At Saft, innovation is a strong part of our DNA. Every day our R&D teams dream up new processes and optimize technologies to design better batteries. Jean-Baptiste Pernot, vice president of transformation and operational excellence at Saft, answers our questions about the European Battery Alliance Saft launched a year ago to develop the next generations of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries towards solid-state technology.
Why create an alliance to develop a new technology?
As the world is in transition to lower carbon energy, demand for Li-ion batteries is booming and will only increase. By 2025, driven by the needs of electric vehicles and energy storage systems, the worldwide market is expected to be around 600 GWh per year compared to less than 200 GWh today. This means there’s room to grow in this market. However, competition will be tough with market prices decreasing continuously. If we want to stand a chance, we’ll need to put together several ingredients such as cutting-edge innovative technologies and modern and efficient industrial facilities. To succeed we’ll need to work all along the value chain, beyond Saft’s own perimeter and to build strategic partnerships. Of course, this will all take significant investment. Teaming up means sharing both risks and skills.
Is that why your alliance has been described as an Airbus-style consortium?
Several consortia have been set up following the EU battery alliance initiative. In February 2018, Saft launched an alliance with four European industrial heavyweights: two Belgian companies, Solvay and Umicore, bothexperts in chemicals and materials, and two German companies, Manz, specialized in battery cell and module assembly equipment, and Siemens, a leader in solutions for Industry 4.0 facilities.
Together, we form a technology-intensive, highly experienced team, more than up to the task of meeting the demand of multiple markets, from e-mobility to energy storage systems and specialty industries. At the same time, several member states together with the EU are very keen to support the development of local industrial champions able to compete successfully against the currently dominant Asian players (China, South Korea and Japan).
What technology are you working on as a priority?
In our industry, technology is continuously progressing. The 19th century was dominated by the lead battery, that you still see today under the hoods of vehicles with combustion engines. The nickel based battery arrived in the 20th century and is still used in most aircraft, for example. And in this early 21st century, Li-ion has become a fast innovative technology. It’s used in all your electronic devices. But even though it works very well already, it’s still relatively new, which means there’s plenty of room for improvement.
What comes next?
We have a two-path strategy. First, we want to improve the existing Li-ion technologies by increasing energy density. In other words, we want to make more compact, lighter batteries that are also cheaper, but able to deliver more energy and power. That means we need to work on the electrochemistry of cells, their mechanical design and manufacturing processes. We think we’ll get there in the next three to five years. A quantum advance like that would expand our accessible market beyond the segments where we operate already. After that, we want to produce what are known as solid-state batteries which represent a paradigm shift in terms of technology. In Li-ion batteries, ions move from one electrode to another across a liquid electrolyte. In solid-state batteries, the liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid compound which nevertheless allows lithium ions to migrate within it.
The first huge advantage is a marked improvement in safety at cell and battery level: inorganic solid electrolytes are non-flammable when heated, unlike their liquid counterparts. There are therefore many (costly) constraints and restrictions on Li-ion battery efficiency that are necessary to ensure their stability and safety. Running a current through a solid would remove these obstacles and produce non-flammable batteries that would be even denser, have a longer life and cost less to manufacture. That would be a real technological breakthrough! As you can imagine, all five members of the consortium are working non-stop and enthusiastically to develop these new solutions.