Copyright: ARTVISU Artur Krause

Ramping up energy transformation

The research organization Fraunhofer intends to play a leading role in the development of industrial battery production facilities in Europe. At its research and development site in Münster, Germany, Fraunhofer is building a test facility spanning over 6,000 square meters – and the ink is already dry on the construction plans for a gigafactory a few meters away. These are key benchmarks that European manufacturers of batteries for electric cars and stationary storage systems for renewable energies urgently need to keep up the pace in terms of capacities and expertise.

These are impressive figures that underline the global thirst for battery capacity. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), 10.6 million electric cars were sold in 2022. This represents 60 percent year-on-year growth and an overall market share of around 14 percent.

According to the Inside EV platform, brand leader Tesla leads the field with 1,313,851 vehicles delivered (an increase of 40 percent compared to 2021). Behind it, the Chinese rising star BYD (Build Your Dreams) is catching up with 911,141 vehicles (an increase of 184 percent). Volkswagen (excluding MAN, Scania, and Navistar for comparison purposes) – the world’s largest automaker by sales – is behind the two leaders with 570,737 all-electric cars sold in 2022 (an increase of 26 percent).

Appearances do not deceive, and established car manufacturers are finding the switch to electric car production more difficult than specialists like Tesla and BYD. The Achilles’ heel here is the production of batteries – the heart, the selling point in terms of range, and the main prize of electric cars.

Markus Eckstein knows this all too well. While he enjoys biking to work at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Battery Cell Production (FFB) in Münster, his fascination is with electromobility. “The Fraunhofer FFB has a clear goal.

We research and develop solutions for scaling production technology for lithium-ion batteries. Our customers are German automakers who want to get into battery production to make themselves less dependent on international suppliers and plant manufacturers in the battery industry,” explains the FFB Research Associate.

Volkswagen, for example, says it will produce only electric cars for the European market from 2033. “The next 10 years will bring almost unimaginable changes. That makes it all the more exciting for us, as a research and development facility, to make our contribution so that we can switch to electromobility as quickly, as efficiently, and as sustainably as possible,” says Eckstein.

According to a study by the consulting firm McKinsey, by 2030 global demand for lithium-ion batteries will be around 4,700 gigawatt hours (GWh). In 2023, it is expected to be around 713 GWh.

FFB FFB Continuous mixing is tested in the FFB Workspace. The materials for coating the cathode and anode are mixed in a continuous process and applied via the coating system (Copyright:Studio Wiegel).

Fraunhofer FFB

  • Who: Fraunhofer Research Institution for Battery Cell Production (FFB)
  • When: Founded in 2018.
  • What: As a link between science, research, and industry, the Fraunhofer FFB aims to establish a research infrastructure for environmentally and commercially sustainable battery cell production.
  • Where: Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Customer: Its customers are original equipment manufacturers, battery manufacturers, and universities.
  • Bühler: The Fraunhofer FFB operates a pilot plant provided by Bühler for continuous mixing of battery slurry. In 2024, when the PreFab is commissioned, research will continue on a 30-millimeter extruder. In parallel, the industrial plant – called Fab – will be built with a 93-millimeter extruder and throughputs of up to about 1,200 liters of battery slurry per hour. Despite its size, the industrial plant will also be modular, allowing the processing of different cell chemistries, for example, anode and cathode formulations.

A quantum leap

The Fraunhofer FFB campus is a proof of the dynamic way in which the topic of industrial bat-tery production is moving politics, research, and industry. The pilot plant is located in the FFB’s Workspace, where the Fraunhofer FFB carries out research using the continuous mixing technology provided by Bühler’s Grinding & Dispersing business. “The Fraunhofer FFB has been taking its first steps since June 2021 on this line, gaining experience in continuous mixing together with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and other partners. Throughputs of around 100 liters of electrode slurry per hour are possible with the 30-millimeter extruder, including the corresponding peripherals. This plant is the ideal basis for pilot trials, as it combines an industry-relevant production capacity with simple operation. Thanks to its modular design, a very large number of process parameters can be run down within a very short time and thus the mixing process can be efficiently optimized,” explains Philipp Stössel, Team Manager Process Technology Grinding & Dispersing at Bühler.

Ten kilometers further south, in the Hansa Business Park Münster, the complete outer shell of the FFB PreFab, the next milestone of the Fraunhofer FFB, is already in place. Eckstein can hardly wait to move in with his team and integrate the equipment from the Workspace into the PreFab. “When the interior construction is completed in 2024, we will conduct experimental research here with customers and universities on 6,000 square meters. In our innovation modules, we can take advantage of the shorter changeover and cleaning times. This allows us to improve existing processes, apply new technologies, and extrapolate the knowledge gained to industrial applications,” he says.

If we want to achieve an energy transition, industrial battery production is the game-changing move.

Philipp Stössel, Team Manager Process Technology Grinding & Dispersing at Bühler

The game-changing move

One interesting new technology is dry battery electrode (DBE) technology. Currently, components are mixed into a liquid slurry that is applied to a film and dried – a process that is not only time- and energy-consuming, but also requires toxic solvents that cost money and interfere with battery recycling.

“Dry blending eliminates the solvents, providing sustainability and cost-saving benefits. There is even the possibility of increasing key properties such as the energy density of a battery cell, as thicker electrode layers can be processed. The DBE process route also opens doors in the solid-state battery field. We are actively researching DBE technology, but scientific collaboration with institutions such as the Fraunhofer FFB is fundamental to build up new knowledge within a useful period of time and to enable the leap to industry,” explains Stössel. For the time being, however, classic wet blending will continue to be the standard. “If we want to achieve an energy transition – be it with the switch to electric cars, or the storage capacities needed for solar and wind energy – industrial battery production is the game-changing move,” explains Stössel. To test this on a one-to-one basis, nothing less than a giga-factory is needed. And this is precisely what will be built in the coming years a stone’s throw away from the PreFab – logically dubbed the FFB Fab.

Eckstein is pleased that this public tender was also awarded to Bühler. “Thanks to Bühler’s continuous mixing technology, we can determine accurate parameters for scaling and transfer them to the gigafactory scale. Bühler’s battery experts keep challenging us to look at things in a new way, and we are in active exchange when it comes to new technologies and best practices. For example, we are fascinated by QuaLiB, an in-house development at Bühler, which allows the quality of the electrode slurry to be analyzed in real time and ensures traceability of the process,” explains Eckstein.

The industrial plant that has been commissioned is based on a 93-millimeter extruder as well as sophisticated systems for handling, storing, and metering the raw materials, and for slurry storage. The mixing plant will be able to process up to approximately 1,200 liters of electrode slurry per hour.

FFB FFB Throughputs of around 100 liters of electrode slurry per hour are possible with the 30-millimeter extruder (Copyright:Studio Wiegel).

Skilled workers in focus

The facility is also designed to eliminate hurdles – hurdles that, today, stand in the way of many potential entrants into the battery business; hurdles that are stalling Germany’s and Europe’s great race to catch up. “If a medium-sized company wants to get into cell production, they lack the equipment to produce pilot series. We need to remove this obstacle quickly to put Germany on the map as a location for battery production,” says Eckstein.

“A lot of research is already happening, especially by the OEMs, but it’s often carried out within their own four walls. The knowledge of how to build and operate such factories is something we have to generate together. We need to share it so that Europe is able to make good battery cells to meet its sustainability and climate goals independently,” he adds.

In addition to generating and sharing knowledge, building a skilled workforce is fundamental. According to the National Platform Future of Mobility (NPM), up to 65,000 skilled workers, many of them highly specialized, will be needed every year in Europe by 2030.

“In our ELLB, European Learning Lab for Battery Cells, we are creating training opportunities in subjects related to batteries themselves, but also in how to operate these highly complex systems. We want to share the know-how we have developed in order to build up more and more skilled personnel who can get the most out of the plants in these factories,” says Eckstein.

The next 10 years will bring almost unimaginable changes. That makes it all the more exciting for us, as a research and development facility.

Markus Eckstein, Research Associate at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Battery Cell Production (FFB)

The political goals and guardrails are clearly set. The societal consensus to move away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable forms of mobility and energy has accelerated with the Russian war against Ukraine and the accompanying energy supply crisis. What remains is to look ahead at the further development of battery cell manufacturing in Europe. “The goal in Europe has to be, first of all, for all OEMs and battery cell manufacturers to build up as much mass as possible. Once we have a decent number of gigawatt hours installed, we have to think about how to get more quality into the cells. Issues such as rejects or recyclability of materials will become even more important in about 5 years, when a basic capacity for battery cell production is available,” Eckstein explains.

How quickly and how efficiently Europe can catch up will also depend on the work of the Fraunhofer FFB. It could well be that industrial battery production will be established in its neighborhood in Münster in the near future – there is certainly no shortage of expertise and bright minds with vision.

FFB FFB The FFB PreFab facility will feature a pilot line for small-scale battery cell production and have machine capacity of about 200 megawatt hours per year for electrode production (Copyright:ARTVISU Artur Krause).

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