Europe working hard in battery race

The EU has devoted €8 million to a project that aims to create a European-wide battery industry by 2030. John Dyer reports.

Image credit: Razor512 via Flickr

Europe could be falling behind in the race to develop new battery technologies, the European Court of Auditors warned recently.

“Energy storage will play a fundamental role in achieving a low-carbon, mainly renewables-based energy system in the EU,” said Phil Wynn Owen, a court official who oversaw the report, in a press release. “The EU has taken steps to develop a strategic framework for energy storage, but there is a risk that the measures taken so far will not be sufficient to achieve the EU strategic objectives for clean energy.”

Batteries are key to renewable energy storage

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar often risk shortages that require carbon-based energy to make up for gaps in production. Batteries would allow for the storage of wind and solar power and make it easier for electric of hydrogen-fueled cars to become more popular.

Currently, about 90 per cent of the lithium ion batteries are manufactured in Asia.

European policies envision that electric cars will increase from 2 per cent to 40 per cent of the continent’s fleet by 2030. The EU’s Battery Alliance, an umbrella group of policymakers and companies created in 2017, have set a target of 200-gigawatt hours of battery manufacturing capacity by 2025. At that time, the market for batteries in Europe would hit €250 billion a year. But satisfying that demand would require as many as 20 large factories.

Investing in a competitive battery manufacturing sector

“Europe is investing in a competitive and sustainable battery manufacturing sector,” said Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska on the Battery Alliance’s website. “We want to provide a framework that includes secure access to raw materials, support for technological innovation and consistent rules on battery production. We envisage a strong battery industry that contributes to the circular economy and clean mobility.”

Swedish Battery cell maker Northvolt is now building the largest lithium-ion battery cell facility in the country’s north. Founded by a former executive at American electric car company Tesla, Northvolt recently joined forces with Volkswagen and other battery produces in a bid to share expertise to challenge Asian battery makers. The companies will focus on every part of the battery life cycle, from raw materials to cell technology to recycling.

“The prime objective is to accumulate much broader know-how on battery cell production,” Northvolt said in a press release.

Still, the auditors felt that Europe is on track to producing only around 70-gigawatt hours by 2023. Europe could thus become a “second mover” in the sector, the court’s report said.

EU-wide battery industry by 2030

But there’s reason for hope.

The EU has devoted €8 million to a continent-wide effort called the Si-DRIVE project that aims to capture part of that market. European leaders hope the research will result in a battery industry by 2030.

“Our program is special, as we cover all steps of the value-added chain of a battery, from materials development to prototype cell fabrication to recycling,” said Professor Stefano Passerini, director of the Helmholtz Institute Ulm at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, in a statement.

The researchers believe they have already made gains, said Passerini. They are now developing a cell uses a “nanostructured silicon anode, a novel solid electrolyte based on ionic liquids, and a completely cobalt-free, but lithium-rich cathode”, the press release said.

Cobalt is especially a problem for sustainability. Much of the element comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where war and violence are widespread, labor conditions are poor and child labor is column.

A cell using those materials and a robust recycling program could create sustainable battery production, Passerini said.

“The Si-DRIVE project will bring together leading experts from across Europe to deliver the sustainable and cost-effective battery technology required for environmentally friendly EVs of the future,” said Hugh Geaney, who is working on Si-DRIVE at the University of Limerick, in press release late last year.

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