A journey into the unknown: the challenge of designing batteries for Extreme E

Sun-blasted sand dunes, snow-covered glaciers, and everything in between. This is the terrain that Extreme E’s electric SUVs will tackle during the course of the debut season, which starts on 3 April in Saudi Arabia. To compete in these conditions, the vehicle needs to be ready to handle anything but that’s nothing new, as off-road races have been held for decades.

What does present a new challenge, though, is the fact that these SUVs are electric. Not only are there differences in weight and technology to consider but electric vehicles haven’t been tested in these intense conditions, especially not in a race setting. This is something Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE) needed to take into account as it began to design the batteries that would power the ODYSSEY 21 cars.

To overcome these challenges, WAE draws on its wealth of motorsport experience with a team of designers and engineers who have worked across a number of disciplines. Head of Motorsport Douglas Campling started his career in Formula One with a move to Williams F1 in the mid-2000s. His role has evolved hugely over the years, as he explains: “I’m a mechanical engineer by background, but here we are, in a world where amps and volts dominate. It’s great to be part of this transformation of my sport that supports sustainability going forward.”

Motorsport is an accelerator of technology. The timescales of a motorsport project are, generally, shorter than in the wider automotive industry. We’re able to learn more quickly, which helps inform all of the projects we undertake at WAE

– Glen Pascoe, Principal Design Engineer, Williams Advanced Engineering

While the experience in different forms of motorsport is valuable in the approach to battery design and management for Extreme E, the conditions of the racing add an extra challenge. This means that relevant experience was more vital than ever across the whole team.

Glen Pascoe has held various positions across the Williams group but now, as Principal Design Engineer at WAE, his experience in Formula One is particularly relevant. As part of the design work he was doing on the Williams F1 car,  he was used to reacting quickly in a fast-paced sport. He says: “I was drawing lots of different parts for the F1 car and being part of the rapid development of a number of different systems and components really appealed to me. I really enjoyed the challenge of doing things quickly.”

This informed how they approached the design of the batteries for the Extreme E cars.

“It was a journey into the unknown, really. The environments where those vehicles are going to be racing, is somewhere motorsport hasn’t been before,” says Pascoe. “The operating environments and conditions the electric vehicle technology will face are new and unproven.”

Understanding how batteries fare in these conditions — from the cold of the Arctic circle to the humidity of the Amazon — is crucial because it will inform the next generation of technology that goes into our road cars. “The developments we make are often based around battery management,” says Campling. “It’s one of those areas where there can be an immediate and direct technology transfer.”

There will be a team monitoring battery condition and performance at every race. Not only to ensure the smooth running of the vehicles but also to learn from them, too. Pascoe says: “Motorsport is an accelerator of technology. The timescales of a motorsport project are, generally, shorter than in the wider automotive industry. We’re able to learn more quickly, which helps inform all of the projects we undertake at WAE.”

Electric vehicle technology is moving at a rapid pace and with WAE’s involvement in a number of electric racing series including Extreme E, the company is going to play a large part in the revolution. Pascoe predicts batteries will become a more competitive element of a race car going forward, he says: “In the future, we’ll have more race formats and more types of vehicles, which all require different cells and different chemistries. I believe motorsport will evolve to have a common powertrain but freedoms will start to open up for manufacturers to try to compete in battery technology.”

The way the technology develops is just one part of the puzzle, though. A big focus for WAE is the sustainability aspect. With new technology, it’s often difficult to know what its lifecycle is like or how usable it will be when broken down and recycled — something that’s a big talking point around road-going electric vehicles.

Because motorsport moves so quickly, WAE has been able to recycle first-generation batteries from Formula E. Pascoe says: “We’ve responsibly recycled the chemistry into raw materials that can be used in cells again in the future. That’s an approach we take in all our battery design. We don’t just see it as designing for one life. We want to get the valuable raw materials back out of the pack at the end of life.”

Racing to provide domestic energy storage

WAE’s battery recycling programme

Williams Advanced Engineering is exploring ways to give a second life to used batteries. This includes the NETfficient project, which uses Nissan Leaf batteries for domestic energy storage. This helps give a second life to used car batteries and could offer a solution to homeowners with solar panels, allowing them to store energy generated during the day for use at night time.

Read more: 
Netfficient and WAE collaboration
Abb fia formula e championship partners with umicoe to implement battery recycling programme

Not only is Extreme E a new generation of electric motorsport but it’s going to have a huge impact on the wider automotive industry. WAE is not only able to improve battery management and performance under intense conditions but it’s able to think in a wider sustainability context too.

The opportunities for electric motorsport are vast but the way it helps develop technology has exciting implications for road cars. “What the future will hold is vehicles designed as EVs from the ground up. Some of the things coming down the pipeline in motorsport really do speak to that. These are vehicles that are being optimised around what is the best configuration for a true EV,” Campling concludes.

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Photo credit:  Williams Advanced Engineering & Extreme E

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