Volume 89 Issue 8 | p. 25
Issue Date: February 21, 2011

Electrifying Mobility

With help from German government, BASF pursues new battery technologies
Department: Business
Keywords: lithium ion battery, electric car, R&D
COMBINED POWER
BASF tests batteries prepared by partners.
Credit: BASF
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COMBINED POWER
BASF tests batteries prepared by partners.
Credit: BASF

Thanks to a government program to encourage the use and production of electric vehicles, electromobility is becoming a buzzword in Germany. The vehicles are beginning to appear in large cities, mostly because of company lease programs and rental opportunities. But public enthusiasm is growing. When German information technology company SAP added 30 electric cars to its fleet last month, managers were stunned when more than 1,000 employees requested to use them.

Major German automakers have been slow to adopt this technology, and their first commercial electric vehicles are not expected until 2012 or 2013, whereas they’re already on the road in the U.S. Some of the delay can be explained by ongoing investments in diesel and gasoline fuel efficiency to meet regulations for traditional cars, but performance is also an important issue. Current electric technology cannot deliver the capability drivers expect from names such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Driving performance was on the mind of Andreas Kreimeyer, executive research director at BASF, during a company research event held in Ludwigshafen, Germany, earlier this month to provide a glimpse into BASF’s electromobility effort and the government programs that support it.

Kreimeyer has been using his BASF-supplied electric car for several weeks and is familiar with its capabilities. Although he likes the car for traveling around the local area, he said it would not make it to his mother’s home in Hannover, about 250 miles away. He was referring to the limited driving range of such vehicles but seemed also to imply that they cannot keep up on the Autobahn.

The German government wants to jump-start the domestic electric car effort and is providing money to help. Electromobility funding was first introduced as part of a May 2009 economic stimulus package that provided $678 million for pilot projects throughout the country. The goal is to put 1 million electric vehicles on German roads by 2020 and to ensure full urban mobility without fossil fuels by 2050. In 2010, the German transport ministry added $1.9 billion to fund infrastructure development and battery technology.

In addition to creating demand for electric vehicles, a key goal of these programs is for Germany to provide the necessary battery materials. In identifying this target, government leaders acknowledge that German technology is lagging and that funding and policy support are needed to change this. The electromobility effort is similar to what the U.S. Department of Energy is doing to accelerate development of a U.S. electric vehicle infrastructure under the America Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.

BASF is active in both Germany and the U.S. with a variety of internal and collaborative projects that build on its strength in electrochemistry. The targets for the efforts are clear, according to Kreimeyer: a battery range of 250 miles, a weight of less than 440 lb, and a threefold increase in energy density over existing systems. He declined to specify the R&D spending on these projects, saying only that BASF is investing a “three-digit million sum” in the area.

Surprisingly, the company’s first commercial battery materials production will be in Elyria, Ohio, instead of its home country. The $50 million cathode plant received $24.6 million in DOE funding and is expected to start up next year (C&EN, June 8, 2009, page 28). Kreimeyer explained that the technical roots and support for the Ohio unit came from Engelhard, the New Jersey-based catalyst company that BASF purchased in 2006.

Kreimeyer noted the importance of government funding in the early stages of development. He called the Elyria project “high risk” because large-scale production of the lithium-stabilized nickel-cobalt-manganese cathode materials has yet to be proven, and customers will not make commitments until this happens.

The Ohio plant will produce the so-called 111 cathode—which corresponds to equal portions of nickel, cobalt, and manganese—based on technology licensed from Argonne National Laboratory. BASF researchers are looking at alternative compositions that could yield lower cost cathodes. New systems based on 523 and 424 metal ratios can trim metal costs by more than 50%, according to Wolfgang Kanther, global technology manager for BASF catalysts. Test quantities of these cathodes are being made for early customer trials at a pilot plant in nearby Beachwood, Ohio.

In Germany, government support takes the form of grants for collaborative R&D efforts. BASF participates in the battery consortium called HE-Lion, an abbreviation for high-efficiency lithium-ion, which comprises eight companies and 10 research institutions. Focused on delivering improved batteries to market by 2015, the group received a $28.5 million government grant that was matched by participants.

BASF also launched a science network for lithium-sulfur and lithium-air batteries (C&EN, Nov. 22, 2010, page 29). Working with professors from Giessen University, Technical University of Munich, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute, and Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, BASF is looking at next-generation batteries on a more fundamental level. In January, BASF added Karlsruhe Institute of Technology to the network to focus on extending battery lifetime and storage capacity.

“If we join forces, we can be successful,” Kreimeyer stressed as he talked with reporters about the firm’s collaborations and networks. Considering the efforts in other regions, Germany may need lots of help.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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