“The super-battery is still out of reach”
Professor Jens Tübke, Head of Applied Electrochemistry Department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT and Fraunhofer battery alliance contact.
In the interview, Professor Jens Tübke explains where the greatest challenges lie in battery research, what automobile manufacturers should do – and why the fear of competition from China is unfounded.
What is the most exciting current research project in the field of batteries?
There are quite a few. For example, current work in lithium sulfur batteries is very promising. These batteries are significantly lighter than typical energy storage devices. My colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS and from the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT are working on these. As well as electrode materials like sulfur, lithium and silicon-carbon composites, we are also now conducting research into carbon nano-materials which have significantly better conductivity and thereby help the batteries work more efficiently.
In the “EMBATT” project, which was carried out by the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS in Dresden and its partners, the focus is both on developing materials as well as improving cell design. The potential use of solid state batteries in electric cars could allow a range of up to 1000 kilometers. The list of projects goes on and on.
In all of these individual projects, is there what you could call an underlying strategy?
Yes, absolutely. In the area of applied research, Fraunhofer has focused squarely on the ongoing development of engineering technology in terms of developing and optimizing materials. When manufacturing batteries, energy and time-consuming processes have to be streamlined. This is particularly decisive in car manufacturing.
Streamlining processes, optimizing materials – that doesn’t sound too spectacular.
Well OK, but in applied research, the name of the game is economic efficiency. The electric cars produced today may still be on the road in 15 or 20 years. This means that car batteries have to last a long time. And it has to be economical over that period.
Therefore the goal is to develop batteries that are not only technologically outstanding, but can also be used economically. It’s not enough just to concentrate on parameters such as energy density, charge cycle or lifespan.
In what areas do you expect to see a scientific breakthrough?
We’re on the right track in our projects and are following promising leads. However, all the experts carrying out research into storage technology agree that a great breakthrough to create the “super-battery” is unlikely in the near future. In five years, we will likely be manufacturing batteries that work using the same technology and similar materials to today’s models. But they will be significantly less expensive and will be more manageable from the system side. These batteries will be safer, the charge level and service life will be more predictable, and battery monitoring will be more exact and reliable. That represents important progress, because these things are enormously important for practical application in electric cars. The safety of the batteries and their straightforward usage in everyday life are prerequisites for building trust with consumers, so that they are even willing to buy an electric car in the first place.
At the moment, many companies, consortia and universities are researching storage technologies on their own. Wouldn’t it make sense to pool these activities and develop a common battery standard?
Pooling, coordinating and harmonizing research is certainly an important issue. There are already a range of activities being carried out to this end in the German research environment. As to the issue of standardization, particularly with regard to the question of what future batteries should look like – it is still far too early for that sort of standardization. We are still very early technologically.
But batteries have been around for a very long time ...
If by that you mean the AA battery for the portable radio, then that’s true. But we are talking about high-performance energy storage for electric cars or emergency power supplies for houses. Lithium-ion technology has not been in the marketplace for that long. High-performing rechargeable lithium-ion batteries cornered the market in significant terms around the turn of the millennium. Since around 2010, we have observed market saturation. Really large-format cells have only been around for a few years. As you can see, the technology is still relatively young and not in any way mature.
Defining standards early on might help us to reach the goal faster ...
Conversely, during this phase, we need a great deal of creativity and latitude for development. That is the only way to achieve optimal results for a particular device or application. For example, the interplay of the battery and car is a very individual thing. You won’t get very far with standard batteries.
If the manufacturers were to decide to put in place limiting standards, many options for individual optimization and development for the respective application would be blocked. Of course, manufacturers should start early on to work together to develop common approaches for appropriate drive batteries.
In the German economy, there is considerable fear of Asian manufacturers. China in particular is focusing heavily on electric cars.
I’m not worried about the competition from Asia. By and large, Asian manufacturers produce according to the specifications of the international electronics manufacturers. They actually have very little expertise of their own in terms of battery development. However, European automobile manufacturers must do more in terms of production. For example, they could buy materials such as coated electrodes, separators and electrolytes and then optimize the processing and manufacturing process.
Research and industry need to focus more on the areas of electromobility that are important to consumers. That means not only the lifespan and performance of the battery, but more importantly, aspects such as safety or charging time. At the moment it takes too long. No driver wants to wait for hours at the charging station until the battery is fully-charged. Fraunhofer also has projects dealing with this issue ready to go.
Where is battery research at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft with regard to international competition?
It’s very good. Through our projects, we have become successful and have gained wide recognition. Furthermore, we hold numerous patents and licenses. One of Fraunhofer’s strengths is that we are oriented toward the needs of industrial customers. When it comes to tailor-made, customer-specific solutions, globally speaking, we are out in front.
What will batteries look like in ten years? What will they be capable of?
In the next 10 to 15 years, we will likely still be working with very similar materials as today in terms of high-voltage batteries, although due to new process technologies, their performance will be significantly better. As well as this, energy storage devices of the future will be easy to recycle, cheaper to produce and this will make them more economical for the end consumer.
The interview was conducted by Mehmet Toprak.