On the brink of an electric car revolution, the manufacturer of the best-selling lithium battery in Italy talks about the present and future of the industry.
Young but growing fast: The Flash Battery company, founded in 2012 by Marco Righi and Alan Pastorelli, is the manufacturer of the best-selling lithium battery in Italy. In the best traditions of start-ups, it all began out of a garage in the town of Campegine (Reggio Emilia). Today Flash Battery employs 60 people; of these, 35% work in the R&D and customisation department. We had a talk with CEO and founder Marco Righi to understand from an entrepreneur working in the field what direction the technology is moving in.
You manufacture lithium batteries for electric vehicles but not cars. Are the differences substantial in terms of technology? Have you considered producing for the automotive industry?
The automotive industry uses NMC chemistry (Nickel, Manganese, Cobalt) while we use LFP (Lithium Ferrophosphate) technology, which is the most widely used for industrial vehicles. These two worlds are not that far apart: the energy density in LFP batteries has been improved and we will be seeing them more and more in entry-level electric cars. The difference between the two sectors lies in the numbers; as far as the rest goes, there’s a continuous exchange. Flash Battery’s target is the industrial space, because ten years ago it was more receptive than the automotive industry. Many industrial vehicles were already electric at the time and this protects us from the big potential investors the battery world is attracting. The automotive industry offers a tremendous opportunity for growth, but we’re not big enough. As I see it, the big automakers will end up producing their own batteries.
The electric battery sector is growing, but Europe lags far behind Asia. Do you think we will be able shorten the gap or are we destined to remain dependent on China?
I think it’s more a question of demand lagging behind supply. China started the electrification process before us. In 2009, automakers were already producing fully electric cars and had forward-thinking strategies that drove the development. The auto world can’t import cells from China forever. Gigafactories are needed for mass production and it will be ten years before these are fully up and running. Many people are talking about it but no one’s ready. Northvolt will be the first one in 2022.
Why did you decide to take the leap on lithium batteries ten years ago?
Because a battery that delivered three times the life cycles of a lead battery at a weight three times lighter was revolutionary. There were big reliability issues, but this was more of an electronics problem, nothing to do with the chemistry. That’s why our initial focus wasn’t on producing the batteries but on the electronics behind it. We began assembling turnkey batteries only after. In the last few years, we have been focusing on the medium- to large-size industrial machinery and vehicle market – 10 kWh and over. Now I’m having a hard time imagining us hitting a ceiling: we expect to reach 50 million euros in revenue in the next three to four years. The reasons driving electrification in industry are similar to those driving the auto field, most importantly, the need to lower emissions and their impact. But also to reduce the noise impact: for example, we were called to electrify concrete mixers because their noise was too annoying in city centres.
What other kinds of vehicles have you electrified with your batteries?
When we started doing our experiments in our garage, we bought a used electric Citroen Saxo with nickel-cadmium batteries and added our nickel battery in the boot (trunk) of the car for our tests. That was the pioneering phase; now we comply with all of the automotive standards and have tested battery packs for different kinds of vehicles: last mile delivery, waste collection, garden care and maintenance, airport ground support, and multifunction vehicles for agriculture and the building construction world.
How customisable are your batteries?
Totally. We produce custom-built batteries; that’s what sets us apart from the giants. So far, we have produced more than 400 different models. In fact, our customers now come to us for expert advice. Batteries are not just simple accumulators; we monitor every parameter in the life of the battery. The data are sent to our cloud and analysed, and this is something that is very valuable in terms of predictive maintenance.
How can the recycling challenge be tackled?
Regulations at a European level are important. Each year, in addition to the Carbon Footprint declaration, there are new demands for a battery pack traceability system so that future recyclers will know what they are handling. By law, a minimum part of the material has to be sourced from recycled cells by 2030. Batteries will have a value even when they get “old’ whereas today, they are still a cost because there are no specialised waste and recycling facilities. The people working on the issue say that the batteries are 98% recyclable.
In what direction is battery technology moving? Will there be an improvement in costs and performance? And what about battery longevity?
Manufacturers are working on cutting costs, in order to boost the spread of EVs, as well as on improving performance on smaller and lighter batteries. Performance results are already excellent: four thousand life cycles cover more than generously the lifespan of a vehicle. Let’s take a car with a 350-km range: with 1000 charge cycles, it would reach a 350,000 km life, which is more than the average life of a car. In my opinion, cars will be born and will die with the same battery pack, which will then have a second life.
What about you? Do you drive an electric car?
Yes, it’s been fifteen years, ever since the Saxo. I switched to a Tesla Model S in 2013.