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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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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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