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Electric Vehicles are a hot topic of discussion today with batteries being one of the most important features that raised many questions. How environmentally friendly is their production? How should the growing demand be met? How is the requirement for raw materials covered? The market is very much in motion: Companies are positioning themselves, research and development are running at full speed, and processes are being refined or even recreated. We are involved in the growth and development of automotive batteries.    

The global demand for lithium-ion batteries (LIB) was estimated by the German Mechanical Engineer-ing Industry Association (VDMA) in the “Roadmap of battery production means 2030” at 150 gigawatt hours in 2018 – with an annual increase in requirements of around 25 per cent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) assumes a global battery demand of 1 to 1.5 terawatt hours in 2015 in “Energy storage monitoring 2018”. The transition from the niche to the mass market occurs at this point. The Institute anticipates a battery demand of between three and six terawatt hours up to 2030. Production capacity has to be created for these fast-growing markets: A lucrative market for mechanical and plant engineering.

BATTERY SUCCESS FACTOR

A decisive criterion for the long-term success of e-mobility is in the technical further development of the battery as well as being able to produce it economically and ecologically. There is currently competition for the best battery production technology. It focuses on the current lithium-ion generations one to three, which are already being manufactured on an industrial scale. The fourth generation (all-solid-state and lithium-sulphur) as well as the fifth generation (lithium-air) are currently at the development stage. Processes will have to be adapted for these changes.

Europe is positioning itself

Cell production for batteries is currently in the hands of China, Japan and Korea. Europe does not play a part and investments in the European market are made mainly by Asian players. In its study, the Fraunhofer Institute sees considerable efforts being required for that to change: “If Germany or Europe want to be successful in the battery cell business in the long term, medium-term investments of at least ten billion euros will be necessary in production-related research and development as well as in the development of cell production. The industry will have to finance the majority of this and invest amounts in the realm of 100 billion euros in the long term.” Initial steps have already been taken in this direction. Volkswagen in Salzgitter opened a pilot line for battery cells in September 2019. In a joint venture with the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt, a giga-factory is to be opened in the same place at the same location in 2023 / 24. The group expects to make investments of one billion euros – the pilot line alone was more than 100 million euros. At the opening, Dr. Stefan Sommer, member of the board of management of Volkswagen responsible for Purchasing, emphasised the significance of the battery for the e-offensive of the group: “With the pooling of skills at the site, we ensure that we are driving forward the further development of battery cells as key components of electrification itself, developing new standards and that we are able to move quickly into series production.”

Recycling to counter the raw mate-rials dilemma

Volkswagen names the following goals: increasing the capacity for greater coverage, reducing its raw materials and optimising sustainable production processes up to the recycling of battery systems. As Europe does not have the relevant raw materials, recycling is not just an ecological but also an economic necessity. For this reason, the German company BASF (chemicals), the French Suez group (resource management) and Eramet (mining and metallurgy) as well as the European raw materials consortium EIT Raw Materials announced the ReLieVe project in September 2019: Recycling of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The objective is to develop an innovative closed circuation system including the creation of an integrated industrial sector, from the collection of old batteries to the production of new electrode materials. The European players are also positioning themselves here for the impending competition here. The VDMA is in the race for future production sites in terms of various factors: transport costs, for example, can be reduced by having a location that is close to where sales take place; energy and employment costs (which only represent a few percent of the production costs, however); infrastructure (which can be shaped a great deal by the policy). Besides this, VDMA sees automation and thus the material and process quality as an important leveller for batteries – European mechanical engineering may have a decisive locational advantage here.

Complex process design

The processes in battery production are extremely complex and in many ways dependent upon one another. When it comes to automation and digitisation an objective must be to make the battery into a smart product: such products gather data during their own manufacturing process, and this influences the next processing steps. And finally the in-house recycling process too. This has long been a vision. However, these future production processes hold the potential for resource and energy efficiency as well as intelligent production with as little waste as possible. Why is a company such as Brabender Tech-nologie concerned with this topic? CEO Bruno Dautzenberg explains: “On the one hand it is our profound belief that innovations and disruptive technologies must always be on our agenda. On the other hand, feeders from Brabender Technologie have a natural place in battery production: In electrode production, active materials such as graphite as well as additives like conductive carbon black and binding agents have to be fed into the mixing process. A liquid solvent is added at the next stage which is dispersed. This process is one of the challenges when it comes to speed as well as the quality of the slurry produced.“

Battery production with Brabender Technologie

For some time, Brabender production lines have been used in batch processes as well as, more recently, in continuous processes in the battery producing industry. Batch processing is suitable for larger volumes and particularly for ready-mixed products with better flow characteristics, for example, twin screw feeders of the types DDSR60 to DDSR100 and FlexWall® versions 80 to 155. In a continuous process, Brabender Technologie offers a production line consisting largely of space-saving horizontally agitated devices such as those in series DDSR20 to DDSR60 and DSR28 to 103. Customers can therefore produce more in less time. In battery production, various sometimes hazardous materials are involved: Graphite, lithium-metal oxides, additives, cobalt sulphate compounds for the cathodes, and graphite, binders and lithium-titanate for the anodes. All feeders used by Brabender Technologie ensure the dustproofing characteristics and precision required for battery manufacturing. The devices have also been developed to deal with challenging products that have difficult characteristics, for example, stickiness. Bruno Dautzenberg concludes: “Our customers from plant engineering benefit from our many years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, which makes similarly high demands in terms of dustproofing and precision.”

(published in FLUX 1/2020)