The future should become electric – also in road traffic. This is currently the master plan to achieve the climate goals. But there is a catch. It won’t work without batteries for all the electric cars.
The EU is therefore spending a lot of money: billions of subsidies are to flow into new battery factories. Science also gets fresh money. One of the major European research projects is managed from Switzerland: by researchers at EMPA in Dübendorf.
Daniel Theis is a science editor. He works for that Science Magazine on Radio SRF 2 Kultur.
SRF: Why should Europe get its own battery industry?
Daniel Theis: Ultimately, so as not to be dependent on Asia. China and South Korea are the big manufacturers. It is foreseeable that not enough batteries can be produced there to meet European needs. That is why you want to take care of yourself in the future.
In addition, Germany and France are particularly keen to preserve jobs in the automotive industry.
Car manufacturers are slowly converting their factories – away from the combustion engine to the electric car. If batteries are missing, it becomes difficult. A lot of efforts are currently underway to build this battery industry. There are plans and declarations of intent. Groundbreaking is already planned for new plants this spring, for example near Berlin and Erfurt.
If the industry is already under construction, how should new research results be incorporated?
You want to do both at the same time. Ruben Kühnel from EMPA, one of the coordinators of the European research project, also told me this. He thinks the industry has to try to imitate what is state of the art. But it will probably only be really competitive with the next generation – with the help of such European projects.
So you want to start and then adapt and convert the factories with new knowledge.
Adjustments to the plus and minus poles should make today’s batteries about 25 percent better.
What questions do battery researchers have?
There are many projects. Why there are so many: Lithium-ion batteries have very different structures. All have advantages and disadvantages.
There is, for example, lithium iron phosphate: this battery is very safe and easy to care for. In return, it cannot store quite as much energy as others. A lithium-ion battery with nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide technology is therefore installed in most cars.
In the future, they want to try to use less expensive and toxic cobalt and to avoid toxic solvents. Adjustments to the anodes and cathodes in the batteries – the plus and minus poles – are supposed to make today’s batteries about 25 percent better. Specifically, this means that you can continue a little further with the same weight.
That doesn’t sound like the big hit …
That is within reach at the moment. But of course we are already thinking ahead. The researchers speak of the “next generation” of batteries. An important approach on the anode side: do without graphite and use lithium metal.
It would be conceivable that sodium batteries will be used for storage solutions in the future – for example for solar power.
But this technology creates big problems. The lithium metal can form sharp needles inside the battery and destroy it. It is quite dangerous. An alternative would be the so-called “solid-state battery”. It is hoped that this would only be about half as heavy as the batteries today and would store the same amount of energy.
We always speak of lithium – are there alternatives?
Lithium is the lightest metal there is. That is why it is not so easy to replace. But there are sodium batteries, for example. Sodium is also relatively light. They already work today, but due to their design they are significantly heavier and are currently not suitable for vehicles.
However, it would be conceivable that in the future such sodium batteries will be used for storage solutions – for example for solar power. It is a possible development that in the future there will be a suitable battery type depending on the application.
The interview was conducted by Katrin Zöfel.
Broadcast: Radio SRF 2 Kultur, Science magazine, 02/15/2020, 12:40 p.m.