrial IoT sensors would come to use, too!” would be another way to put it. With that move, Ilika set itself on the path to debuting solutions such as the Stereax P180. Edited excerpts of our interview with Purdy follow.

EECatalog: How much of an opportunity does the Industrial IoT represent, and what makes it possible for devices targeting that market to take advantage of the opportunity?

Graeme Purdy, CEO, Ilika

Graeme Purdy, CEO, Ilika

Graeme Purdy, Ilika: In China, for example, the Industrial IoT is growing faster than the consumer IoT. They’ve got the factories that they are looking to improve the efficiency and productivity of — fertile ground for automation and information gathering.

But to address that market, you need to come up with a device that meets a series of quite demanding requirements. First, you need small unobtrusive beacons that you can retrofit in what are sometimes rather inaccessible places. That device also needs to have a standard industrial temperature applicability. It needs to conform to the concept of “fit and forget.” You install the device, and it must be operational for a decent period of time Our rule of thumb is that, typically, you want these devices to last for 10 years.

EECatalog: Longevity, and therefore lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)  is one of the benefits of a collaborative project which Ilika is participating in—one which combines your solid state battery technology with an energy-harvesting solution.

Purdy, Ilika: When you have to deploy your maintenance crew to change out batteries, the cost of that labor can make the total cost of ownership rather unappealing. For that collaboration, we use a single silicon substrate. We put down a layer of battery material, and then we put down the photovoltaic or solar panel on top of that. So, you’ve got an integrated single component which is like an energy brick, where you’ve got both your means of harvesting energy and storing it in one component (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A battery with the means of both storing and harvesting energy.

Figure 1: A battery with the means of both storing and harvesting energy.

[This approach] reduces cost, complexity, and the scale at which your systems must be built. A number of medical applications, where size, particularly for implants, may be one of the overriding considerations, would find this of interest. And of course, running cabling is either expensive or not practical in certain instances, particularly where you may have mobile devices or assets that you are looking to gather data from.

EECatalog: And for cars, cabling weight becomes an issue.

Purdy, Ilika: Right. We are seeing a trend for increased electronics in automotive to the point where a modern vehicle has got about 100 sensors built into it, and at the moment, nearly all of those sensors are hardwired. The weight of cabling in a modern car has increased between 60 and 100 kilos, depending on the model. We are now moving toward autonomous vehicles where you need in the order of 1000 sensors to get them to function properly. What we can’t afford to do is increase the weight of the cabling up to a metric ton. Automotive companies are looking at lighter weight, distributed energy management systems where you can get the sensors to function independently of the central power source.

EECatalog: Where else do you see enterprises benefitting from storage which is small size, high capacity and able to handle temperature extremes?

Purdy, Ilika: Aerospace is a similar analog [to automotive] for that opportunity, except that you get more extremes of temperature. So, you get very low temperatures at altitude, and when the airplane is parked up at the gate you get heat soak back from the engines. You need a sensor system that will be robust against these extremes.

And then infrastructure is also an interesting opportunity, particularly in the developed world, where we have quite a lot of infrastructure heritage, often bridges and roads that were built 100 years ago sometimes in extreme environments. Bridges must remain stable in earthquake zones and where you don’t want to call maintenance crews to the tops of the towers of suspension bridges regularly to change out batteries. Systems have to be self-powering and robust.

EECatalog: Which battery technology issues should be more prominent as the Industrial IoT braces for substantial growth, and which less so?

Purdy, Ilika: One of the big drivers in the battery industry has been to reduce cost, and I think that has been achieved very effectively over the past 10 years or so—you have seen a relentless driving down of cost. I saw some figures the other day that costs have fallen 50 percent every five years over the last 10 years or so and are likely to fall further in the coming few years, largely because there have been some massive investments in battery production—the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada is an example of that. And that has meant that battery technology has been able to be deployed within consumer electronics, and it may well open the door to larger scale batteries being ready for mass adoptions in other [sectors] for instance, Electric Vehicle and off-grid storage markets.

From the technology perspective, a lot of work has been done on cathode materials because that is how you define the capacity of the battery—it has been the limiting component. Organizations have been keen to announce increasingly large amounts of storage capacity, so that has been a key driver.

I think flammability has been neglected but, increasingly as people look to deploy batteries in transport applications, where flammability is more critical, there has been an increased deployment of resources there.

EECatalog: How can the features of storage technology you are describing be leveraged for design wins?

Purdy, Ilika: We’ve got a technology that complies with industrial standards, and even if the actual devices don’t always get used at the extremes of the temperature range that those standards are designed for, at least you get compliance. With that compliance developers can say, “I can group this component together along with other electronic components that are compliant. And therefore I can confirm that the whole design as an integrated solution meets the needs of what the industrial standards set out.” That’s an important step forward.

[It’s also key] that this technology is available under a license. It’s a fabless offering. Like many organizations in the semiconductor space, we see this as being a device which would be made in pre-qualified foundries. If an OEM designed a product around this battery technology, we would transfer the technology through to the foundry. The foundry would then make it in the quantity that was required, aggregating it with demand from other customers to meet the market needs. So it would need to be integrated into designs which have sufficient volume to justify a production run, and I think that is probably the most economical way that we can make this available.

EECatalog: Why is the solid-state battery market one where there are both green and brown field opportunities?

Purdy, Ilika: The temperature range is one we haven’t seen in battery technology before. A typical rechargeable lithium-ion battery will go to 60 ºC or 70 ºC, and the reason they can’t go higher than that is that they’ve got this organic liquid electrolyte in them which starts to evaporate and causes swelling in the battery and ultimately battery failure. It’s also flammable, and so it leads to battery explosions. There has been reticence to use lithium-ion technology in some industrial environments because of that. The availability of nonflammable solid state ceramic components creates the opportunity to have an inexpensive solution for monitoring in a fabrication line, for example.

Green field [opportunities] are probably more in automotive and aerospace where people are asking, “What is our car going to look like in 10 years’ time when we’ve got all this automation and electronics?”

Motorsport has always been an early adopter of new technology. [They know] they have loads of sensors now in Formula 1 vehicles to inform the driver of racing conditions. And they are interested in   wireless technology that could be enabled with this type of battery technology that could allow them to perhaps do stuff in next season’s competitions they were not able to do earlier. You often see that cascade of technology from the high-end motorsports technologies through to mainstream.

EECatalog: What steps have you taken to avoid supply source issues?

Purdy, Ilika: We use readily available materials. We screened out expensive stuff, so there are no rare earth elements in these batteries. They use standard cathode material, so we can use a range of different cathode materials: lithium cobalt oxide is used quite a lot in solid state batteries and of course in normal lithium-ion batteries as well, as the cathode.

One of the things that makes this solid-state battery different is that we use a silicon anode, and of course silicon is very cheap and widely available. It makes a robust solid-state battery if engineered in the way that we have designed these. And the encapsulation relies on well-developed techniques that have been used in the OLED industry for barrier layers. We are combining elements and materials that are quite widely available but in a unique way that gives this battery performance.