A new industrial revolution. That is how French President François Hollande recently described a form of technology. What would you think he was talking about — robots, automation and industry 4.0, advanced planes or perhaps driverless cars? In fact, Monsieur Hollande was referring to a new lithium battery plant. Batteries are big news in France and they’re constantly evolving. In this piece, Michele Windsor, direct sales and marketing manager of professional battery manufacturer Accutronics, looks at the key features of the French battery industry.
A French government report from September 2013 details batteries as one of 34 key priorities for French industry. The report discusses the Government's key aspirations — “we want to build a France of long-life batteries” — as well as the key French players innovating the market. These include a number of battery producers, research and development organisations of international standing and many large companies who use batteries such as Bolloré, EDF and Renault.
The global battery market is rapidly expanding and predictions by information and analysis specialist IHS show an increase from $11.8 billion in 2010, to $53.7 billion in 2020. France itself is expected to become the third most valuable market worldwide by 2020. So how does it plan to achieve this?
Research and development
A key priority is research and development (R&D). Like Accutronics, many French companies have discovered the value of R&D, in constantly evolving existing products and new ones to deliver the best value for their customers.
An example of this is the recent development of sodium-ion batteries by a French team of researchers. These were the world’s first sodium-ion batteries in the 18650 format, as used in torches and laptops. They are small and lightweight, yet have a long life cycle and an energy density which is comparable to lithium-ion.
Sodium is also a more accessible and abundant material than lithium and makes up over 2.6 per cent of the Earth’s crust. Although sodium-ion batteries are unlikely to appear on the market for several years, the technology is proof of French innovation in the field.
The old faithful
Despite the extensive R&D taking place in France, it’s clear that lithium-ion batteries are still the most efficient and elegant solution in most applications. Florence Fusalba from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) stated that the interest in lithium-ion batteries is because of their universal use.
At Accutronics, we specialise in developing and manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for medical, defence and mission-critical industrial applications. It's therefore interesting to see that the focus in France is on the use of these batteries for automotive applications.
For example, Iveco Bus is developing ultra-high power lithium-ion batteries to facilitate regenerative braking for use in its hybrid buses. A number of other large French companies, including SNCF, Air France and France Télécom, have committed to ordering around 50,000 electric vehicles, showing that demand is high in this sector.
The French Government also promotes the country as a nation of start-ups, particularly in fields such as med-tech, where the French medical device market is the second biggest in Europe.
With an aging population, the medical market is set to grow, with an obvious consequence for medical devices, and the French medical device market is set to be worth $20 billion by 2020.
Across Europe, the medical technologies market is growing. With around 7.5 per cent of European GDP being spent on medical technology, the sector is a particular target for professional battery manufacturer Accutronics.
The expansion of the homecare sector in France means that companies increasingly need portable devices which are used to monitor a patient’s condition. It is critical that these devices never fail or run out of battery life at the wrong time, which is why Accutronics has developed its range of smart batteries.
Smart batteries which feature accurate fuel gauging down to a one per cent charge are essential for portable medical devices, which may need to be taken into the hospital to be exchanged or recharged. With an accurate representation of the charge, patients and carers can be aware ahead of time when they need to take action on their device, rather than leaving it too late.
Smart batteries offer a number of features that are useful in the French medical sector. To prolong the life of the battery, which is particularly useful in the growing homecare sector, smart batteries should have a smart power management system. This means that the battery shuts down when it is not in use, which prevents it from having to be constantly recharged.
This feature is particularly useful when the device is being used once or twice a day, perhaps by a health visitor. Hibernation modes are also effective in saving power. After twelve months of storage, or in high temperatures such as during the summer in the south of France, batteries go into hibernation. This protects internal cells from losing any charge.
To protect the device’s user and the patient, batteries used in the market should feature over protection circuits. These secure the battery against over-temperature, over and under-voltage, overloading and short circuiting. In France, just as in the rest of Europe, regulations are strict for components used in medical devices and it is key that suppliers consider safety concerns and follow these regulations.
President Hollande recently announced that France will boost defence spending by €600 million in 2017. An increase in the defence spend means that the military device market is also key for the French battery industry. This requires a specific knowledge of the requirements for batteries used in the defence industry, such as the necessity for rugged and long lasting batteries.
In early 2016 Ultralife acquired Accutronics, creating a situation where the two companies, specialising in the military and medical sectors respectively, can share their expertise and resources, while remaining separate and retaining their identities.
Due to recent terrorist activity in France and the surrounding regions, there is also a focus on homeland security. Sensors, and other devices required for covert operations have specific battery requirements. The batteries must be long-lasting and must be reliable, meaning that they will not cut out at a key point in their monitoring activity.
Just like in the rest of Europe, counterfeiting is a growing problem in France. In its cornerstone statement on the topic, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development says that counterfeit products contribute to destroying 30,000 to 40,000 jobs every year in France and cause a loss of €6 billion for the national economy. This also applies to counterfeit batteries.
With the increase in demand for smart batteries in a number of sectors in France, companies could be tempted to use cheaper batteries which do not come from reliable suppliers. Particularly when containing highly reactive chemicals such as lithium, these could be very dangerous. When smart batteries are used for mission-critical devices, counterfeit batteries have the potential to fail at any time.
However, counterfeit batteries cannot always be easily spotted through a reduced price or different appearance, which is why algorithmic security should be built into the device. As featured in Accutronics’ smart batteries, this technology will either shut a device down when a counterfeit battery is detected or display a warning message. In all applications, this protects the device’s user and the reputation of the device manufacturer. With the prevalence of counterfeiting across Europe, it is important that companies take these measures.
Tailored for purpose
One of our key services at Accutronics is the bespoke design and production of batteries according to our customers' specific needs. Our neighbours across the Channel are doing the same.
The aforementioned French Government report outlines France’s plans towards more renewable energies, “we want to build a France fuelled by renewable energies, less dependent on oil and gas”.
French outlying territories in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa are currently striving towards reliance on renewable energy. For example, the island of Réunion aims to acquire 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. This will require the ability to store large amounts of energy. France is currently developing hydrogen battery storage systems for the remote-site market; the perfect example of how batteries can be designed towards specific needs.
While metropolitan France has a strong reliance on nuclear power, a major pilot project is currently underway, being managed by some of Europe’s largest power network operators, including EDF in France. The Nice Grid project, worth €30m, is working on the viability of using batteries to store renewable energy. It also looks at how citizens can be encouraged to use more of this energy during sunnier periods when more energy is available, rather than in peak evening periods. This project is an example of how new battery technologies could change the way we live our lives and could influence new smart meter technologies.
R&D the key
With strong investment in R&D and successful practical applications, the French battery market is showing great potential at the moment.
At Accutronics we have similar priorities and our years of experience in the industry, combined with our in-house testing facilities, means we can develop a battery to meet your needs, no matter what the specification. I’m sure if Monsieur Hollande was to come and visit our factory, he’d be considering us part of his new industrial revolution as well. In fact, Monsieur Hollande, if you are reading this, consider it an open invitation!