The battery industry is forecast to treble to $135 billion by 2031, but its recent growth has been remarkable. Six years ago, there was very little planned battery capacity in Europe, but recognising the vital role that batteries play in tackling climate change, there are now at least 45 different battery projects in the works. The European Battery Alliance (EBA), led by EIT InnoEnergy, has helped drive this forward. Bringing together stakeholders from across the battery manufacturing value chain, the EBA is working to overcome Europe’s battery challenge from every angle – from roadmap development and financing to mining and skills.
Now, the challenge is not so much about capacity, but about chemistry. Twenty years ago, battery chemists hashed out the pros and cons of several major battery chemistries and ultimately opted to pursue lithium which has resulted in its superior energy density performance. It is a decision that has served the world well, until recently. Originally developed for small electronics such as cameras, nobody could have predicted such a large uplift in demand as a result of electric vehicles. This surge in demand poses a challenge in ethically sourcing sufficient quantities of lithium, cobalt and nickel. In fact, the IEA suggests that the world may face a potential shortage of lithium as early as 2025.
Although current sodium technologies continue to trail lithium in terms of energy density, sodium is an abundant material which makes it ideal for stationary storage. Sodium-ion batteries have the potential to be an attractive alternative for entry level electric vehicles that will be on par in charge times but have a little shorter range in return for a lower price point. An ‘AB battery solution’ that combines lithium and sodium cells into one battery pack could also be an attractive option to harvest the best of two technologies. Enticed by the vast potential of sodium chemistries, industry giant CATL has already begun small-scale production, having expected mass volumes this year. And many smaller innovators are following suit.
Readying the supply chain for a surge in demand, Uppsala-based Altris has developed a high energy density cathode material it calls Fennac, which it manufactures from sodium, iron, carbon and nitrogen. The technology has been developed to be able to plug and play into any industry standard Li-ion production line. It is so innovative that it has caught the eye of world-leading battery developer Northvolt who took part in Altris’ Series A funding round. The €9.6 million raised is being used to open a GWh scale production facility later this year.
Silicon as an anode material is also on the rise. Silicon solutions are unique in that they can store vast amounts of Li-ions at rapid speeds, enabling charging speeds of under 15 minutes with over 500 miles of range. However, the industry faces several challenges in taking chemistries from the <10% silicon-graphite mix that we have today, to the potential 100% silicon chemistries that we could benefit from in the future. These challenges include creating a stable chemistry that will allow for silicon’s natural propensity to expand and contract as it charges and discharges and make it scalable at a cost-competitive price point. The industry is pursuing several strategies, some of which will follow a path of gradually increasing silicon content, while others are pushing to introduce full silicon anodes as early as 2027.
Working towards a fully silicon solution is a challenge that New York-based battery innovator GDI has spent the best part of the last decade working on to deliver. Taking inspiration from photovoltaic panels, GDI uses plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition to create a unique 100% silicon anode design. In laboratory tests the chemistry has been proven to offer a 30% energy density increase on advanced Li-ion batteries by 30% as well as safe and reliable fast charging from 10-75% in 15 minutes over 500 times with a remaining 80% state of health.
Twenty years ago, industry made the misstep of pursuing certain battery chemistries without considering what the future might hold. We know better now. In December 2022, the European Parliament announced new circular economy legislation that stipulates requirements across a battery’s entire life cycle.
The new legislation drives home the message that we must address our scrap. This includes reducing manufacturing waste, making it easier to understand the remaining health of a battery for potential reuse and easy disassembly for recycling. Innovators such as Verkor are tackling scrap by applying data and industrial digitalisation to bring forward a more modern and efficient Gigafactory model to meet future demand.
The next several years are critical for the development of a sustainable, indigenous supply of batteries for Europe, and rapidly developing new chemistries will be a crucial part of that. We are fortunate to boast many innovative battery projects in Europe, but it remains vital that the industry has access to sufficient capital and collaboration opportunities to meet growing demands.