There are a number of different lithium-ion cell chemistries and Matthews is cell-agnostic

There are a number of different lithium-ion cell chemistries and Matthews is 'cell-agnostic'

Dundee (Scotland)-based Axeon claims it is Europe’s largest independent lithium-ion battery systems supplier and the UK’s only high-tech automotive battery manufacturer. Dave Leggett met up with the company's chairman, Charles Matthews.

In the rapidly evolving electric battery technology landscape, UK-based Axeon isn't the easiest of companies to pigeonhole. It is a technology development company that values research activity; the Dundee location reflects proximity to St Andrews University which has supplied more than a few scientists to Axeon over the years.

But it is making lithium-ion battery systems too, via a plant in Poland, and applications are diverse. Besides automotive, the applications for Axeon battery systems include cordless power tools (Bosch is a big Axeon customer), cordless lawn mowers, hedge-trimmers, sheep shearers, wheelchairs and even an olive tree shaker.

“The commercialisation and application of lithium-ion battery systems has accelerated over the past 8-10 years,” says Charles Matthews, Axeon's Chairman.

“Applications are now catching up with the availability of the power that is now out there for a whole variety of applications where this technology can deliver cost-effective solutions that meet market needs.”

But Axeon is a lithium-ion battery system supplier, not a lithium-ion cell manufacturer.

“That activity is undertaken by specialist firms in Taiwan, Korea and China – and to a lesser extent in Japan. The US is also becoming more significant in cell manufacture now with companies like A123 growing quickly. We know these companies and we work with most of them. Axeon cell purchases amount to around USD60m a year.”

“In automotive, an OEM will approach us and say that it needs a battery for a certain application and with certain properties or characteristics. And the cell characteristics potentially available from an array of suppliers are actually quite different. Our team in Dundee will be well aware of the different cell manufacturers' products and we are therefore in a position to validate the cell product claims, select an appropriate supplier and fully design for the end-application required by the OEM.”

And the term lithium-ion itself covers a multitude of different cell technologies.

“There are a huge number of lithium-ion chemistries out there and also under competitive development by cell manufacturers, academic institutions and government research institutes,” says Matthews.

“We at Axeon are actually cell-agnostic. We can see the strengths of different technologies to produce different outcomes on different applications. It's not that some cells are good or bad, they're all good, but they're different.”

And Matthews believes that Axeon is very well-placed to see the broader picture of competing cell technologies, their pace of development and how that ties in with current and future automotive applications.

“I spoke to a vehicle manufacturer chief executive recently and he admitted that he didn't understand the different battery technologies and that he didn't want to either. What he said he wanted was a partner who can 'future proof' his company against all the competing battery chemistries. We can pick the best cell chemistry for a vehicle application today, but the vehicle manufacturer will want to be certain that they have class-leading performance when the vehicles is updated in the future – in terms of the energy, power and capacity (space and weight) parameters for the battery powerplant. These things are central to vehicle dynamics and performance.”

Axeon's team of electro-chemists in Dundee are plotting the development of these different lithium-ion chemistries, offering that intelligent 'future proof' element that some vehicle makers want, rather than a simple contract-to-supply relationship.

“Some of this stuff is at the research stage and may or may not come to commercial fruition; others will and the pace at which they can be commercialised and brought to market will determine applications and eventual cost economics.”

Mathews is honest enough to admit that some battery cell manufacturers are sufficiently vertically integrated to be capable of working closely and directly with the vehicle manufacturer to meet its battery needs, especially on high volume applications. But he nevertheless sees a significant role for a firm like Axeon.

“There are lots of applications, even within the larger OEMs, where it's not necessarily as clear cut in terms of strategy. With the advent of a new technology like this the vehicle makers have to figure out how much in-house expertise they want to retain themselves so that they are not simply buying a 'black box'.  We are both customers of and competitors with the cell manufacturers and that puts us in a very interesting position.

“And we have also been able to bring niche business to cell suppliers who work with us that they wouldn't perhaps have gone for themselves.”

Matthews also stresses the practical experience that Axeon has with battery systems for EV applications.

“Vehicles fitted with our batteries have been driven over half a million miles in Europe and the US. We're right up there when it comes to pure EVs and the practicalities of vehicles and clocking up the mileage.”

Axeon currently produces batteries in production volume for two of the UK's leading EV suppliers -  Alied Vehicles and Modec.

Allied Vehicles are the UK's leading vehicle adaptation specialist, specialising in wheelchair accessible vehicles, taxis and minibuses.  They work with a wide range of manufacturing partners, including Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Fiat, Volkswagen, Citroën, Ford and Iveco.  Axeon initially designed and manufactured a lithium-ion battery for a conversion of the Peugeot Expert.

Axeon is now working with Allied to develop a battery for a conversion of a Boxer van.  Axeon and Allied are also collaborating on a project to develop and trial 30 electric Peugeot Partners in Glasgow, Scotland, over a 12-month period.  This project is part-funded by the UK government's Technology Strategy Board (a UK government funding initiative for technology-led projects that reduce CO2 emissions).

Modec's 5.5 tonne commercial vehicle was designed from the start as an EV and not a conversion.  Modec then approached Axeon with a request to improve battery performance using lithium-ion technology. Modec says it has more commercial EVs powered by lithium-ion batteries on European roads than any other manufacturer.

Axeon also supplies an electric conversion company in the UK that specialises in converting the Citroen C1 small car.

Lithium-ion batteries have also been supplied by Axeon to prototypes across the industry ranging from sports cars, electric scooters, buses and various industrial vehicles.

It's a diverse business model for Axeon in terms of the industries and applications for its technologies, but the growing significance of electric drive technology in the UK's auto industry – a central plank of the government-chaired Automotive Council's strategy - is not lost on Matthews.

“We are an important part of the growing EV supply chain in Britain,” he says. “It's going to become hugely important for this economy.”

Axeon is privately owned and annual revenues are around GBP65m. The EV business is estimated at 10-15% of Axeon's overall activity. 

Matthews sees bright prospects ahead for the automotive side.

“We are investing quite a bit in the automotive development side of the business at the moment,” maintains Matthews.

“If we accept some of the industry forecasts that one in ten vehicles could be electric in one form or another by, say, 2020 and that the global vehicle market by then is around 100m vehicles a year, then that's a very considerable 10m-unit annual market.

“That's a bit rule-of-thumb but I think we can certainly say that the pressures from the climate change agenda, the relative price of oil, as well as the energy security and independence drivers, will be creating what seem to be almost unstoppable pressures to deliver alternative energy sources for automotive applications.”

As far as electric drive passenger vehicles are concerned, there's a lot to play out in terms of different patterns of usage, household preferences and so on, which will determine the evolving market mix of traditional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, Volt-style range extenders and pure electric vehicles.

Axeon sees a niche for itself in helping the electric drive sector as a whole develop, building on its expertise as a lithium-ion battery systems supplier over a wide range of applications, an open-minded attitude to competing cell technologies and its relationships with both cell manufacturers and OEMs. 

But the company, perhaps informed by its experience in supplying to light commercial vehicle makers, is particularly upbeat about prospects for electric vehicles in urban delivery.

“Electric vehicles score particularly highly on urban delivery,” Matthews says. “Many will tend to have a fixed pattern of use, the operators know what the range requirements are on a daily basis and when they return to the depot they can be recharged. And because they are silent, they can be used at night with no noise pollution. In addition, as well as the CO2 saving benefits, they are not emitting particulates so there is a positive impact on air quality.”