This article is part of our special report Frontier Research – A good return on investment?.
Serious challenges in the energy and transport sectors could be solved, or at least mitigated, by a step-change in storage capabilities, supported by EU funding.
The EU’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change and its global warming goals underpin many of the developments happening in both energy and transport, where renewable sources and electric cars are gaining ground fast.
But wind turbines and emission-free mobility all rely heavily on the ability to store power and deploy it efficiently. As the old adage goes, the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, so any power generated when they do needs to be captured.
To the same extent, electric vehicles can only work if they can store enough energy to get them between charge points and deliver performance comparable to conventional fuels like petrol and diesel.
The importance of battery power was given full recognition when pioneers of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in October.
Despite advancements since they were first developed in the 1970s and rolled out en masse in the early 1990s, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries still suffer from a few significant problems.
There are limits to how much energy they can store, concerns over the supply chains that provide the raw materials and, in some cases, safety fears that come hand-in-hand with regular intensive use.
A number of projects funded under the European Research Council aim to address those issues though, by tweaking the way batteries are built or even replacing certain materials in order to eliminate problems altogether.
The snappily titled ‘BATMAN’ project, for example, will enjoy financial support of up to €1.5 million up until 2021 for research into the electrochemistry of lithium-ion and the origins of performance limitations.
“Current state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries have energy densities that are too small, charge- and discharge rates that are too low, and costs that are too high,” according to the BATMAN team.
“Understanding the limitations to battery performance and origins of the degradation and failure is highly complex due to the difficulties in studying interrelated processes that take place at different length and time scales in a corrosive environment,” they add.
The aim of the project is to implement design guidelines that can help manufacturers boost the quality of their products and “achieve high performance and safe lithium-ion batteries”.
Another project entitled ‘CAMBAT’ insists that “Li-ion is slowly but surely reaching its limits and controversial debates on lithium supply cannot be ignored. New sustainable battery chemistries must be developed.”
That is why the ERC-funded initiative wants to use up to €1.6 million to investigate whether calcium or magnesium can be used to substitute lithium in a battery’s architecture.
CAMBAT predicts that its research could lead to a “doubling of energy density while dividing by at least a factor of two the price when compared to state of the art Li-ion batteries and having the potential for being safer”.
The latter issue is because a lithium-free battery would also be free of by-products known as dendrites, tree-like structures that can build up over time and damage essential components, even starting fires.
Both projects mark a continuation of ERC-funded work that has been going on for some time. The COMBAT project wrapped up this year after enjoying €2 million to research better ways to design lithium-ion batteries.
“For the improvement and future development of batteries, computational modelling and design is an important complementary part to experimental testing which is expensive, time-consuming and sometimes unfeasible,” the project team warned in the funding call.
Big battery picture
EU officials will be hoping that advancements in the battery sector will continue and increase in pace, as estimates show that the annual value of the global market could swell to €250 billion.
That is why the European Commission has doubled down on the European Battery Alliance, an industry platform meant to get all players on the same page in order to compete with Asia, which currently dominates the market.
Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič was point-man on the EU’s big battery plans and looks set to continue in that role in Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission, in his new job as head of foresight and planning.
“When we talk about Europe in the future, we have to be talking about only the most sustainable batteries on our market,” Šefčovič told EURACTIV in a recent interview, adding that reviewing existing legislation might be in order to achieve that goal.
The ERC-funded research could well form a part of that green quest, as the EU makes peace with the fact that it will not be able to compete with the likes of China on price or volume.
US electric carmaker Tesla saw enough in Europe to announce recently the opening of its latest ‘giga-factory’ in Germany, in order to tap into a growing market for e-vehicles and perhaps avoid looming trade tariffs between Washington, Brussels and Beijing.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]