Map shows Europe's imminent Great Leap Forward in battery cell production
- China produces 80 percent of electric vehicle batteries.
- To achieve battery independence, Europe is ramping up production.
- And the U.S.? Action is needed, and quick.
This is a map of the future — the future of battery cell production in Europe. If and when all projects on this map are up and running, Europe will have a battery cell production capacity of around 700 gigawatt hours (GWh). That's crucial for two reasons: (1) those battery cells will power the electric vehicles (EVs) that will soon replace our fossil-fuel cars; and (2) a production capacity of that magnitude would break China's current near-monopoly.
Say what you will about state-run economies, but they're great at concentrating effort on a particular target. About a decade ago, Beijing directed huge resources towards its photovoltaic industry. Today, nine of the world's 10 largest solar panel manufacturers are at least partly Chinese. China is similarly resolved to become the global leader in EVs, including EV battery production.
And so far, it's working. At present, about 80% of the world's lithium-ion battery cells are made in China. Lithium-ion batteries are the ones used in EVs. In sufficient numbers, lithium-ion batteries can also be used for large-scale energy storage, which would help even out power supply fluctuations from sources like solar and wind.
China's dominance in this area is making many outside China nervous. In previous decades, OPEC had a similar stranglehold on producing the oil that makes cars run and factories hum. Then the organization had a political point to make and turned off the tap. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, oil prices skyrocketed and economies crashed.
Avoiding a 21st-century version of that scenario requires a strategy for EV battery self-sufficiency, and Europe has one. In 2018, the EU launched its Battery Action Plan, a concerted effort to increase its battery production capacity. Realizing they couldn't beat China on price, the Europeans resolved that their batteries would be greener and more efficient.
Easier said than done. Setting up battery production is complex, expensive, and slow. And as the EU's woefully slow vaccine rollout demonstrates, the organization's strength-in-numbers argument doesn't always work in its favor. Indeed, by 2020, only four of the dots on this map were up and running:
- a facility by Envision AESC in Sunderland (UK - now ex EU)
- a Samsung factory in Göd (Hungary)
- an LG Energy Solution plant in Wroclaw (Poland)
- a factory by Leclanché in Willstätt (Germany)
But in this case, slow and steady may win the race. At least two dozen battery plants are in the works across Europe (i.e. EU and its near abroad), and four of those should come online in 2021 alone, including Tesla's plant near Berlin. Tesla, incidentally, coined the term "gigafactory" for its facility in Sparks, Nevada. As the title of this map suggests, it's becoming the generic description for any large battery cell production facility.
By the end of the decade, Europe will have around 30 gigafactories.Credit: CIC energiGUNE
Despite the fact that Tesla's Nevada plant is on its way to becoming the world's largest building, battery production capacity is growing fastest in Europe. Predictions vary, but all observers agree that Europe is on the verge of a Great Leap Forward. Here's why:
- Europe's current production capacity is about 30 GWh.
- One forecast puts that figure at 300 GWh by 2029, another even at 400 GWh by 2025.
- Adding up the maximum capacity of all facilities on this map comes close to 700 GWh by 2028.
- In terms of global capacity, BloombergNEF predicts Europe's share could increase from 7% now to 31% in 2030.
- According to Eurobat — disappointingly, not the Gauloises-smoking, Nietzsche-quoting counterpart to Batman — the value of the battery industry will increase from €15 ($18) billion in Europe and €75 ($90) billion worldwide in 2019 to €35 ($42) billion in Europe and €130 ($156) billion worldwide by 2030.
So, who will be Europe's answer to CATL (short for Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.), China's main battery manufacturer? There are several pretenders to the crown. Here are some:
- Britishvolt, set to go online with Britain's first and largest gigafactory in Northumberland (UK) in 2023, with a maximum capacity of 35 GWh per annum.
- Northvolt, led by former Tesla execs, supported by the Swedish government and the European Investment Bank. Also funded by Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs. Aims to be green and big. One plant coming online in Sweden this year, another in Germany in 2024. Combined maximum capacity is 64 GWh.
- Tesla. Not content with its one gigafactory (40 GWh) opening this year, the company has already announced that it will build a second plant in Europe.
That second plant is not yet on the map. Also missing are the half dozen gigafactories that Volkswagen aims to open in the coming years. If Europe is to become self-sufficient in EV batteries, even more will be needed.
Europe's path to battery supremacy
In 2020, 1.3 million EVs were sold in Europe, edging past China to become the world's largest EV market. In 2021, Europe looks set to maintain that lead. By 2025 at the latest, EVs will have achieved price parity with fossil-fuel vehicles, not just in terms of total cost of operation but also in upfront cost.
Add to that the increasingly hostile environment — namely, higher taxes and stricter regulations — to fossil-fuel cars in Europe, and the pace of electrification will increase dramatically by mid-decade. Going by EU requirements for CO2 emissions alone, the EV share of the total vehicle market would need to be between 60% and 70% pretty soon.
While that may seem an impossibly high target today, things could start looking different very soon. Volkswagen aims to have full-electric cars make up more than 70 percent of its European sales by 2030. Volvo and Ford even aim to present entirely electric lineups by 2030 at the latest. And that year is also when the UK government intends to ban the sale of new fossil-fuel cars.
All of which could translate into base demand for EV batteries in Europe as high as 1,200 GWh by 2040. Even with all planned factories on the map running at maximum capacity, that still leaves a production capacity gap of about 40%.
To avoid batteries becoming a bottleneck for electrification, the EU likely will pour even more money into the industry via the European Green Deal and Europe's post-COVID recovery plan. Battery production is not just strategically sound; it also boosts employment.
A study by Fraunhofer ISI says for each GWh added in battery production capacity, count on 40 jobs added directly and 200 in upstream industries. The study forecasts battery manufacturing could generate up to 155,000 jobs across Europe by 2033 (although it doesn't mention how many would be lost due to reduced production of fossil-fuel cars).
Coming to America
And how fares America? Electrification is coming to the U.S. as well. By one estimate, EVs will have a market penetration of about 15% by 2025. Deloitte predicts EVs will take up 27% of new car sales in the US by 2030. The Biden administration is keen to make up for past inaction in terms of switching to post-fossil energy. But it has its work cut out.
Apart from Tesla's Gigafactory, the U.S. has only two other battery production facilities. If current trends continue, there would be just ten by 2030. At that time, China will have 140 battery factories and Europe, according to this map, close to 30. If U.S. production can't keep up with demand, electrification will suffer from the dreaded battery bottleneck. Unless America is content to import its batteries from Europe or China.
Strange Maps #1080
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It's like a little magnetic "nom, nom."
- Venus flytrap leaves shut in response to physical touch, salt water, or thermal stimuli.
- A team of scientists from Berlin have captured the magnetic charge that accompanies the closing of the plant's trap.
- Incredibly sensitive, non-invasive atomic magnetometers picked up the elusive signal.
For many children, the revelation that there's such a thing as a Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, is an amazing moment. The choppers of the sneaky plant predators are like something out of a fairy tale gone wrong. Adults can't help but be fascinated by them too, and now scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JSU) and the Helmholtz Institute Mainz in Germany have discovered something new that's surprising about these little demons: Every time they entrap prey, they give off a measurable magnetic charge.
"We have been able to demonstrate that action potentials in a multicellular plant system produce measurable magnetic fields, something that had never been confirmed before," says lead author Anne Fabricant.
Guilt as magnetically charged
The plants' bivalved snap trap (left), side view of a destained trap lobe (right)
Credit: Fabricant, et al./Scientific Reports
According to Fabricant, the finding isn't that much of a shock: "Wherever there is electrical activity, there should also be magnetic activity," she tells Live Science. And it is electrical activity in the form of action potentials that trigger its maw—really a pair of leaf lobes—to close when a hapless bug lands inside them, attracted by the nectar with which the plants bait their trap.
Along the inner surfaces of the lobes are trichomes, hair-like projections that cause the trap to close when they're disturbed by prey. One touch of a trichome is unlikely to cause the trap to shut — perhaps a mechanism that helps the plant avoid wasting energy on false alarms. A couple of touches, though, and it's chow time. The lobes come together as the bristles at their edges intertwine to help contain the prey. As the traps compress the trapped insect, its own secretions such as uric acid cause the trap to shut even more tightly, and then digestion begins.
In any event, just because the JSU researchers had reason to suspect the plant would give off a magnetic charge, catching it doing so was not a simple task.
Reading the Venus flytrap's magnetic output
Average action potential and corresponding magnetic signals
Credit: Fabricant, et al./Scientific Reports
"The problem," says Fabricant, "is that the magnetic signals in plants are very weak, which explains why it was extremely difficult to measure them with the help of older technologies." Still, where there's a will: "You could say the investigation is a little like performing an MRI scan in humans."
It's not just trichome flicks that trigger the trap — it will also close if triggered by salt-water, or with an application of either hot or cold thermal energy. The researchers applied heat via a purpose-built Peltier device that wouldn't introduce any background magnetic noise to mask or overwhelm the faint magnetic signal they were seeking. For the same reason, the experiments were conducted in a magnetically shielded room at Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) in Berlin.
The researchers used atomic magnetometers to measure the planets magnetic charges. The atomic magnetometer is a glass cell containing a vapor of rubidium atoms. When the traps were triggered, the magnetic charges released changed the spins of the atoms' electrons.
The researchers picked up magnetic signals at an amplitude of up to 0.5 picoteslas. "The signal magnitude recorded is similar to what is observed during surface measurements of nerve impulses in animals," says Fabricant. It's over a million times weaker than the Earth's own magnetic field.
Other researchers have detected magnetic charges coming the firing of animal nerves — including within our own brain. The phenomenon is referred to as "biomagnetism." Since other plants have action potentials, they may also generate biomagnetism, though less research has been done on them.
It's to other plants that the attention of the JSU team now turns, as they go looking for even smaller magnetic charges from other species. In addition to providing new understanding of nature's use of electricity, non-invasive detection technologies such as the one employed by the group could one day be utilized for more insightful monitoring of crops as they respond to thermal, pest, and chemical influences.
While it's always been a boon to Popeye's "muskles," it looks like spinach may also have a role to play in clean future batteries.
- Scientists are seeking sustainable, clean chemicals for use in future fuel cell and metal-air batteries.
- Platinum is the current go-to substance for battery cathode catalysts, but it poses a number of problems, including high cost and instability.
- Chemists at American University have developed a new high-performance catalyst from simple spinach, although its preparation as a catalyst is anything but simple.
As we look to power tomorrow's devices sustainably and economically, there's a great deal of research going into the development of better, cleaner battery technology. Showing particular promise are fuel-cell and metal-air battery technologies. Though both continue to operate using the anode/cathode/electrolyte paradigm of current batteries, the race is on to find more sustainable materials that can replace those in current use. A new study published in the American Chemical Society's open-source journal ACS Omega proposes that one solution may be Popeye's favorite superfood: spinach.
Cathodes and anodes, oh my
Flow of energy when battery is in use, discharging
Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock/Big Think
Electrons travel within a battery from one electrode, called the anode, through the battery's electrolyte — either a powder or liquid barrier — to another electrode, called the cathode. The anode releases these electrons through a chemical process called oxidation, while the cathode accepts them through another, an oxygen reduction reaction. Together, this exchange is called a "redox."
The electrons' return trip back to the anode, however, requires a "load" provided by an external device, which is fine, since that device — a flashlight, a phone, or a car, for example — operates on the energy produced by the battery's electrons passing through.
The electrons travel out from the cathode's positive terminal to the device then return to the battery's negative anode terminal. In this way the energy travels round and round the battery-device circuit. (When charging a battery, electrons go in the opposite direction connected to a charger.)
The new study is concerned with the catalyst that produces the cathode's oxygen reduction reaction.
Replacing a problematic, pricey catalyst
Fuel cell batteries and metal-air batteries use the surrounding air outside the battery as their cathode. It's clean, free, plentiful, and it works, as long as there's a catalyst that can adequately prompt the requisite oxygen reduction reaction.
The most commonly used catalysts for such batteries have been based on platinum. There are problems with these, though. Of course, platinum is expensive. Also, as the study notes, "the lack of long-term stability and the vulnerability to surface poisoning by various chemicals such as methanol and carbon monoxide, call for the development of non-Pt group metal (NPGM) catalysts."
Researchers have therefore been exploring non-toxic, carbon-based catalyst alternatives since they may be more stable and exhibit resistance to surface poisoning. And because carbon is everywhere, they'd be inexpensive to produce. However, some of the materials being investigated don't do the job as well as platinum-based catalysts. The chemical reaction they produce is slow, posing a speed bottleneck to the flow of electrons.
Credit: Liu, et al./ACS Omega 2020, 5, 38, 24367-24378
"The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability. The catalysts are potentially applicable in hydrogen fuel cells and metal-air batteries."
While other catalyst research has involved plants such as rice and cattails, Zou believes spinach has a few things that make it a superior candidate as a catalyst material. For one thing, it's rich in iron and nitrogen, both essential catalyst ingredients. In addition, it's easy and inexpensive to grow, and it's abundant.
Zou and his students developed spinach-based carbon nanosheets a thousand times thinner than a human hair. The process is complex, a combination of basic and advanced techniques.
To begin, the researchers washed, juiced, and freeze-dried the vegetable before grinding it by hand into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Next, the spinach powder was dissolved and mixed with melamine, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride in water and cooked together at 120°C. This mixture was then rapid-cooled in liquid nitrogen and freeze-dried. Then it was pyrolized twice.
It may well have been worth the effort. Measurements of the resulting nanosheet indicated that it can out-perform platinum as a catalyst in both speed and stability. Of course, that's on top of being made from such an unassuming, inexpensive, and widely available plant.
"This work," says Zou, "suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources." The next step for Zou and his students is to try out their spinach catalyst in prototype fuel cells to assess its performance in action. They're also looking into the use of other plant materials for catalysts.
Finally, Zou understandably hopes to develop a simple, less energy-intensive way to make their catalyst nanosheets.
Dust sticking to things on the moon is a serious problem researchers are trying to solve.
Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who said it smelled like "spent gunpowder" and developed an allergy to the stuff, was no fan of the moon's peculiar brand of dust. Nor were any of his Apollo-era colleagues fond of the regolith that got kicked up from the lunar surface whenever they walked or drove around. The dust got into, and stuck to, everything.
"It's really annoying," says Xu Wang of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at Colorado University Boulder, speaking to CU Boulder Today. "Lunar dust sticks to all kinds of surfaces — spacesuits, solar panels, helmets — and it can damage equipment."
The CU Boulder researchers have been working on a means of overcoming this little-known technical obstacle to moon exploration. Their research was recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, and it involves a lunar dustbuster that disperses sticky moon dust with beams of electrons.
Microscopic view of man-made "moon dust"
Credit: IMPACT lab/CU Boulder
Lunar dust is not much like the stuff settling on the surfaces of your home. For one thing, Wang reports, "Lunar dust is very jagged and abrasive, like broken shards of glass."
The reason that it's so stubbornly sticky is that it carries an electric charge not unlike that of a sock you've just removed from the dryer. The charge results from being continually exposed to the Sun's radiation as the dust sits on the lunar surface unprotected by an atmosphere like ours. The moon does have very thin atmosphere that contains odd gases such as sodium and potassium, says NASA, but it isn't thick enough to afford much protection from radiation.
Overload of electrons
The researchers explored the idea of shooting a beam of electrons at lunar dust to fill the spaces between its particles with negative charges that could push the particles further apart, away from each other and also off a surface to which they might be adhering. Says Wang, "The charges become so large that they repel each other, and then dust ejects off of the surface."
To test their concept, the researchers acquired lunar regolith stimulant from NASA, a substance formulated on Earth that's designed to replicate lunar dust. They placed objects of various materials that had been coated with the stuff in a vacuum chamber and fired electron beams at them. (The video above shows the dust's response.)
Speaking of the behavior of the electron-blasted dust on a number of tested surfaces, including spacesuit fabric and glass, "It literally jumps off," says lead author Benjamin Farr. However, the finest-grained regolith, the kind that gets stuck in brushes, remained unperturbed by the electrons. Overall, the electrons cleaned off about 75 percent to 85 percent of the dust. "It worked pretty well, but not well enough that we're done," says Farr. Looking forward, the team is exploring ways in which the electron beam's cleaning power can be increased.
This is not the first attempt at using electrons to clean up lunar dust. For example, NASA has explored using nanotube electrode networks in spacesuits to keep dust off. To keep regolith off other materials, NASA is also considered combining charge-dissipating indium tin oxide with paint that could then be applied to otherwise dust-collecting surfaces.
The CU Boulder team anticipates one day hanging up a spacesuit in a room or compartment where it can be bombarded with electrons for cleaning. Even more convenient would be facilities where "You could just walk into an electron beam shower to remove fine dust," says study coauthor Mihály Horányi of CU Boulder's Department of Physics.
Utilizing nuclear waste converted to diamonds, this company's batteries will reportedly last thousands of years in some cases.
- Nuclear reactor parts converted to radioactive carbon-14 diamonds produce energy.
- To keep them safe, the carbon-14 diamonds are encased in a second protective diamond layer.
- The company predicts batteries for personal devices could last about nine years.
We have an insatiable need for energy. When we need to operate something that cannot be simply plugged in, power is going to have to come from a battery, and the battle for a better battery is being fought in labs all over the world. Hold that thought for a moment.
Nuclear waste — it's the radioactive detritus from nuclear power plants that no one wants stored near their homes or even transported through their towns. The nasty stuff is toxic, dangerous, it takes thousands of years to fully degrade, and we keep making more of it.
Now a company from California, NDB, believes it can solve both of these problems. They say they've developed a self-powered battery made from nuclear waste that can last 28,000 years, perfect for your future electric vehicle or iPhone 1.6 x 104. Producing its own charge—rather than storing energy created elsewhere—the battery is made from two types of nano-diamonds, rendering it essentially crash-proof if used in cars or other moving objects. The company also says its battery is safe, emitting less radiation than the human body.
NDB has already completed a proof of concept and plans to build its first commercial prototype once its labs have resumed operations post-COVID.
NDB's battery as it might look as a circuit-board component
Image source: NDB
The nuclear waste from which NDB plans to make it batteries are reactor parts that have become radioactive due to exposure to nuclear-plant fuel rods. While not considered high-grade nuclear waste—that would be spent fuel—it's still very toxic, and there's a lot of it in a nuclear generator. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the "core of a typical graphite moderated reactor may contain 2000 tonnes of graphite." (A tonne is one metric ton, or about 2,205 lbs.)
The graphite contains the carbon-14 radioisotope, the same radioisotope used by archaeologists for carbon dating. It has a half-life of 5,730 years, eventually transmuting into nitrogen 14, an anti-neutrino, and a beta decay electron, whose charge piqued NDB's interest as a potential means of producing electricity.
NDB purifies the graphite and then turns it into tiny diamonds. Building on existing technology, the company says they've designed their little carbon-14 diamonds to produce a significant amount of power. The diamonds also act as a semiconductor for collecting energy, and as a heat sink that disperses it. They're still radioactive, though, so NDB encases the tiny nuclear power plants within other inexpensive, non-radioactive carbon-12 diamonds. These glittery lab-made shells serve as, well, diamond-hard protection at the same time as they contain the carbon-14 diamonds' radiation.
NDA plans to build batteries in a range of standard—AA, AAA, 18650, and 2170—and custom sizes containing several stacked diamond layers together with a small circuit board and a supercapacitor for collecting, storing, and discharging energy. The end result is a battery, the company says, that will last a very long time.
NDB predicts that if a battery is used in a low-power context, say, as a satellite sensor, it could last 28,000 years. As a vehicle battery, they anticipate a useful life of 90 years, much longer than any single vehicle will last—the company anticipates that one battery could conceivably provide power for one set of wheels after another. For consumer electronics such as phones and tablets, the company expects about nine years of use for a battery.
The company's prospective investor video explains their process in greater detail.
Maybe a very big deal
"Think of it in an iPhone," NDB's Neel Naicker tells New Atlas. "With the same size battery, it would charge your battery from zero to full, five times an hour. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you wouldn't have to charge your battery at all for the day. Now imagine for the week, for the month… How about for decades? That's what we're able to do with this technology."
NDB anticipates having a low-power commercial version on the market in a couple of years, followed by a high-powered version in about five. If all goes as planned, NDB's technology could constitute a major step forward, providing low-cost, long-term energy to the world's electronics and vehicles. The company says, "We can start at the nanoscale and go up to power satellites, locomotives."
The company also expects their batteries to be competitively priced compared to current batteries, including lithium ion, and maybe even cheaper once they're being produced at scale—owners of nuclear waste may even pay the company to take their toxic problem off their hands.
One company's waste becomes another's diamonds.