With a share of 30%, the transport sector is one of the largest2 transmitters. Conventional vehicles with combustion engines are to blame. Battery electric vehicles, on the other hand, cause virtually no local emissions. They could make a significant contribution to meeting climate goals if it weren’t for battery production, which, according to a Swedish study, generates 61 to 106 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour.
At the cutting edge of technology, lithium-ion batteries combine both lightness and high density. As a result, metal can store a lot of energy per kilogram of battery weight – more than other battery materials. Since energy density is synonymous with autonomy, lithium-ion batteries achieve greater autonomy compared to other batteries at an acceptable resource cost.
The problem with lithium-ion batteries is the liquid electrolytes that act as a conductive medium between the positive and negative poles, or anode and cathode. In the event of mechanical shock, such as in the event of an accident, this electrolyte fluid can escape and evaporate to form highly flammable gases.
The solid-state battery, on the other hand, does not need liquid electrolytes at all. It is therefore safer, says Dr. Marcus Jahn, who leads the new competence center for battery technologies at the Austrian Institute of Technology AIT in Vienna, Austria.
Solid state batteries
But the manufacturing processes for semiconductor batteries are currently still in the development stage. Only a few research groups in Europe are working on it. With the brand new competence center for battery technologies, the AIT contributes to this still emerging research. Existing research activities are grouped together and associated with new strategic themes. The aim is to create a kind of future laboratory that will advance battery technologies in Austria and Europe.
However, the solid-state battery is just one area of focus for Jahn’s 30-member research team. It is still unclear which types of batteries for electric vehicles will prevail in the future, therefore the boundaries of the research field are relatively wide and include the search for new materials and manufacturing processes.
Cost, energy density, safety and durability are important parameters for all types of batteries and all applications, explains Jahn. In the case of energy density, a distinction must be made between weight and volume, but in principle different areas of application have different requirements. For example, weight and safety are crucial for airplanes, while cost is crucial for passenger cars.
What comes after lithium?
In the development and characterization of battery materials, AIT researchers seek alternatives to critical raw materials. First and foremost on this list is lithium, which is highly reactive and easily flammable. Lithium-ion batteries are also associated with a rapid aging process. Current technology only guarantees seven to eight years for a battery. But the annual figures are mostly outdated because it is known that the speed of aging processes depends on the type of use and especially on the type and amount of charging and discharging processes. Indeed, the latter cause the formation of gases and the chemical reactions are never without loss and cause aging, explains Jahn.
Possible alternatives for the future include magnesium-ion batteries or sodium-ion batteries. We already know that these principles work and can be offered at attractive prices, but there is still a lot to be done. The same goes for cobalt, the main component of electrodes, which should be replaced by alternative materials.
In the research area of sustainable and smart battery manufacturing, AIT researchers are mainly interested in industrial production methods of batteries for electric vehicles. In recent years, a high-quality research infrastructure has been built for this purpose, including the production of prototypes close to industry in which all processes are intensively studied and can be further developed. A central goal is sustainable production, which aims to replace environmentally harmful solvents with harmless substances, for example.
A battery basically consists of electrodes, cathodes and anodes. Currently, electrodes are applied to cathodes and anodes as pastes, which traditionally contain toxic solvents, even though the vapors have been removed. The ideal battery of the future, however, should consist of dry and therefore solvent-free electrodes. This has already been achieved with anodes, but there is still room for improvement with cathodes, Jahn said, adding: “It won’t be a green battery until it’s produced without solvent, with a low energy consumption and with durable materials”.
The reason why the solid-state battery is incomparably safer than the conventional lithium-ion battery is that it requires no liquid electrolyte. It is also expected to have a greater range as solid electrolytes potentially have a higher energy density.
Suitable materials for solid electrolytes are already known; Each has its advantages and disadvantages. At AIT, the focus will be on polymers, ceramics, and glasses or sulfide-based substances, among others. Based on this knowledge of materials, completely new manufacturing processes have to be developed. Indeed, unlike lithium-ion batteries, the production processes of semiconductor batteries are not yet standardized and reproducibility is not yet achieved. “To better understand these systems, fundamental questions still need to be answered,” says Jahn.
Semi-solid batteries, which use a hybrid approach, are considered a transitional technology and use a gel-like substance. Liquids are added to it, which are then absorbed. As the electrolyte is not liquid, it cannot leak, a guarantee of safety. But the ideal battery of the future must be solid. Only then is the high energy density possible, explains Jahn.
Life cycle analyzes are carried out for all research areas in AIT’s new Battery Technology Competence Center. These cover the entire process chain from raw materials through production and use to end-of-use and the use of recycled materials.
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