Rocket science: Adapting aerospace technology for a revolutionary battery cooling system

13/01/2021

There’s a long history of aerospace technologies being adapted for the automotive industry. Carbon composites, disc brakes and seat belts were all pioneered in aviation before making the transition to earth-bound vehicles. Following in this great tradition, rocketry specialist Reaction Engines wanted to investigate potential automotive applications for a battery cooling concept derived from the regenerative cooling systems used inside rocket engines. 

The technology uses a flexible foil material that sits between the individual cells, promoting heat exchange between the different areas, and thus minimising temperature gradients within the pack. This helps to improve battery life, as well as facilitating faster charge and discharge rates. It also reduces weight, compared to a traditional liquid cooling system, while providing improved thermal energy transfer. 

The company had already developed a proof of concept demonstration as part of a Faraday Challenge project, which also provided a chance to look at retooling for lower costs in the automotive sector. Taking part in the APC’s Technology Developer Accelerator Programme (TDAP) has enabled Reaction Engines to refine the concept to the point where it is now cost-competitive and manufacturing-ready. 

As part of the TDAP process, the concept was analysed for its value propositions and USPs. One observation was that pouch cells were likely to be a better target market for the technology than prismatic cells. This helped the company to focus on the most promising areas of development – initially prompting the engineers to go back to a lower technology readiness level (TRL) but then allowing them to focus in on an opportunity that could offer a larger market.  

One of the goals that the company successfully achieved through TDAP was to take the concept that had previously been tested at a single-cell level and validate it for full battery packs.  Another particularly useful exercise, according to Reaction Engines Combustion Engineer Dr Yura Sevcenco, was the Business Model Canvas (BMC), which helped to identify a series of potential markets. 

“The BMC process was one of the most useful things we went through with TDAP,” he comments. “It helped us to fine-tune the value proposition and the plan of action for each potential market. Through this exercise we also realised that the licensing model that we’d planned to use would need a lot more work. We are now planning to do our own internal manufacturing to a niche level, after which we will be looking for a partner to begin a joint venture.” 

Assisted by a £100,000 grant from the APC, Reaction Engines has progressed to the point where it will be ready to commence small batch prototypes within the next six months. This represents a major milestone in the company’s plans to expand into the automotive industry, Dr Sevcenco explains: “We already had an established engineering business in aerospace, but TDAP provided us with access to vital networks within the automotive sector. By the end of the project we will have gone from a single proof of concept to validation in a relevant environment with partners that are recognised internationally.” 

 

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