May 20, 2024: Electric mobility evangelist Ashok Jhunjhunwala, founder and president of IIT Madras Research Park, is considered by the electric vehicle industry as the man driving next-gen innovation in the sector. In an interview with TOI, he discusses the new technologies being incubated at the research park (and some outside) — some feasible, some fundable and some just plain fanciful.


● A lot of the next-gen EV innovation globally is looking at alternative battery chemistry, moving away from lithium ion to other compounds. Are any of the
research park startups focusing on this?

Yes, there is a startup doing something along these lines, but it is only focusing on lithium variations. I know some companies out there are looking at sodium ion and other options, but these alternatives are not looking that good. Any alternative [to lithium ion] has to make economic as well as technological sense. A whole lot of different chemistry can be done with lithium itself and the startup I am talking about is working on one such alternative. Companies
are also working on battery cells – on how to make them more efficient. Right now, their focus is how to enable the battery to charge quickly, in 15 to 20 minutes flat. Most batteries get spoiled when you charge fast, but this company is working on fast-charging batteries that still retain their life expectancy.

● Are any of the startups looking at replacing some of the precious elements used
in the battery?

They are looking at it but there is nothing that I can claim yet. Currently, focus is still on variations of the lithium ion battery. Some are looking at sodium ion too but that’s at a very R&D stage and will not be ready for production in the next three to five years.

● What about work on reducing the weight of the battery pack?Already aluminium and even plastics are being used alongside special sealants. Are any projects
looking at that?

Typically, EV battery pack consists of cells, busbars and packaging. [A busbar is a metallic strip inside the switchgear or panel boards for electric power distribution.] Now, the packaging can be anything and plastic or metal are options. For busbars, copper is currently used. But whether other busbars will conduct as much current is not yet clear. To reduce weight, metal can be replaced by plastic but there are issues of heat dissipation particularly in Indian conditions.
There are no quick fixes and currently we are focusing on getting the EV up and working.

● Are any companies in the research park working on hydrogen concepts?

There are companies in the research park (not necessarily incubated by IIT Madras) that are working on both electrolysers [electrolysers use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and are a critical technology to produce hydrogen] and fuel cells. But the economics of both are not very good. So, they are a work in progress.

● You have talked about retrofitment from diesel to electric, particularly for three-wheelers. Are you thinking of expanding that concept to two-wheelers?

What we’re doing is taking old batteries and attempting to recondition them. We are looking at what the value proposition is for that. When we see enough of old batteries available, we can attempt that. Recycling of old batteries can be done and should be done. What that means is after the battery gets used up, we can extract the elements from it and reuse it to make new batteries. That recycling work is definitely going on. That is very critical and will get done in the
next five to six years. Right now we are getting cell phone batteries we are looking at recycling.

● EV makers say that going forward software will be the differentiator. Are there some projects working on this segment?

Well, the software provides and drives the features for the vehicle and there is a lot of work going on in that area. Internationally, there is a lot of work on autonomous vehicles too, but in India it is not clear which way autonomous vehicles will go. I know some companies are working on it — not in the research park but outside – though fairly early stage. Publication: The Times of India

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