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Battery revolution upon us

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Although the evolution of the lithium-ion battery has been slow in the past few years, there are some new opportunities and potential markets in the industry for companies to take advantage of, writes DR XIAOXI HE, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx.

Many interests have been raised within the battery business in 2015 through a number of activities: the launch of Tesla’s Powerwall with low prices supported by the capability of Gigafactory, Apple’s patent relating to charging and managing power in a device with solid-state batteries, LG Chem’s opening of a mega battery plant in Nanjing, Bosch’s purchase of polymer solid-state battery company Seeo, etc. Not to mention the tremendous number of investment, acquisitions, partnerships and joint ventures.

At the same time, new battery technologies are appearing continuously with descriptions like “doubled performance”, “charged in a few minutes”, “cost reduction of more than 70%”, making the public even more confused about the real breakthroughs. However, one can provide a clear perspective of emerging technologies, new opportunities and potential markets in the battery industry.

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Opportunities can be found from different dimensions

Since the first introduction by Sony in the 1990s, lithium-ion batteries have become one of the most familiar and common battery technologies in our life. The involving technologies are relatively mature and the facilities are in place. With the expansion of existing manufacturing plants by battery giants such as Samsung SDI, LG Chem and Panasonic, economy of scale will be further achieved. However, with so many advantages, the improvement of lithium-ion batteries is slow compared with other electronic components, both in terms of performance and cost reduction. The liquid electrolyte used in the traditional lithium-ion batteries may cause serious safety concerns. On the other hand, with the development of wearable devices, printed electronics, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and electric vehicles, batteries with more features, more powerful performances and lower costs are required. Those factors have motivated players to find bigger opportunities.

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Therefore, the battery industry is explored based on a number of different dimensions. Interests have been aroused in:

      Thin-film batteries (based on thickness)

      Micro-batteries and large-area batteries (based on size)

      Flexible batteries (based on mechanical properties)

      Special-shape batteries (based on form factors)

      Printed batteries (based on manufacturing methods)

      Solid-state, lithium anode, silicon anode batteries (based on technologies)

      Energy storage system (ESS) and electric vehicle (EV) applications (based on applications)

All the areas listed above indicate new opportunities. Those areas may be influenced by each other and may have some overlap. For instance, batteries with better technologies may be used in ESS and EV applications, providing better safety and better performance. A thin-film battery is also flexible, and can be made by printing, or based on all solid-state components, or be very small. Market growth of these areas is affected by the costs. Except the last one (ESS and EV applications), the others are also limited significantly by technology maturity. The IDTechEx Research report “Flexible, Printed and Thin Film Batteries 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players” focuses on the first 4 areas as well as solid-state batteries with these features.

Further cost reduction may not rely on technology improvement

Battery technology improvement is based on electrochemical restriction and it is difficult to have sudden significant breakthroughs. In addition, a practical battery is a combination of many considerations including, but not limited to, energy density, power density, lifetime, safety and cost. Many press releases may emphasis one or several improvements but avoid talking about the others. Most existing commercial batteries are already based on relatively mature, proven technologies, but some of them are not well-known. Examples include thin-film solid-state batteries and printed batteries. As the battery development is a long and difficult process, future battery cost reduction are mainly rely on economy of scale, little on technology improvement.

Regulations and policies play a significant role in large deployment

In May 2013 the German market incentive program for battery storage systems was introduced which changed the residential battery installation structure immediately, with 2,700 installations to enjoy the incentives in 2013, jumping to 13,100 by 2015. Also, China’s decision to remove subsidies for nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) batteries for electric buses also crucially influenced this industry. It indicated that for ESS or EV applications, self-sustainability has not been fully achieved and therefore policy changes can affect them greatly.

Batteries with new technologies will be tried in small gadgets first

Large devices or systems generally require high reliability and safety. Therefore, new battery technologies will tend not to be applied in them initially or in short-term period. Toyota, for example said in January of 2014 that it was working on solid-state battery technologies for cars, but the firm did not expect to have a product within a decade.

Apple also paid lots of attention in solid-state batteries, but it is focusing on portable electronics /wearables /MEMs applications. As early as 2013, the US Patent & Trademark Office already published a patent application from Apple that revealed charging techniques for solid-state batteries. In early 2014, Apple bought all the patents from Infinite Power Solutions after it stopped trading, a company previous working on solid-state thin-film batteries. In November 2015, Apple published another patent related to thin-film solid-state batteries.

In solid-state lithium ion batteries, both the electrodes and the electrolyte are solid-state. Solid-state electrolyte normally behaves as the separator as well. It is safer, especially for those with inorganic solid electrolyte (all organic electrolytes are flammable, no matter whether solid or liquid). Solid-state electrolytes allow scaling due to the elimination of certain components (e.g. separator and casing). Therefore, they can potentially be made with a higher energy density. In addition, they are more resistant to changes in temperature and physical damages occurred during usage. Therefore they can handle more charge/discharge cycles before degradation, promising a longer life time. Due to the flexibility of the casing and without the limitation of liquid electrolyte, solid-state batteries can be made into different form factors, sizes and shapes.

However, the ionic conductivities of solid-state batteries at room temperatures are generally low. In addition, they usually have high internal resistance due to the unstable solid electrolyte interface (SEI). Most solid-state batteries suffer from low C-rate and may not be able work at room temperature. Examples include 3000 taxis in France with solid-state batteries working at elevated temperatures. Also, solid-state batteries are much more expensive. The current low C-rate, low power makes them suitable to be applied in small devices earlier.

Thinness, flexibility and printed possibility will be the most addressed features

As new battery technologies will be applied in small electronic gadgets first, new features beyond traditional capabilities such as thinness, flexibility and printed Possibility will be addressed. According to IDTechEx Research in the report “Flexible, Printed and Thin Film Batteries 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players”, there are other technologies that can make thin, flexible and printed batteries besides solid-state batteries, such as printed carbon zinc batteries and thin lithium-ion pouch batteries.

The total market of thin, flexible and printed batteries will reach $471 million by 2026. Most of those batteries are for small or mediate power devices and focus on form factor, thickness, size and manufacturing aspects, but they share technologies that can be used for other applications. Similar to the development roadmap of traditional lithium-ion batteries from consumer electronics to EV and ESS, batteries with new technologies may target consumer electronics as the initial entry. Even bigger opportunities for new technologies will come after approval in these applications.

For traditional battery technologies, demand is further created in the EV and ESS sectors as the growth in consumer electronics is approaching a plateau. Cost reduction is the key.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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