South Africa’s Maxwell and Spark is ready to go global, says CEO Dr Clinton Bemont.
Maxwell and Spark is a Durban-based lithium-ion (li-ion) battery and systems manufacturer, responsible for producing the world’s first li-ion truck refrigeration unit – called the Fridge.Li.
The cooling units on refrigerated trucks, which normally carry either fresh or frozen goods, are traditionally powered by specialised, but rather dirty diesel engines, says Bemont.
The new Fridge.Li rechargeable system promises energy cost savings, as well as a significant reduction in a fleet operator’s carbon footprint, he notes.
Bemont was a tenured academic at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) until the end of last year, and will now move to an honorary position there as he aims to grow Maxwell and Spark’s global footprint.
Bemont has a long-standing interest in li-ion batteries. He and a team of students participated in the Sasol Solar Challenge, as well as the World Solar Challenge, with a locally built solar car.
The technology behind the vehicle convinced a Norwegian businessperson to request Bemont to build some specialised li-ion batteries, which he did with the aid of two students, who tackled similar work as part of their postgraduate studies.
“Somewhere along the line, we realised that this was a good business opportunity,” says Bemont. “This was in 2014.”
“We realised there might be a gap in the industrial market for our li-ion batteries, especially in truck refrigeration, and founded Maxwell and Spark in 2016.”
Today, Maxwell and Spark is owned by Bemont, the two students, as well as a small number of other people who have provided intellectual property (IP) and/or seed funding to the company.
“We initially had a strong focus on saving the environment through reducing carbon emissions, but realised that we would need to help companies save money while they save carbon,” says Bemont.
The first Fridge.Li refrigeration unit entered the Spar truck fleet in 2018.
“That truck has been running ever since with few issues, and proved the technology,” says Bemont.
To date, the company has almost 20 refrigeration units operating in six large retailer fleets, employing almost 40 people.
“We don’t necessarily want to go wider than that at this stage. We are happy for the fleets to test our product and then buy more of our units,” says Bemont.
Australia, US and Europe
Apart from li-ion truck refrigeration systems, Maxwell and Spark also produces li-ion forklift batteries.
The company’s 1 000 m2 undercover factory in Durban has two production lines, both able to produce either product.
“We are working to reduce customisation – standardising the products to something that can be bought from a catalogue,” says Bemont.
“Producing the forklift batteries is already akin to churning out bread loaves.”
The forklift batteries are available in South Africa and Australia, with negotiations under way to add refrigerated truck units to the products available Down Under.
“The forklift batteries are very successful in Australia,” says Bemont. “Sales of these units, also in South Africa, currently make up around 80% of our revenue.”
He says the forklift batteries are currently distributed in Australia through third parties. However, the intent is to produce the batteries through a joint venture project.
“We are also busy moving into the US with our forklift batteries,” says Bemont. “We have a fantastic contract with a large US company.”
The most lucrative opportunities for Maxwell and Spark’s truck refrigeration units are in countries where the diesel price is quite high, adds Bemont.
“In Europe, the price of diesel is double ours, so the return on investment is a lot quicker. Also, Europe is heavily focused on reducing carbon emissions, which means our system can pay itself off in a few months.”
However, Europe has two very embedded truck refrigeration suppliers, notes Bemont, “so we have to be clever”.
“Our aim is to take 2% of the market. If it’s more – great.”
Bemont says Maxwell and Spark is not interested in entering any market outside South Africa on its own.
“We want a partner in every region.
“We do intend to set up a plant in Europe, but only in about three years. That plant will be a Maxwell and Spark plant. On the distribution side, we aim to do some of our own distribution, while also making use of third parties.”
Maxwell and Spark is currently in negotiations to obtain funding for its international expansion plans.
“We hope to close a deal in the first quarter of this year,” says Bemont.
Looking ahead, he notes that the company aims to focus on the full-scale commercialisation and expansion of its two product lines, but adds that a third product is currently under development.
“This will be a nonmobile product for industry. We have developed some intellectual property in this field that is currently being patented.
“You need to be on your toes all the time. The technology landscape changes so quickly, you have to be able to keep up.”
How Does Fridge.Li Work?
The Fridge.Li system is currently only available for four- to nine-metre rigid-body truck boxes.
“We have, however, already completed a design for a trailer,” says Bemont.
The design of the Fridge.Li system allows for an equivalent payload on fresh produce refrigerated units, cooled at between 2 ˚C and 5 ˚C.
“The reason for this is that the standard diesel unit used for cooling is positioned high up on the forward axle. Our system is situated low down, near the rear axle,” explains Bemont.
“This also improves the truck’s stability.”
However, when it comes to frozen goods, the Fridge.Li battery usually has to be bigger, which also increases the weight, which, in turn, reduces payload somewhat.
However, the Fridge.Li does offer some other benefits, says Bemont.
Installing the system is equivalent to removing about ten internal combustion engine cars from South African roads in terms of carbon emissions.
Also, equally importantly, it saves the fleet operator between 90% and 96% on energy costs per refrigerated truck, adds Bemont.
He notes that the batteries on the Fridge.Li should last around 15 years.
“We do offer a model where companies can lease the battery from us, and we’ll change it if it gives any trouble.”
Bemont says Spar’s Fridge.Li systems currently run between six and 20 hours before they require recharging.
“It all depends on the customer, really. We also offer a backup system, if the battery runs out, which is very uncommon.”
Charge time is one hour at the fastest, or as “slow as the customer wants”.
“All our units have on-board chargers,” says Bemont.
But . . . who is Maxwell?
Maxwell refers to James Clerk Maxwell, or, as Bemont describes him, one of history’s great physicists, who helped move the world into the industrial age.
“I had a photo of him on the wall of my res room when I was a first-year student,” says Bemont.
“The Spark was just to add flair to the name – courtesy of my wife.”
Bemont says his entry into academia happened in Germany.
“This gave me quite a different ideology than what you’ll find in the normal South African tertiary model, which meant that I have always worked closely with industry.
“There is definitely a lack of cooperation between industry and universities in South Africa.”