Wednesday October 21, 2020

Making It Work: Galway start-up is thinking beyond the car for electric engines

Xerotech has recognised that other machines such as diggers, tractors and mining equipment will also need to move away from fossil fuels

18th October, 2020
Barry Flannery, founder and CEO of Galway start-up Xerotech: plans to begin commercial trials in 2021Picture: Michael Dillon

The drive towards electric vehicles is on. Under the new Climate Action Bill, published this month, the Irish government has committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The legislation reflects a wider global movement to slow the effects of climate change but, according to Barry Flannery, this is not just about cars.

“When people think about the phasing out of fossil fuels, they tend to think of cars. All the buzz is about cars. They think of diesel and petrol engines and Tesla and Elon Musk,” Flannery said.

“They don’t think about all the lower-volume vehicles that also have engines that will need to go electric.

“They don’t think about diggers on building sites, street sweepers in city centres, the tractors and harvesters on farms or mining equipment underground. That’s a market I think we can attack from Ireland. It’s the market I’m targeting.”

Flannery is the 28-year-old founder of Xerotech, the Galway start-up behind a new kind of modular battery system for the electric engines used in industrial equipment. He describes Xerotech as the world’s “first and only” scalable off-the-shelf energy system for non-road mobile machinery.

“We build the battery packs that will allow equipment manufacturers to go electric. The diesel engines these companies use today will likely be banned in the future,” he said.

“Our business is the battery and power systems that will replace the engine powertrain in electric machines.”

The battery systems have been designed to be affordable, costing from €20,000 to €60,000, depending on the size of the battery pack.

“Our focus is the heavy machinery used in mining, construction, agriculture and industry,” Flannery said.

“There are over four million engines built each year for this market and they will all have to electrify. It’s a really exciting and overlooked niche.”

In Xerotech, Flannery believes he has come up with a viable solution to the biggest problem in the market he’s targeting: affordability.

“The car industry has a big advantage in that it’s very high-volume. That means that, for any one model, you can spread the tooling, production and R&D costs of developing an electric engine over millions of vehicles. The numbers work,” he said.

“Non-road mobile machinery is different. The manufacturers in this market only make a few thousand machines each year and there might be ten to 20 different product lines within each.

“They can never achieve scale, but they get around that today with diesel engines. You can buy them off-the-shelf in any size or capacity you can think of at a relatively low price.”

The batteries used in electric engines are different, however. “Right now, they’re basically custom-engineered for each customer, so the cost is really high,” Flannery said.

Xerotech’s battery system has been designed to get around this problem. Equipment manufacturers can pick and choose different battery, power and thermal components based on the needs of the machine it will power.

“We’ve basically invented a scalable platform,” Flannery said. “Customers can choose components for different engines, but all from the same family.

“It’s a modular system. That’s how we will keep costs down. We’ve got a lot of proprietary technology. We have eight patents.”

Originally from Oranmore in Galway, Flannery set up Xerotech in Claregalway in 2015 after studying applied physics at NUI Galway and completing a PhD in mechanical engineering.

“I have an interest in electric cars and vehicles and I wanted to be a part of it. I also knew there was no way I could hope to compete with the likes of Tesla from Ireland,” Flannery said.

“The market we’re targeting with Xerotech is very diversified, so it’s not a target for big players like Tesla. “Elon Musk isn’t going to go after it tomorrow, because it’s ‘a lot of a little’. What’s unique to Xerotech is our off-the-shelf battery. That gives us scalability and we can do it from Ireland.”

2021 will be an important year for Xerotech, which plans to begin the first commercial trials of its technology in the European mining industry and to seek funding of between €12 million and €15 million.

The start-up is backed by Enterprise Ireland and the Western Development Commission and recently opened a new R&D design centre in Claregalway, employing 20 engineers from around the world.

“The plan now is to scale up manufacturing to fully automated serial production. We’ll have close to 40 people employed here in Claregalway within the next six months,” Flannery said.

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