“We Are Very Good At Innovating New Kinds Of Products And Technologies”, Akshay Singhal, Log 9 Materials

Highlights :

  • The battery, and battery charging space is probably the most fertile space for startups in energy right now.
  • Log 9 materials has been a real innovator here, with its promised aluminium fuel cell batteries, and a rapid charging technology that is already being rolled out.

Bengaluru-based Log 9 Materials shot into the limelight (again) recently after Amara Raja batteries, a leader in the domestic automotive battery market, invested in the firm.

Log 9 Materials is using its core competence in Graphene nanotechnology to develop advanced energy storage technologies from electrode materials, cell to pack level. Their rapid charging battery packs solve the challenges in adoption for the 2W and 3W electric vehicle platforms while their Aluminium Fuel Cell technology research is targeted towards the electrification of long haul, heavier vehicles.

Log9 has successfully collaborated with major companies in the last mile B2B intracity delivery sector like Amazon, Shadowfax, Delhivery, Porter, Vogo, EBikeGo, ITC, Zoom Cars, etc for its battery pack solutions. Group Editor Prasanna Singh caught up with Akshay Singhal, Founder and CEO, for a chat on the firm’s plans and hopes going forward.

Q. Prasanna. Let’s start with the Log 9 Materials in the company name. Where did that come from?

Akshay Singhal, Founder and CEO,

Dr. Akshay Singhal, Founder, Log 9 Materials

So, because we primarily are a material science company and in that we are dealing with nano materials like graphene and carbon nano materials. So nano is 10 to the power minus nine meters (One billionth of a metre). So that’s the reference from logarithmic 9, log nine.

Q. Now of course we see log9 materials in many areas, right from rapid charging to the oil spill products, battery…

Yeah. The enabler for all of the different products and technologies that there are in the market from Log 9 Materials is basically nanotechnology. So the competency of Log 9 Materials around nanotechnology and nano materials is what helps us build these revolutionary products and put them in the market.

Q. Which one of your products has you most excited for the future?

So although the focus of the company is towards batteries and electric vehicles, it’s purely from a battery perspective. That’s the focus of the company. We did have a lot of other products like you spoke about. Those are more of our side development and side technology that we have come up with over time, the focus and excitement remains around energy storage itself.

Q. Okay. So when you say energy storage, we are talking about the aluminium battery?

Akshay-So we are talking about two technologies here. One is the aluminium fuel cell, or as you call it aluminium air battery, that is one aspect technology and the other one, being our rapid charging battery packs. So, these are two distinct technologies: aluminium fuel cell is a refilling concept, which consumes aluminium as a fuel and provides energy and that technology is targeted more towards your long-haul vehicles, whereas a rapid charging battery technology is a charge-discharge-based technology like any other lithium-ion technology, but provides you benefits of very rapid charging time and at the same time, very long life and very high performance vehicles .So this technology is targeted towards the intra-city segment: two-wheeler, three-wheeler, four-wheeler for the intra-city commercial fleet applications. So that’s how we are kind of positioning these two technologies in the market.

Q. And what are the plans in terms of taking these technologies to market? How far would they progress over the next two years?

Akshay– So rapid-charge is already in the market. We have already, done a lot of the successful pilots with various last-mile fleet operators. We also have made announcements with OEM partners for launching the vehicles in the market. We have received ARAI certifications on our battery packs and the commercial rollout, wherein we’ll start deploying on a regular basis is due for October this year.

Q. You were in the news recently for the investment from Amara Raja batteries. Amara Raja is of course among the leaders in the lead acid battery segment. How do they see your segment?

Akshay- If you look at the way our organization is structured, we are very good at innovating new kinds of products and technologies. And the idea is that whatever we are able to make that has a product market fit, post that Amara Raja’s experience and resources can help us scale up. Setting up large-scale manufacturing, last scale distribution.

Q. One of the key things that you stressed on is the fact that whether it is the aluminium cell battery or any other product right now, it’s all about the circular economy for you, you know, it’s completely recyclable. Even lead asset battery firms stress on how lead is completely recyclable and lead recycle rates are almost 85-90% worldwide. That, combined with the extremely lower cost of lead acid batteries, how will that play out in a market like India?

Akshay- So that is not going to play out well in the future because lead acid batteries and the technology is obsolete now in that sense. In terms of battery technology, when it comes to your total energy that can be stored per kg of battery pack, which is what we call as energy density. At the same time, the cycle lives are far higher now, even with the worst of lithium-ion as compared to your lead acid battery. So from that perspective, although the upfront cost definitely is higher, but your cost per unit of electricity stored or cost per unit time the battery is being used for is far, far lower in the advanced technologies. And also a lot of times we have a tendency, at least in India, to kind of ignore the maintenance costs and the replacement hassles associated with any technology or product.

But market is now changing with more structuring happening across use cases when it comes to vehicles and otherwise, and people are doing these calculations, especially your fleet operators, commercial users which is because every penny is important when it comes to per kilometre cost. So from that perspective, lead acid doesn’t play out at all in mobility long term or even in case of stationary backup.

Q. We have seen how you shared the challenge of convincing people about your own Aluminium fuel cell battery. How have you managed to get investors to buy in finally?

Akshay- So the thing is that where aluminium fuel cell as a concept, plugs in is when basically positioned for long-haul mobility. And the reason I say that is because with any kind of battery technology where you’re charging and discharging, you can’t really go for a thousand kilometres or fifteen hundred kilometres at a stretch, right? And in many cases, if you do the math, it turns out that if you actually build a vehicle with a thousand kilometre range, then you will only be carrying the battery and not load in the vehicle. And that’s the reason why even the government has pushed for using some kind of a fuel cell for long haul mobility. The hydrogen mission and all of those kinds of things. We are saying that hydrogen is an option, but we don’t think hydrogen is an option for the Indian economy. Because the upfront cost is very high.

At the same time, there are a lot of safety risks associated with it, especially when it comes to the Indian conditions, because hydrogen requires pressurized tanks. It is very explosive and all of those challenges are there. So that is one side of the story. In case of Aluminium, it is basically a solid fuel, so you don’t need any kind of infrastructure to store it. You can take a warehouse throw aluminium inside it and it will be there as long as you want it. Right? So, that is easier distribution for the fuel itself. At the same time, the upfront cost is definitely far cheaper than hydrogen and all the materials, components required for making aluminium fuel cells are available within the country.

Moving on to our rapid charging battery pack that we are putting forward we are able to offer not only very, very rapid charging. So your fleet can run for a longer time on the road than waiting for the vehicle to be charged. But at the same time, again, safety is a very big parameter over there. So irrespective of temperature, whether you’re running it in Bangalore or whether you’re running it in the peak heat of Delhi, or even Siachen, there is no impact on battery performance or there is no risk of any kind of catastrophic failure in the battery pack. You would’ve already heard of even Tesla’s battery packs catching fire and all of those things. We are coming up with a bunch of safety-related videos around our battery packs, where if you do any kind of accidental damage to the pack, or even throw it in an open flame, nothing is going to happen unlike the other batteries which are out there.

Q. So how do we make aluminium fuel cells green like Green Hydrogen is being discussed? After the battery has converted, it has to be reprocessed back to aluminium, right?

Akshay- In the case of aluminium fuel cell the aluminium hydroxide that is generated now, that can be converted back into aluminium metal using green energy. And if you look at it, it can be far more efficient because right now, the reason we have these aluminium smelters located where they are is because the mines are closer to that place.

So it’s the mines that are defining where the smelter will come up. But when you have vehicles running on this and producing what the mine is giving you- so aluminium hydroxide is what will come from the mine first from smelting, right? It’s the same thing, which you get out of the aluminium fuel cell as well. In that perspective, there can be decentralized smaller smelters in every, district or every state to start with. And then you can kind of power it up with a solar installation or the wind installation in that. And that’s similar to your hydrogen economy concept of using renewable energy to split water and create hydrogen. So it’s the same concept.

Q. But what about use cases in large scale storage? Is there a possibility there?

Akshay- Coming to another aspect of solving intermittency in the solar and wind site is from our rapid charging-based solution. So what we are putting as the rapid battery charging solution in the market, the same technology can be used as a power backup or a storage battery pack also on the grid. And when you do that, what happens is because in case of lithium[1]ion also typically you will look at a life of two to three years’ time because that’s when you’ll be able to use up the entire cycle of the battery packs. Whereas in our case the battery life would be at least 15 years and potentially up to 30 years. So from that perspective, if you look at our RTC (Round the clock) solar project today, right? What happens here is that your battery cost, the cost of storage alone is around five rupees(per kWh)). Whereas cost of generation would be somewhere around two rupees but two plus five becomes seven rupees, which is not viable, right? Whereas in our case, you will have the cost of storage at only two, or around two and a half rupees. So, club that with the cost of generation, which is two rupees, and you have RTC at a much lower cost. And that is very valuable because then you can sell round-the-clock power at six rupees, seven rupees in the market. That is something which we are already coming up with. We will have a pilot plant also combined with solar sometime early next year.

Q. So in your case for the aluminium fuel cell, once the aluminium is oxidised, we swap the battery?

Akshay- Well, you don’t swap the entire battery, just refuel it. So basically instead of just putting in liquid fuel that I could do today in your vehicle, you’re basically putting a solid plate fuel.

Q. So in your case, you would have to set up enough centres to replace those?

Akshay- Yes. Even existing fuel stations could be used. In this case, all you need is the physical space to kind of store aluminium plates, then manually you can put in a new plate set and just remove the previous one.

Log 9 Materials

Q. Okay. And what, when you raised this money from investors, what is the big promise there? The aluminium fuel cell or the rapid charging battery pack?

Akshay- Both. The idea is to indigenize more and more on the rapid charging side. We are possibly the first company, which has cell level competency, local cell-level technology and competency to produce sales at the local level in India right now. And the idea is that within 24 months, we will set up a commercial cell level production line on our high power lithium sets which are going in the rapid charging battery pack. Okay. At the same time, the aluminium fuel cell is something which will be optimized over that two, two to three[1]year period, before launch in the market.

Q. What do you think of Tesla? Do you think they offer lessons for firms here

Akshay- Tesla is a great example of a firm that that has disrupted massively, even as incumbents kept ignoring it. Our own auto makers need to take lessons from that, or risk becoming redundant in time. People must set aside their ego and consider the changes that are happening. In EV’s today, you have Chinese firms dominating the market, firms that barely existed a decade ago. Simply because many of the erstwhile leaders refused to change in time.

Q. Going aside for a moment, tell us about the Corona oven. You had some commercial success there I believe.

Akshay- So that was a great thing that we were able to contribute towards the pandemic. And I’m happy that instead of just sitting on our hands at home during the first year of the pandemic, we were able to deliver that product and launch it in the market. Kudos to the team for being able to do it in flat 15days time from idea to the first shipment going out. Definitely we had a lot of sales happening last year. This year, the retail sales have definitely gone down. This project is now emerging as a more B2B product wherein, seeing a lot of interest in this product for general sanitization needs of your first responders like hospitals, ICUs, Police etc. We are even sending these to other countries now.

Q. So do you have separate team to market the corona over?

Akshay- No, we don’t have a separate team, particularly for Corona oven. We are looking for partners who can acquire this technology and take it forward. We have set up partnerships in place. We have distributors, and this is more global in that sense right now.

Q. Among all the battery chemistry’s/ technologies that are around right now, which ones do you feel have been really innovative and have high potential?

Akshay- So the thing is that one of the key things that we missed out generally, and I’ve seen this across the ecosystem itself is a quest to find the ultimate battery technology, which is never going to happen. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, which will suffice your stationary needs, your mobility needs. And in mobility also all sort of different kind of vehicle requirements and use cases. So there will be a play of four, five technologies that the market will consolidate. Some technologies have their very niche play, be it long haul for aluminium fuel cells, or very short hauls for some others.

Q. Could you give me a benchmark price right now that, where you expect this to be on a per, per kilowatt basis, aluminium fuel cells?

Akshay- So if you do a kilowatt hour kind of an equivalent, then on a kilowatt/hour basis purely, it’ll come up to be around $17, $20 per kilowatt hour.

Q. How has being in Bengaluru helped you?

Akshay- Bangalore had made a difference to us in many ways, not just one at a business level, but personal level too. One of the things, like slightly on a side note, I think the problem with places like Delhi and Bombay, especially Delhi and the North is that half of the year we are cribbing about the heat. And half of the year we are cribbing about the cold.

Whereas if you have a climate like Bangalore’s, then you are more peaceful and then you can focus on your work. I think that that has been a very wonderful experience. And that’s why I always like the city when I used to visit Bangalore before, even before moving here Also, if you look at the traditional R&D centres of hardcore technologies, many R&D centres are in Bangalore. For example, you have AstraZeneca here, you have ISRO here, you have IIS, which is already there.

The DRDO has an R&D centre here. So all of these new age technology development centres have been in Bangalore. And when you have these centres here, you also get the talent pool, which is basically popping up in this city. At the same time, you also get a lot of support-structure because, because these centres are there, there will be a lot of vendors who are supplying stuff to these centres, and hence you can tap into that entire ecosystem. So that has been very beneficial for Log 9 Materials, because when we were developing our tech, and when we are doing prototyping and all of it, so vendors, talent, pool, everything was available in the city, and we didn’t have to kind of go to Mumbai or go to Chennai or whatever.

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