A gigafactory to make big brainy batteries is taking shape in coal country.
Many scientists, miners and engineers want to harness what Australia already has in abundance - ideas, sunshine and battery minerals.
Unique hot climate lithium technology that can also withstand the world's best hackers is being developed by energy pioneer Brian Craighead.
"It's like dot com for energy," says the Energy Renaissance founder.
"The market is changing very quickly. Sovereign supply chains have become ever crucial with security challenges set to outlast the pandemic.
"Now, the informed buyer knows what they're doing and they're saying, 'Look, I don't want to be putting a potential bomb into where my people are, I need to know where is this coming from. Is the software sound? Is the system sound? Is it safe?"
In the early days, Craighead says, everyone warned him Australia didn't make anything, so to forget about manufacturing a high-tech battery management system.
"They said, 'It isn't possible, you can't compete with the Chinese, you can't compete with the Europeans, you're too small.'
"It took a long time but eventually things changed to the opposite."
Craighead's quest began almost seven years ago.
"It was clear as day what was missing as a country," he says.
Regardless of the environmental impact, the economics of coal didn't make sense any more.
"For the first time in my life, seven years ago, I found myself just shouting at clouds, listening to these politicians and getting more and more frustrated."
But the inventor realised he didn't want to just complain.
He took his ideas to friend Mark Chilcote, then head of the engineering and construction arm of power company UGL and now managing director at Energy Renaissance.
Craighead asked a bunch of engineers what, if they could wave a wand, was the best way to accelerate Australia's shift to renewables?
"These guys had built a career on coal and gas powered plants."
He says they all knew generation would be solved by solar and wind getting cheaper and cheaper but the "unlock-key" was reliable, safe storage.
In other words: "If we can make big batteries safer and we can make them here, then the economics tip over and that's a great accelerant."
The next step was figuring out how to make and design batteries in Australia and compete with those who would always be bigger and richer.
What became very clear, very quickly, was that a successful startup would need to have something unique.
For ER, hot climate technology and Australian design could be the winning combination.
The developers say heat is a problem because it makes conventional systems more expensive - you must buy more batteries than you need because they degrade faster or you need extra batteries for cooling systems.
Battery systems and their potential connection to thousands and sometimes millions of devices can also create an enormous vulnerability as a prime target for hackers.
That matters even more when they're the backbone of a power grid or used by the military.
CSIRO principal scientist Dr Adam Best, a vital advisor for the startup, says the cyber security aspect is critical.
"Particularly with our 'Internet of Things' grid now, where everything is connected and you can talk to it and do all sorts of different energy management problem solving," he says.
The pioneers took the time to work with likely customers to understand their needs.
"Defence in our view was the hardest one to meet, if we could design something that would be good for Australian Defence, then everyone else has got a lower bar," Craighead says.
"The battery management system, the brain of the battery, is really the most important part."
"Whether it's bad actors or just bad software, either way, the larger the battery the larger the problem gets."
He says it's remarkable that with most batteries plugged into the grid in Australia, one can't be sure what that software is actually doing, where it came from and who it truly belongs to.
Teaming up with Australia's top government scientists almost five years ago, the start-up has been testing and developing the idea of a sovereign battery system ever since.
CSIRO has written cyber-secure, all-Australian software and has been involved in everything from product design to testing cooling systems.
"We wouldn't have got where we are without CSIRO because they are just a collection of geniuses," Craighead says.
"We used them across multiple levels, not just the deep hairy electrochemical things. CSIRO were the only ones we could trust to do it."
Best first met Craighead in 2018 through the industry-led Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre where people can share ideas and make contacts.
"We have a lot of people in Australia who want to do these things," he says.
"The critical thing that differentiates ER from other companies in Australia is that they're going to do things at scale, they're going to do things in volume."
CSIRO worked with the company on the first designs of the now trademarked battery management system.
"The original version looked more like a bread trolley that was from Brumbys or Bakers Delight," Best says.
Now there's a slick rack of high-tech wizardry.
"The Australian climate is very different to many climates around the world and many of our batteries are products that are coming into the country from cold climates, particularly North American and North Asia," he says.
"We started digging more into what we needed to give this an Australian flavour and what would give us the supply chain security that would mean we could design, build and supply in the country."
With CSIRO's Chris Vernon, Best wrote a landmark study on battery industries in 2020 that found Australia could be a trusted supplier and exporter of value-added products, not just raw materials.
Containing no systems from China, Israel or other potential powerhouses of cyber espionage, Energy Renaissance's sovereign product offers a potential breakthrough for sovereign supply.
There is an interface board that speaks to all the cells in the pack to provide a window on voltage, current, temperature and other information.
Another board that combines all the pack boards together to make sure all parts of the rack are at the same state of charge, balanced and are operating properly.
"We can also access it for diagnostic information, so we can look at how customers are using them and the cycle of life," Best says.
The product has been designed with weight and shipment in mind, to more easily travel vast distances.
But what is still missing is the ability to make a cell.
"That's the gaping hole in Australia's battery capability," Best says.
Australia is a world leading source of minerals that go into batteries, including lithium, nickel and cobalt.
Onshore processing is a work in progress, with big and small players looking to supply ingredients that can go directly into a battery.
"The bit that's missing is how do we assemble it all, because we just don't have that manufacturing capability," Best explains.
"That's something that Energy Renaissance is trying to pursue."
A gigafactory called Renaissance One is being built in Tomago, NSW alongside a temporary facility known as Apollo.
A chunky federal grant for advanced manufacturing at the plant could supercharge Australia's quest to do more than dig minerals out of the ground.
It's election year and Craighead is based in prime political territory in NSW's Hunter Valley.
Once Renaissance One opens, the racks will be manufactured in Australia
"It's not going to be a once-assembled never to be seen again one-off job," Best says.
"These will be able to be ordered, made and delivered from the factory. That helps to drive down cost."
Australian Associated Press
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