Right from the start, research has been the cornerstone of everything Saft does. Victor Hérold, the company's founder, was an engineer who graduated from Ecole Polytechnique de Zurich and subsequently trained in rechargeable alkaline battery technology at Edison's research center in West Orange, New Jersey. From Saft's creation in 1918, he never stopped working to improve the company's batteries for a wide range of uses, from luggage trolleys to submarines. Specific models had to be developed for each project and each customer order.
After the Second World War, Saft started to produce sintered plate batteries. In 1948, Pierre Jacquier took over from Victor Hérold and continued to invest in research. In 1965, Saft filed the first patents for its primary lithium technology, developed by a team of researchers based at the company's Poitiers site in France.
In 1969, the innovative concept of lithium thionyl chloride (Li-SOCl2) batteries was discovered by Jean-Paul Gabano, an engineer and outstanding researcher who worked for Saft throughout his career (1962-89). Most of Saft's primary lithium batteries are still based on this technology and are used in devices including smart electricity meters.
Making innovation possible
Saft has been involved in all of the major innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries. The company first supported the development of aviation, and then satellites. These industries required highly reliable long-life products, able to withstand wide variations in temperature. As a result, they needed Saft’s researchers to continuously innovate and make bespoke batteries.
To support its niche strategy, Saft joined the Compagnie Générale d’Electricité (CGE) group, which became Alcatel-Alsthom in 1991. This enabled Saft to enter into close collaboration with the larger group's research laboratories in Marcoussis, south of Paris, and to work on hi-tech batteries, notably for defense, aerospace and electric vehicles.
These collaborations between Saft's Bordeaux and Poitiers sites and the CGE group's Marcoussis laboratories bore fruit in numerous areas, such as high-pressure nickel-hydrogen batteries developed for the space industry, and lithium batteries.
In 1999, Saft's French research team – which had been working with Alcatel's teams in Marcoussis for the previous 10 years – was fully transferred to Bordeaux. Another team dedicated to the development of lithium-thionyl chloride batteries is based in Poitiers to this day.
Since the very beginning, Saft's research has been backed by collaboration with France's national scientific research center (the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – CNRS) and numerous university research laboratories, also mainly in France, that are recognized worldwide for their excellence in solid-state chemistry. They include ICMCB in Bordeaux, IM Jean Rouxel in Nantes, LCMTR in Thiais, LISE at Université Paris VI, INSA in Rennes, IPREM in Pau, GREEN in Nancy, AIME in Montpellier, and PCM2E in Tours. Numerous researchers who have been crucial to the success of Saft's work trained with these research teams. In addition, Saft has been a leading partner in numerous joint research programs in the field of electrochemical generators, particularly within Europe.
Today, Saft has two main research centers: Bordeaux, which leads the company's research with 45 people, and Cockeysville (Maryland, USA), created in 1990 and employing around 15 people. Cockeysville is very well situated, near numerous important public bodies including the US Navy and the University of Maryland.
The creation of the Cockeysville center, in support of the small team already working on Li-SO2 and Li-SOCl2 lithium batteries there, has accelerated Saft's lithium-ion (Li-ion) work thanks to the efficiency of its engineers. It also enabled the company to initiate the development of 18650 cylindrical cells in the United States.
The Cockeysville center subsequently worked on Li-ion batteries for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, in collaboration with the US Air Force. It also developed the batteries used in the energy and heat recovery system (ERS) installed in Formula One racing cars to give them extra acceleration. Having a research center in the US is a major asset for Saft, because it has made the company eligible for public funding that may not have been available to a foreign research center. One example is the company's involvement in the US Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) programs in the late 1990s for the development of electric vehicles. Saft also worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on high-power Li-ion batteries.
In both cases, the work focused on improving the batteries and also the production processes; Saft's laboratories are involved in the design and improvement of production facilities, technical installations and industrial equipment. As in numerous other fields, digital technology is becoming essential in the design of new products, and to this effect, Saft develops its own software. “It is an important part of our activity; we work on modeling software and on algorithms to speed up the research process, instead of the old trial-and-error methods,” says Patrick Bernard, Saft’s corporate research director in Bordeaux.
After the initial research phase, two incubators, one in Bordeaux and the other in Cockeysville, step in. "Once a technology has been validated, it can go straight into development, or be entrusted to the incubator, which is tasked with pushing the different technological building blocks forward,” says Bernard.
The incubator is also tasked with submitting concepts to Saft's customers, and working in partnership with them in a start-up spirit. Creativity and flexibility are crucial at the incubator stage; in order to produce a watertight cylindrical casing at a lower cost, for example, Saft examined the way drinks cans are manufactured.
In 2017, around 10 percent of the company's revenue, around €72 million, was devoted to research and development. That year, 26 patents were registered for the overall group.
Batteries of the future
There have been three major phases so far in the development of batteries: the first batteries, produced in the 19th century, were lead. The start of the 20th century saw the introduction of the nickel battery – more expensive but more efficient. Since the 1990s, lithium batteries have been developing. These will be the batteries of the 21st century; their technology is evolving every day, and researchers believe that there are still big advances to come.
In the future, two types of battery could revolutionize our industry again: lithium-sulfur and "solid-state” batteries. A lithium-sulfur battery contains very lightweight active materials and its energy density is four times that of the current Li-ion batteries. They should offer great advantages to the aviation and space industries.
In "solid-state" batteries, the liquid component is replaced with a solid inorganic component that allows diffusion of the lithium ions. Unlike liquid components, the solid components are non-flammable. They are also very efficient in terms of capacity and voltage, which will make it possible to design lighter, denser batteries with a longer operating life. Solid-state batteries should be particularly important for electric vehicles.
These two areas of research were the focus of studies during the very first years of research into lithium batteries, more than 40 years ago. They now have a much better chance of success due to the considerable progress made since then in terms of fundamental electrochemical knowledge, as well as technology and processes. Saft is moving ahead strongly in both areas, addressing the major challenges of energy, cost and safety.