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European Car BrandsHow Brisbane EV-charger company Tritium made it to the...

How Brisbane EV-charger company Tritium made it to the White House, selling ‘picks and shovels to the gold rush’

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It was a White House announcement that came complete with stars, stripes and the US President in a sharp black suit: an Australian company was building a factory in Tennessee.

The beginning of an “American manufacturing comeback”, Joe Biden told reporters on February 8, standing beside the Australian CEO in a rare show of support for a private company.

And what was the company at the center of this announcement? Who had won the ear of the US President?

Tritium.

Back in Australia, the news created only a sluggish ripple of interest.

Tritium? Who the hell is Tritium?

President Joe Biden and Tritium CEO Jane Hunter next to a Tritium electric vehicle charger
President Biden and Tritium CEO Jane Hunter is a Tritium EV charger.(Getty: Anna Moneymaker)

As it turns out, Tritium could be the most important Australian company most Australians have never heard of – an example of a successful homegrown business that’s exporting a high-tech clean-energy product, rather than shiploads of ore, sheep or gas.

Founded by three engineering graduates in Brisbane, it’s quietly secured a large chunk of the global EV-charger market.

If you ever use an EV in Australia, you’ll probably use a Tritium charger.

The story of where it came from begins in 1999, with a solar-powered car racing from Sydney to Melbourne.

‘The biggest supplier to the smallest industry’

Built by UQ students, the SunShark was one of the world’s top solar racers.

Teardrop-shaped and three-wheeled, it operated on the power of a two-slice toaster, and could race for thousands of kilometers with a top speed just below the highway’s legal limit.

In 1999, it took third place at the World Solar Challenge.

Team-members in blue shirts beside a bright yellow streamlined solar car
The SunShark team at the 1999 World Solar Challenge.(Supplied: Center for Photvoltaic Engineering, UNSW)

David Finn was in charge of designing the car’s electronics.

“When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2000, I thought, ‘There’s all this tech that the solar car teams around the world are wanting to buy,'” he says.

“It was a bit of a cottage industry to start with. We just started selling.”

In 2001, he and two other members of the SunShark Team, Paul Sernia and James Kennedy, founded Tritium, a tiny company operating out of a shed in the south Brisbane suburb of Tennyson.

“We became the largest supplier to the smallest industry in the world,” says Dr. Finn, who has a PhD in electrical engineering.

For the next decade or so, they plugged away in specialized systems, but kept their eye on a bigger prize: mass-market vehicles.

In 2008, Tesla built its first Roadster sports car, which was the first all-electric production car to travel more than 320km per charge.

The battery technology that would disrupt the car industry and spell the end for the internal-combustion engine was slowly taking shape, but the big car makers weren’t listening.

“This whole time we’re trying to commercialize the 120kW motor inverter for use in vehicles,” Dr. Finn says.

“It was a challenge that was a little bit insurmountable.”

A change of fortunes

Then, in 2012, after years of hard grind, their luck changed.

The company’s 93rd product (with the first being the solar car motor controllers) proved to be a winner.

Alan Finkel, who would later become Australia’s Chief Scientist, was working for a Californian EV charging startup.

He asked Tritium to make a DC fast charger.

Three men with a six-foot tall EV charger
David Finn, Paul Sernia and James Kennedy with a DC fast-charger.(Supplied: UQ)

DC chargers take the AC (alternating current) mains electricity and convert it to DC (direct current), which is the type of power that EV batteries use.

In general, AC chargers are the little boxes many EV owners have in their garages, and DC chargers are the larger, much faster ones for public use.

“He said, ‘I’ve looked around the world, I can’t find any DC chargers that I really like,'” Dr Finn says.

“Three months later, we had a prototype up and running.”

The wonder years

Tritium had got into making EV chargers at just the right time.

The promise of EVs, which had spluttered along since at least the 1970s, finally roared to life around 2012, and with them came a need for safe, quick and robust charging systems.

From nowhere, an entire industry sprang into existence.


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