The battle for batteries

The take-away

  • By 2020, China will produce more than 70% of the lithium-ion batteries that cars run on.
  • Europe is fighting back, hoping to build up to 20 gigafactories by 2026.

Since first appearing on the consumer market in 1991, lithium-ion batteries have become ubiquitous in phones, laptops and even e-cigarettes. With the rise of electric cars – global sales exceeded 1 million for the first time in 2017 – the demand for li-ion is soaring. Predicts Fabrice Stassin of Umicore, a materials technology multinational: “By 2025, the transport market segment may represent 80% of future li-ion demand”.

Europe’s position in the automotive market is being seriously challenged by this transition to e-Mobility. Batteries count for up to 40% of the value of the car but production is dominated by Asia. China’s global market share is projected to rise to more than 70% by 2020.

Europe, on the other hand, does not even have a battery manufacturing industry. “Secure supply chains can be challenging if raw materials and cell production are based in other parts of the world,” says Tejs Vegge of the Technical University of Denmark’s Department of Energy Conversion and Storage (DTU Energy).

In response, the European Commission hopes to forge a strong and sustainable battery industry within an initiative called the European Battery Alliance. The Alliance aims to provide a framework that includes secure access to raw materials, support for technological innovation and consistent rules on battery production. The EC’s Horizon 2020 research fund has set aside €200 million for battery projects. In addition, €800 million is available to finance building demonstration facilities. Poorer areas can also apple to the $22 billion Regional Development Fund. And the European Fund for Strategic Investment is available to co-fund the billions of euros needed to build equivalents of Tesla’s large-scale battery-cell production facility in Nevada, which its founder, Elon Musk, has dubbed a “gigafactory”.

Lithium deposit, Portugal

Containing upwards of 2% of global deposits, the resources in Portugal could ensure a significant supply of lithium for Europe.

Rise of the gigafactories

The EU’s vision is to create between 10 and 20 gigafactories. Car manufacturer Daimler is planning for two in its home country, Germany, which is also the front-runner for Tesla’s first European gigafactory. If the EU hits that target, Europe would account for some 15% of global cell manufacturing capacity by 2026.

Progress is already underway in some countries. Opened in 2018, LG Chem’s Polish factory is ramping up production targets sevenfold. Sweden’s Northvolt plans to spend €4.13bn on a Nordic plant and Germany’s TerraE has announced two plants in Germany.

Umicore is forming a technological alliance with BMW and Northvolt. Stassin explains: “The alliance will cover active materials development, utilisation of raw materials coming from recycling, battery-cell manufacturing scale-up, cell and pack design and, finally, collection, dismantling and recycling with a focus on increasing the sustainability of the battery-value chain.”

Lithium-ion batteries consist of two layers: one made of lithium cobalt oxide, the other graphite. Energy is released when lithium ions move from the graphite layer to the lithium cobalt oxide layer. Charging a battery simply shifts those ions back the other way.

But efforts to scale end-to-end battery production won’t be straightforward. Asia has worked hard to control much of the semi-rare (cobalt and lithium) raw materials it needs from Africa and Australia.

A growing mineral crisis

The next step is to find alternatives to importing components and raw materials. In May 2018 a huge lithium deposit was unearthed in Portugal. At least 14 million tonnes of the precious element are believed to reside around the Mina do Barroso in the Vila Real district and the government is negotiating with mining companies as they queue up to exploit this massive resource.

“Containing upwards of 2% of global deposits, the resources in Portugal could definitely ensure a significant supply of lithium for Europe,” notes Vegge. But this is not good enough for the long term, he says. “If you need the quantum leap of a sustainable battery that is fully scalable to the terawatt challenge, we cannot rely on the materials we’re using today.”

Is Europe too late?

Is Europe is trying to maximise its market share of an li-ion industry that is destined to decline in the face of newer technologies? The answer is the EU’s Battery 2030+ Vision, which aims to give Europe a competitive edge by disrupting discovery, development, and manufacturing processes for battery materials and technologies.

Vegge’s work on the Battery Interface Genome – Material Acceleration Platform (BIG-MAP) is a key component of this longer-term vision. It harnesses the power of machine learning to find the optimal materials – from aluminium-sulphur to lithium-oxygen and beyond – and material designs to meet future battery applications. “BIG-MAP basically combines the understanding of the fundamental chemistry and physics behind the batteries with our ability to accelerate production,” he explains. “Artificial intelligence controls which experiments to do, how to synthesise the materials while also doing on-the-fly characterisation of the data that emerges.”

The success of such a strategy will be crucial to helping Europe accelerate the discovery of greener battery technologies. The researchers are using the same technology that one uses to run a text search on a Google app in order to search for the best way to synthesise certain types of material. “We can go through the last 100 years of published scientific articles and screen for the best options for making these types of materials,” says Vegge. Speed is the key. Asia may be miles ahead in the market, but the slow pace of battery innovation – the technology has barely changed in 27 years – could help the Europeans.

A silicon solution

François Ozanam explains how research on silicon-alloy anodes could help improve the batteries of the future

A silicon atom can attach to four lithium ions, so a silicon anode can store 10 times as much lithium as the graphite ones currently in use. “This means the electrodes offer very high-performance but they’re very unstable,” says François Ozanam of École Polytechnique.

When lithium ions attach to the anode as a battery is charged, it swells slightly, shrinking again as it’s used. A graphite anode swells and shrinks by about 7%. Silicon particles can swell up to 400%, meaning that, even in controlled lab conditions, most silicon anodes tear themselves apart after a few charging cycles.

“Our main work is on the nanostructures of these silicon-based materials,” Ozanam explains. “So, we aren’t really looking at the material itself but rather how to shape it in order to make it more resistant to lithium cycling”.