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EVs likely to play a big role in transformation of urban mobility in India: Nikhilesh Mishra

S Muralidhar Chennai | Updated on February 05, 2021

Nikhilesh Mishra, Co-founder, Grinntech

By 2025, many analysts predict EV sales in India approaching 4 million units annually, says Co-founder of Grinntech

Tesla’s imminent entry into India has stirred up even more interest about electric vehicles, an auto industry sector that has already been abuzz with activity. Aspiring new entrants and an expectedly favourable policy environment are generating unprecedented interest in the EV ecosystem.

Many of the newcomers in the Indian EV space are similarly circumstanced, like Tesla, which was a Silicon Valley start-up in its early days, with no prior expertise in making automobiles, but with a passionate, visionary technocrat at its helm. Emerging from hype into reality, EVs across categories in India are witnessing significant action today. Driven by the burgeoning start-up ecosystem, new companies and their EVs are being announced almost every day.

Grinntech raises funds, launches new range of EV batteries

Sitting at the critical end of the EV industry vendor base is Grinntech, an investor-backed start-up specialising in Lithium-ion batteries for EVs and energy-storage systems. Grinntech’s facility in Chennai has the capacity to produce 400MWh of Li-ion batteries and battery management systems for use in two-wheelers, three-wheelers, tractors and light vehicles. Nikhilesh Mishra, Co-founder, Grinntech, spoke to BusinessLine about emerging EV industry trends and the challenges surrounding going electric. Excerpts:

Are we at the cusp of a revolution that will sweep ICE vehicles out of our streets?

Yes, it now seems that the industry has passed the inflection point. In Europe, for example, more EVs (including plug-in hybrids) were registered compared to diesel vehicles this past September. As a result, investors seem to place a very high value on pure-play EV manufacturers — not only Tesla but also companies like Rivian. Legacy manufacturers like GM and VW are also touting their new EV products and participating in the market euphoria. In India too, the momentum is evident. This is measured by the growing number of EVs (including scooters) being sold and the number of new models being launched.

Grinntech to establish EV battery manufacturing facility in TN

Furthermore, India’s policies to accelerate adoption of EVs is also beginning to pay dividends and we may expect a huge transformation in EV mobility in the coming decade. Given the patterns of urban mobility in India (shorter distances, lower speeds, etc) this market is highly suited to play a big role in the transformation. By 2025, many analysts predict EV sales in India approaching 4 million units annually (mostly two-wheelers and three-wheelers).

With the price of Li-ion batteries plummeting, is the prospect of more affordable EVs at our doorstep? What is the current market scenario?

As the industry gains maturity with Li-ion batteries, we are increasingly aware of its complexities. Unlike a lead-acid battery, there are complexities related to cell-chemistry (Ferrous Polymer, Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt, etc) and cell-format (pouch, prismatic, cylindrical, etc). Furthermore, a battery is made up of the cells along with its unique structural and thermal ‘pack’ design that further affects performance, safety (minimising fire hazards, for example) and battery life. While, in aggregate, cell prices are reducing with growing scale, there is still a lot of variance depending upon safety and performance specifications.

There are, therefore, two aspects to battery cost.

One, the design of the battery pack along with its electronic battery management systems (BMS) and operational software will have a profound effect on safety and performance. As in so many domains, it is more important to evaluate the “value” of a battery rather than its “cost”. A low-quality battery pack can lead to serious accidents — for example, batteries catching fire; and even a company as renowned as Tesla paid a heavy price when such accidents came to light a few years ago.

Two, manufacturing scale is an important factor. In this regard the initiative by the Government of India to encourage local cell manufacturing at a decent scale will provide a big boost to cost reduction. It will also further the goal of the government to encourage local manufacture of cells and battery packs and avoid reliance on imports from China.

For both reasons, we can expect more affordable batteries, going forward.

What are the new developments in battery chemistry that will help improve the range of EVs?

There are impressive recent developments in Anode, Cathode as well as Separators and other components. The primary goals are (a) to reduce the cost of the battery, (b) increase durability and life, (c) increase energy density and (d) improve ability to handle more power. Within the last five years the Cathode has advanced from NMC 111 giving around 140Wh/kg to contemporary NMC 811 giving 300+ Wh/kg. There are parallel advancements in Anode where the use of Silicon mixed with Graphite is further increasing the energy density.

Increased energy density contributes to lowering vehicle cost and achieving longer range, but it comes with elevated safety risks. Storing more energy in a small volume and lighter materials poses a bigger risk of thermal runaway (potentially leading to fire) in case of any accident.

We have seen some cases of fire accidents in new-generation batteries having high energy density. These incidents were the result of battery designs that were not thorough and robust, both in BMS as well as design. New generation high-density batteries can be safely used only when the battery pack design is correspondingly sophisticated and the BMS (hardware and software) adequately capable. Hence, as new products get launched, manufacturers must pay attention to these aspects to ensure that their products can have a safe launch in the market and sustain brand reputation.

The EV ecosystem in India is underdeveloped and there is not enough awareness about the risks involved with handling high-voltage BEVs. Can you elaborate on the risks and their mitigation?

In the pursuit of efficiency, EV manufacturers are seeking higher operating voltage — in the case of the Porsche Taycan up to 800 Volts. Even in India the more experienced car makers are seeking to operate at 350+ Volts and for buses up to 800 Volts. Even the last-mile L5 class of vehicles are looking at 100 Volts for efficiency. Working with high-voltage electrical machines brings attendant safety risks, especially when proper training and understanding is absent. Only manufacturers possessing requisite skill and experience are able to tap the higher efficiencies from this strategy. Manufacturers employing low voltage solutions will be resigned to lower efficiency. The solution is to develop not only the technologies (pack design, BMS hardware and software) to handle high voltage but also the training of the people involved (in manufacturing, sales, and service) to make them comfortable working with high-voltage systems and avoid any accidents.

Our experience (at Grinntech) from several products and projects operating at up to 1,100 Volts has highlighted the challenges across product sectors. Good training and detailed protocols are necessary and with it one can choose the right voltage according to the application and efficiency requirements.

How can safety be built into EVs from ground-up? Should the government be looking at a new regulatory environment and a different department/agency for rescue services, given the unique nature of EVs?

Safety of an EV depends on multiple factors but most of them are somehow connected with battery. These safety concerns could be fire hazard as well as risk for electrical shock. When an EV is being designed, the complete architecture needs to be considered. Even mundane topics like mechanical mounting of battery, cooling of battery, integration and communication of all components, etc., must be carefully considered. This will ensure that no component is operating outside of its safe operating zone. Thus, when any component is at risk for failure, the overall system can identify the risk and the rest of the system can shut down in a safe way. These in-built safety protocols can allow EV manufacturers to use the design operating envelope more fully and this has an economic benefit.

For example, a Lithium-ion battery should not be discharged at high current while its temperature is very low as it can catch fire in those conditions. If the battery cannot communicate with the vehicle, the motor will not know the maximum safe limit of current draw from the battery. In this situation either (a) motor will draw excessive current and create a hazardous situation or (b) it could be conservative in current draw and will not fully utilise the potential of the battery. Communication between battery and motor (or to a VCU) can simplify the situation and enable a much more capable and safe system.

There are two takeaways. One, vehicle certification processes need to keep pace with developments. Two, the tendency to import container loads of EV kits and EV batteries from overseas suppliers of dubious quality or unvalidated capabilities and offer those products to Indian customers must be avoided.

Published on February 05, 2021

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