Aftrak $1m innovation award for lead battery project

Aftrak $1m innovation award for lead battery project

Aftrak $1m innovation award for lead battery project 988 586 Batteries International

May 10, 2024: As with all the best ideas, it started over a Kuche-Kuche beer in a Malawi bar 18 months ago. This week that lightbulb moment culminated in a $1 million prize for the innovation and development of a lead battery energy system that could transform large swathes of rural Africa.

The initiative, named Aftrak, was borne as CBI’s research and  project director Carl Telford, and Loughborough University academic, Jonathan Wilson, were enjoying a drink of Malawi’s most famous brew while in Africa pitching another project. Wilson had a sudden epiphany. What would be so hard in combining a microgrid powered by solar renewables, lead batteries and an electric tractor?

The answer was that it would of course be difficult. The question (over another beer) was whether it was doable?

It was a challenge that Telford, who has a background in similar operations, happily embraced by putting all the parts and players together. CBI and Loughborough put the team together. Within a few months of acting as project manager Telford had created a basic framework.

The UK’s Loughborough University would do the basic engineering designs, and the CBI would organize the funding using finance from the UK’s Innovate UK pot and also run the project.

Tiyeni, a Malawian charity (also a UK NGO) came onboard to handle the local logistics and with a network of some 30,000 farmers in the country would also be a key figure in the practicalities and future roll-out of the project … if successful.

International battery manufacturer, Clarios, agreed to supply Varta-branded, deep cycle truck batteries to power the electric tractors.

A huge amount was at stake. For the local farmers, an affordable electric tractor that could deal with the problem of so-called hard pan earth found in many parts of the country would be life-changing. Hard pan earth is when the topsoil is compacted and makes it difficult for water and roots to penetrate.

Tiyeni estimates that use of the electric tractors will boost crop yields by three times, creating a virtuous circle that would generate the extra money to increase the affordability of the electric tractors as well as boost the lives of villages that might be totally off-grid or have little power supply.

Part of the cleverness of the design is that the final product can be fitted together with a screwdriver and a hammer — a flatpack assembly accessible for anyone to use.

“We’ve now got one prototype tractor in place and operational,” says Telford. “And a second is almost ready.”

The immediate question to ask — since the entire battery storage industry seems to be shifting towards lithium — why use lead batteries?

The answer, quite simply, is one of cost and suitability. Although lead battery performance decreases with heat, it is better placed to deal with high temperatures than lithium — maximum temperatures in Malawi’s hot wet season can reach 35°C — so the economics of running it are far simpler.

“If we were to use lithium batteries for storage we’d have to introduce a cooling system and that would be more expensive and complicate the ease of assembly,” says Telford. “And then we have to think about the fact that lithium batteries are impossible to recycle economically and are more expensive to buy. Lead may be heavier but this isn’t a factor here.”

All their pioneering work culminated in an award ceremony last Monday in Hollywood, California where the Aftrak team received the Milken-Mostepe prize of $1 million for green energy. The money which comes from the Milken Institute and the Mostepe Foundation will be used to extend the project.

The run-up to winning the award — there were hundreds of entries from 79 countries — highlighted the intense competition for the prize.

“Our team was chosen in June 2023 by an independent panel of judges as one of 20 semi-finalists to receive $20,000 and test our solution combining solar array, battery energy storage and micro electric tractor,” says Alistair Davidson, executive director of the CBI.

The judges, who awarded $1 million to extend the project, praised Aftrak for designing a system that includes an easily assembled solar microgrid and custom-designed tractors, which have tripled agricultural yield, increased farmer incomes, and provided electricity to remote communities.

“After a successful test in Loughborough, Aftrak was then one of five teams to advance to the final round. With an additional $70,000, we conducted a successful live demonstration in South Africa this February,” Davidson said.

Rolling out the micro-electric tractor system could support up to 500 million African farmers, says Patrice Motsepe, the South African billionaire who helped set up the prize. Motsepe joined The Giving Pledge in 2013 which commits him to giving up half of his wealth to charitable causes.

The initial roll-out will continue in Malawi but is then likely to be extended to neighboring countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.