Lithium-ion batteries’ energy density, service life, costs and safety all very much depend on the materials in the cathode. This is why fast access to large quantities of the latest cathode materials is so crucial to keeping pace with global leaders in battery manufacturing. In a bid to make these materials available, the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) is poised to launch a major project called Powder-Up! The pilot plant to be built in Ulm in southern Germany over the next months will produce high-performance cathode materials in batches of up to 100 kilograms for today’s and future generations of lithium-ion batteries. Science and industry partners in Germany and Europe will be able to draw on these cathode materials for their pilot plants. This new source will redress a serious shortage for Germany’s science and research community. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding Powder-Up! with around 20 million euros.
“As it stands, Germany does not produce next-generation cathode materials on an industrial scale, so it is nearly impossible for universities and research institutions to use these materials when they investigate high-performance batteries,” says Prof. Markus Hölzle, a member of the ZSW’s Board of Directors and head of the Electrochemical Energy Technologies Division in Ulm. “Powder-Up! is going to close this gap. “
From metal salt to cathode powder
ZSW researchers engaged in the Powder-Up! project aim to build this pilot plant to scale-up synthesis of tailored cathode materials from one to ten kilograms and then all the way up to 100 kilograms. They will share these materials with research and industry partners seeking to develop battery cells.
The standard process chain for producing cathode materials on a large scale is complex with many subordinate steps. This plant will be able to execute the entire workflow. It will have the equipment to produce the precursor in a precipitation reaction with raw materials such as nickel and cobalt salts and sodium hydroxide. Such precursors are then processed with lithium salts at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, and get the finishing touch by post-treating its surface. Every step is crucial to the final quality of these materials. To make powder under factory-like conditions, the Powder-Up! plant will be equipped with machines that have proven their merits in industrial use cases. These machines cover the entire process chain, but also enable researchers to investigate individual stages of production. To meet the highest standards for quality, the production line will be enhanced with top-notch tools for fast data acquisition, processing and analysis.
The initial effort to develop formulas and processes will take place at the smallest scale. Researchers aim to create the target formula for a selected process, quickly and at low cost. The next step will be the piloting phase, where the ZSW scales up the optimized parameters. Researchers can then assess the impact of synthesis parameters on resource use, product yield, particle design and electrochemical performance. They aim to use digital analytics tools, connected process steps and seamless process data acquisition to gather statistics and scientifically evaluate data.
Having researched functional materials for batteries and supercapacitors for more than 30 years, the ZSW workforce knows how to develop custom powders and pastes. The institute’s researchers also understand the connections between structure and powder morphology and how they relate to the desired functional and processing properties.
New battery materials – essential to competitiveness
High-performance lithium-ion batteries are the key building blocks in electric cars and for smart electricity storage in industrial and household use cases. If Germany, as a hub of business, is to hold its own against Asian competitors in battery development and production, it will have to quickly translate the latest research findings into products. Fast access to cutting-edge active materials is essential to that goal: Manufacturers simply must have better materials to build first-class cells.
The Powder-Up! Plant will develop and deliver customized cathode powders for use in process development, and furnish data to optimize all production steps. The research project, which the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding with 19.77 million euros, kicks off in December 2021 and will run for two years.
The Zentrum für Sonnenenergie- und Wasserstoff-Forschung Baden-Württemberg (Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg, ZSW) is one of the leading institutes for applied research in the areas of photovoltaics, renewable fuels, battery technology, fuel cells and energy system analysis. There are currently around 300 scientists, engineers and technicians employed at ZSW’s three locations in Stuttgart, Ulm and Widderstall. In addition, there are 100 research and student assistants.