Interview: Michael Lippert, Saft Energy innovations director and BEPA chairman

BY BEN COOK:

  • Battery storage must be ‘cost competitive’ to flourish, says Lippert
  • Battery manufacturing must reduce its environmental footprint
  • Market uptake needs to increase, he says

If storage is to truly fulfil its potential as part of the global energy transition, it has to surmount a number of challenges. These include ensuring it is priced competitively, sustainable, and able to be utilised at massive scale.

In addition, it is vital that market uptake increases.

Therefore, the energy storage sector needs to establish an effective battery value chain, meaning the system by which the industry creates energy storage systems from start to finish.

BATT4EU is an initiative that has just been launched by the Batteries European Partnership Association (BEPA), in partnership with the European Commission, to do just that.

Energy Storage Report spoke to Michael Lippert director of innovations and solutions for energy at battery manufacturer Saft – a wholly-owned subsidiary of Total Energies – and chairman of BEPA. The discussion covered the biggest barriers that need to be overcome to build an effective value chain; the development of EU regulations on battery standards; what is being done to build strong networks in the sector; and Saft’s current strategic priorities.

What are the biggest challenges the European battery value chain faces?

ML: Firstly, competitiveness. Battery solutions made in Europe have to be cost competitive in order to capture the growing market potential in Europe and prevent already established players in Asia from further expanding their market dominance. Consequently, research and innovation (R&I) is crucial to reach ambitious performance targets, introduce abundantly available low carbon-intense and low-cost materials, enhance efficiency and lifetime, and develop cost-effective material processing, cell manufacturing and recycling processes and machinery.

The second major challenge is sustainability. While batteries will indirectly enable massive greenhouse gas reductions, it is crucial that battery manufacturing itself is done with the smallest possible environmental footprint. R&I is necessary to reduce the carbon intensity of industrial processes like refining of battery raw materials – as well as electrode, cell and module manufacturing – to enhance the depth and efficiency of recycling.

Another major issue is industrial upscaling. To satisfy future market demand in Europe, construction of high-volume ‘gigafactories’ with manufacturing capacities of tens of GWh of battery cells are needed. Such industries need to be highly automated, energy- and material-efficient and have the smallest environmental footprint, while also being able to manufacture future battery technologies.

Finally, market uptake is a big challenge. Successful and fast market uptake will depend on a number of technical and non-technical factors. First of all, the integration of batteries into various sectors is key to customer and market acceptance. Integration needs to be user-specific and user-friendly. In this context, different sectors – including automotive, rail, air or waterborne transport, industrial or stationary usages – have different challenges.

Integration also needs to take into account the necessary infrastructure (charging, grid connection) as well as end-of-life measures like re-use and dismantling. Furthermore, market uptake depends on policy and regulation concerning materials, logistics, and end-of-life, as well as segment-specific frameworks ruling their use.

What is the best way of overcoming these challenges?

ML: Only long-lasting R&I that gathers industry, research and public stakeholders together can help create a ‘best-in-the-world’ innovation ecosystem for batteries and a competitive, sustainable and circular European battery value-chain.

Moreover, the recent proposal for an EU regulation for sustainable batteries can help create a more competitive battery value chain in Europe based on sustainability and circularity, making sure that environmental performance offers added value. Requirements under discussion – such as the use of responsibly sourced materials – could guide the development of a more sustainable and competitive battery industry across Europe and around the world. The regulation could also provide legal certainty to help unlock large-scale investment in battery technologies.

Finally, batteries with a lower environmental footprint are expected to increase the uptake of electric vehicles.

To fully implement the circular economy, second life – which can involve either re-use or re-purposing of batteries reaching end of life (EoL) – is being promoted. The second life starts with dismantling the large e-batteries to check whether their sub-systems are fit for a second life or whether they should be refurbished.

As electric vehicle batteries are not standardised – with regard to form and chemical composition, for example – and have considerably long lifetimes, volumes of EoL batteries of a single type are currently low. Consequently, their management and recycling are mainly based on manual processes, which involves a higher risk of accidents as the integrity of the batteries and cells are no longer guaranteed.

Within two to four years, the amount of EoL batteries from e-mobility and stationary applications will surge, thus completely transforming the recycling value chain. This means that both the number and capacity of recycling facilities will need to increase. The new facilities need to be automated to reduce costs and safety risks in all parts of the value chain.

What work is being done to create and reinforce networks within the battery sector?

ML: One of BATT4EU’s main objectives will be to work closely with other European partnerships to ensure proper alignment and collaboration and develop synergies with other related R&I initiatives at EU, national and regional levels. BATT4EU has identified four areas of collaboration, including

  • initiatives integrating batteries in mobility applications, including waterborne transport, road transport, rail, and aviation
  • initiatives that are key enablers for battery technologies such as recycling, circular economy, manufacturing robotisation and digitalisation
  • initiatives that can increase market uptake of battery technologies

What are Saft’s current strategic priorities?

ML: Saft will keep developing and manufacturing different battery technologies for multiple industries. Therefore, research and development at Saft, which amounted to 12.5% of sales in 2020, covers a range of technological areas including, besides electrochemistry, many battery system-related aspects such as digitalisation, mechanical and thermal know-how, and safety.

This being said, we are focusing a lot on lithium-ion technology developments across all market segments, including the fast-growing market for energy storage systems as well as multiple transportation segments in which electrification is the major transformation trend for the decade to come.

Among others, we are working on the next generations of so-called ‘solid-state’ lithium batteries in which the liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid compound. This improves battery safety and enables higher energy densities.

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