Archives for Lithium-ion

The rise of electric buses

Cities and urban environments will see some of the greatest benefits of the electric vehicle revolution. As combustion engines are replaced with electric drivetrains, exhaust emissions will drop dramatically, air will become cleaner and safer, streets will become quieter and calmer.

 

Battery-powered electric vehicles are clearly key to this future – the technology is widely acknowledged to carry the largest potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, with life-cycle emissions of a vehicle using electricity generated from renewable sources up to 90% lower than an equivalent internal combustion engine vehicle according to the IEA.

 

While electric passenger vehicles provide increasingly common examples of this technology in motion, this isn’t the only sector where battery technology is going to make a difference.

 

Municipal vehicles and public transport are in many cases well suited to electric propulsion by battery-powered drivetrains too; particular so when vehicles are operating with frequent stops along highly predictable routes since these circumstances are ideal for battery charging.

 

With battery performance steadily improving, system costs reducing and increasingly widespread regulation pushing for clean transportation, the switch to batteries is becoming the favored direction for most sectors of road transportation.

 

It’s a welcome situation.

 

Transport sectors have failed to see emissions reductions as have been evident in other sectors over recent years, and road transport emissions are in fact increasing.

 

The European Environment Agency reported that having grown since 2014, road transport in the EU in 2018 accounted for 82% of the transport GHG emissions and one fifth of the EU’s total GHG emissions.

 

Electrifying buses with batteries – provided they are powered with clean electricity – would make a great difference. The most widely-used form of public transport in the EU, buses account for a little over half of all public transport journeys and 8% of all passenger land-based transport according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.

 

The emergence of battery-powered electric buses, or e-buses, is a relatively recent development, but with it an outlook comes into focus which paints a bright picture of how public transportation of tomorrow is likely to look.

 

Electric buses from Lion Electric. Reducing pollution and emissions around children using school buses is an obvious benefit and something adding weight to arguments in favor of the switch to electric. Image via Lion Electric.

 

Towards market dominance

Optimism for e-buses becoming a major branch of public transport is reflected in the number of mainstream bus manufacturers which have adopted the technology, including Scania, BYD, Solaris, Irizar Group, Volvo, Mercedes, and VDL Bus & Coach.

 

By the end of 2018, these and other manufacturers had supported deployment of some 460,000 e-buses around the world (BloombergNEF).

 

It’s progress, especially considering the number grew by over 100,000 from end of 2017. And the impact of this according to a BloombergNEF report, is that by the end of 2019 some 270,000 daily barrels of diesel demand will have been displaced by e-buses.

 

Nevertheless, it’s clear that regions are embracing this new technology at varying speeds. China alone, for instance, operates some 421,000 of those e-buses, while the U.S. and Europe both operate fleets numbering only into the low hundreds.

 

A fleet of thirty e-Buses arrive in Finland in August 2019.

 

While widescale adoption of e-buses outside of China is evidently in its earliest of days, encouraging trends are emerging.

 

In Western Europe and Poland, e-bus registrations increased by 48% between 2017 and 2018, and through 2018, 5% (562) of all city buses registered were electric (CME Solutions).

 

In August of this year alone, Europe saw several highlights: Finnish HSL transport group took delivery of a fleet of 30 e-buses; in Warsaw, Poland, transport company MZA ordered 130 e-buses. In Gothenberg, Sweden, municipal transport company Vasttrafik ordered 220 e-Buses from Volvo.

 

Looking forward, BloombergNEF’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2019 reports e-buses are to occupy a remarkable 81% of annual municipal bus sales by 2040. Interestingly, that’s a share higher than the equivalent number for passenger vehicles, which BloombergNEF put at 57%.

 

 

Increasing competitiveness of vehicles

Key to the adoption of e-buses is that these vehicles are increasingly compelling alternates to conventional buses. Gains in this sense include e-buses being simultaneously more technically capable and therefore a valid alternate in a practical sense, as well as more financially viable to operate.

 

Earlier this year, Chinese manufacturer BYD – which has delivered over 50,000 e-buses and electric coaches – launched the world’s longest fully electric bus. At 27m long, the K12A can carry 250 people up to a maximum speed of 70 km/h and on a single charge can travel close to 300 km, which BYD suggest is around an average day’s operations.

 

A reminder of the benefits of this kind of technology, BYD have stated that a single K12A e-bus saves the equivalent of 80 tons of CO2 emissions per year and 360,000 liters of fuel throughout its lifecycle.

 

Alongside contributing to cleaner, quieter streets, e-buses in many places are enabling reduced costs of operation due the lower cost per kilometer for running on electricity compared to diesel fuel.

 

Because of this, while battery costs can mean that e-buses carry a higher upfront cost compared to conventional combustion engine buses at the present time, ultimately these costs can be recovered through lifetime savings.

 

BYD’s K12A e-bus. Image via BYD.

 

Charging an urban revolution

As the principal determining factor for performance, battery technology has a great role to play in success of electric passenger vehicles and e-buses alike. On this front, improved battery performance and reduced costs can be counted on to continue to both extend the driving range of e-buses and reduce upfront costs.

 

Successful deployment of e-buses, however, relies on more than the vehicles themselves. Lack of charging infrastructure and power constraints in the power grid can limit the practical workings and overall success of e-buses. Going forward, both these aspects of charging need to be considered by various stakeholders, not least municipal actors, automobile manufacturers, and electricity network operators.

 

Currently, we see several approaches to charging being explored, with two main charging strategies being overnight charging (typically utilizing charging stations at depots) and charging through the day (opportunity charging). Both strategies can be used with the three leading hardware options of plug-in, pantograph, and induction. Each have their merits, and it remains to be seen if the industry might converge on just one, or if multiple solutions will continue to be utilized.

 

As for handling the new loads on electricity grids resulting from charging fleets of e-buses (and EVs for that matter), solutions include smart traffic planning to enable frequent charging and energy storage systems to enable peak shaving of the power demands.

 

Flexible and modular infrastructure in Mannheim, Germany, for e-bus charging via plug-in cable, pantograph and charging rail from Daimler. Image via Daimler AG.

 

With some 745,500 buses in circulation on European roads today, and less than 10% of the fleet typically renewed each year as buses reach the end of their 8 to 10 year lifecycle, it will be some time before all buses are emission-free (ACEA).

 

Still, the change coming in even the next few years with e-buses will be noticeable, even if it’s silent.

 

What’s more, the speed of transition might yet be quickened as governments adopt stronger targets to accelerate clean public transportation.

 

Take the Netherlands for example. One of the most aggressive markets for electrification in Europe, the nation has mandated that 100% of new public transport buses by 2025 must be zero emissions, and that the entire fleet must be emission free by 2030.

A revolution at sea – the challenges and opportunities of electrifying maritime industries

The shift to electric transportation is quickly characterized by the on-going success of electric vehicles, which in many ways are symbols of the transition to a cleaner, decarbonized future. But transportation by land, is just one part of the transport triad of land, air and sea – all of which must, ultimately, be decarbonized.

 

The electrification of maritime and air sectors is presently many years behind the electric vehicle (EV) transition. In large part this is because aircraft and ships are simply much larger systems, requiring far greater amounts of energy and power than automobiles, trucks or buses.

 

The situation presents challenges to electrification of these sectors by today’s technology. While vehicles can be ably powered by Li-ion batteries at competitive costs, the same is not true for most commercial aircraft or ships. Still, there are signs of progress, many of which are found in taking a closer look at the maritime industry.

 

The need for change

The decarbonization of shipping sector is urgently needed. Albeit supporting some 90% of global trade, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) shipping accounts for around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions; an amount greater than international aviation.

 

The IEA note: “Even with all policy measures currently in place and proposed, CO2 emissions from international shipping are projected to be 50% higher in 2040 than they were in 2008.”

 

The environmental cost of shipping is not only of concern for its greenhouse gas emissions; nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide emissions are of particular concern. A report published in Nature in 2018 featured calculation that 200 of the world’s largest ships produce as much sulphur as all the cars in the world combined.

 

The cause for these emissions is the bunker fuel powering combustion engines of ships. It’s one of the dirtiest heavy oils available, and two billion barrels of the fuel was used by the shipping industry through 2018 alone.

 

Unfortunately, converting much of world’s maritime fleet – especially larger container ships and cruise ships – away from dependence on heavy fuels to clean energy power systems is no simple matter. The sheer power and energy requirements of larger vessels are orders of magnitude greater than heavy trucks, let alone passenger vehicles, and certainly today’s batteries aren’t a viable option.

 

Change is on the horizon though, including introduction of regulations at both the international and national levels to promote maritime decarbonization.

 

 

Landmark legislation emerged in 2018 from the International Maritime organization (IMO) – the United Nations regulatory agency for the maritime industry – with a strategy that includes a target to reduce international shipping carbon emissions by at least 50% compared with 2008 levels by 2050.

 

More encouragingly yet, actions surrounding reducing emissions and clean power solutions for maritime sector are emerging.

 

Several maritime actors have begun exploring solutions to reduce emissions by way of options that include using cleaner fuels, adjusting operational parameters such as speed, installing engine exhaust scrubbers and switching to liquid natural gas. This is something, but likely not enough.

 

Scientists and industry analysts fear that these are short-term solutions which, while costing an enormous amount, will do relatively little to reduce emissions to the extents required.

 

The argument goes that shipping companies should instead focus time and investment in going fully green.

 

Attempts have been made on this front and momentum is gaining. One example is a ship owned by Hangzhou Modern Ship Design & Research Co. With a payload capacity of 2,200 tons and a 2,400 kWh lithium-ion battery system, it claimed the title of world’s first electric cargo ship.

 

Though the ship hints at the opportunities of electrifying shipping, it also highlights a challenge: on a single charge (requiring two hours), the ship can travel just 80 km – a distance that’s but a fraction of the thousands of kilometers container ships typically travel (for reference, New York to Rotterdam is over 6,000 km by sea).

 

These challenges, concerning battery power and capacity, however, should be seen as subject to innovation. And to be sure, there is a good deal of activity pushing for progress. Just this week in Japan, a newly announced joint company named e5 Lab presented itself with ambitions to develop clean electric maritime transport solutions.

 

The e5 Lab partners, including Asahi Tanker and Mitsubishi Corporation, stated its objective to “build the world’s first zero-emission tanker” by mid 2021. The tanker, pictured below, would be a battery-powered coastal vessel to operate in Tokyo Bay.

 

 

Meanwhile, in Norway, YARA and technology company KONGSBERG announced a partnership to build the world’s first autonomous, electric container vessel. Replacing 40,000 truck journeys a year, the ship is slated to be delivered in 2020.

 

Widespread deployment of battery-powered shipping may be some years away yet and certainly much is required in terms of battery performance to deliver on this for the world’s larger, heavier classes of container vessels and cruise liners. This being the case, there’s another maritime sector that is ripe for batteries, and the shift has already commenced.

 

The emergence of electric ferries

The electrification of ferries – ships designed for transport of passengers and vehicles – is an altogether different proposition than electrifying heavy ships.

 

Ferries are much smaller than container ships or cruise liners, travel relatively short distances, and operate along regular routes and schedules – all characteristics which leave ferries highly amenable to emission-free electric powertrains. The shift would radically improve the environmental footprint of the sector, and enable other benefits including quieter, safer vessels, lower operating costs and reduced need for maintenance.

 

One place where the transition is well underway is Norway.

 

According to a report from Siemens and environmental campaign group Bellona, 7 out of 10 Norwegian ferries would benefit from electrification of some kind. More specifically, of some 180 ferries in Norway, 84 operate with crossing times of less than 35 minutes and at least 20 trips per day – an operating profile that is considered profitable with battery operated ferries.

 

A reflection of the nation’s early embrace of electrification, Norway is home to the world’s first fully electric ferry – Ampere.

 

Put into service in May 2015 by Norled, the 80m-long Ampere runs 34 daily departures of its 5.7 km crossing and has a capacity of up to 120 cars and 360 passengers.

 

Ampere is powered by a 1,000 kWh Li-ion battery system from Corvus and Siemens, which can recharge during the 10-minute loading and unloading time of each trip from charging stations located at ports. Supporting Ampere’s operations, 260 kWh stationary battery systems have been deployed at either side of the crossing to supply power to the vessel while it recharges, as well as compensate for the load incurred through charging to avoid grid issues.

 

Because the region’s electricity is supplied entirely by hydropower, Ampere runs on fossil-free energy at costs 60% lower than with regular diesel. In comparison, a conventional ferry on the same route is estimated to consume some 1 million liters of diesel and emit 2,680 tons of CO2 and 37 tons of nitrogen oxides each year.

 

“This we believe is the beginning of the story where the green shift will give a renaissance for the Norwegian maritime sector. If the industry uses this technological advantage and the showcase right, we believe that this can help Norwegian shipyards succeed in the transition after the oil age,” state Ampere’s operators, Norled.

 

Other indications of the move towards electrification of ferries exist in Norway besides Ampere.

 

Rolls-Royce announced in August 2018, for instance, that it would be offering SAVe Energy – a scalable Li-ion battery system for ships. Three ship owning companies, Norled, Color Line, and the Norwegian Coastal Administration Shipping Company, have been partners in the development of the solution which is to be delivered from Rolls-Royce Power Electric in Bergen.

 

It’s all part of a trend that’s in part motivated by the Norwegian state pushing forward policy to crack down on maritime emissions, including taking action to halt emissions from cruise ships and ferries in Norway’s UNESCO World Heritage fjords – making them zero emission zones by 2026.

 

Clearly Norway is laying the groundwork here, providing compelling demonstrations of what can be accomplished with today’s technology and a progressive agenda for the future. But electrification of ferries across Europe as a whole is also not without a bright outlook, with emerging policy and deployment of technology by private industry.

 

And while the shift to battery powered electric vehicles continues at pace, its consequences in terms of advancing Li-ion battery technology and reducing costs can be counted on to deliver benefits which will push the electrification of ferries and other maritime sectors further still.

Revolt: the technologies paving the way for Li-ion battery recycling

A sustainable approach from day 1

With the sustainability of industries high on the global agenda, the circumstances surrounding how products and solutions are manufactured and managed at end-of-life must be prioritized. It’s not enough that a solution simply serves a sustainable function through usage alone.

 

It’s through this lens that Northvolt approaches Li-ion batteries and is motivated to establish a robust European ecosystem for battery recycling.

 

Now at the beginning of the transition to battery powered electric vehicles, we are facing a change that carries consequences on societal, industrial and environmental levels.

 

That this industrial revolution is centered around Li-ion batteries, solutions whose manufacture both requires the extraction and use of Earth’s resources and significant amounts of energy, underscores the importance of its adopting a sustainable approach as early as possible.

 

The need is heightened further still by the fact that the forecasted demand for Li-ion cells is so great – as many as 250 million electric cars may be on the roads by 2030, according to IEA’s EV30@30 Scenario, up from around 5 million today.

 

As a battery manufacturer, Northvolt’s response to the situation is two-fold.

 

First, a commitment to utilizing clean energy and sustainable practices throughout manufacturing activities. And second, at the other end of battery lifetimes, delivery of effective solutions for battery recycling which maximize the return of valuable materials to their elemental form for reintroduction into supply chains.

 

We have to establish a new standard not only for manufacturing batteries, but how we recycle them too. Recycled Li-ion batteries will be an agent of change in the energy world and a critical piece of the puzzle in fulfilment of global sustainable development ambitions.

– Emma Nehrenheim, Chief Environmental Officer, Northvolt

 

Recycling can be challenging and this especially so in the case of recycling EV batteries – complex systems containing numerous valuable elements and materials. If done without care, recycling methods also have the potential to be more harmful for the environment than raw material extraction.

 

Fortunately, battery recycling isn’t without a solid foundation and there are established technologies to work with.

 

People might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of today’s Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, and that this recycling is undertaken using effective technologies, producing large yields of high-quality material.

 

That said, the shift to EVs brings new challenges for battery recycling which must be handled at practical, technological and policy levels – issues presented in ‘Securing a robust European ecosystem for Li-ion battery recycling’.

 

Northvolt is establishing solutions for this future by refining recycling technologies and supporting effective market conditions for battery recycling in Europe.

 

 

What to recover

The manufacture of Li-ion batteries requires sourcing of raw materials, some of which are relatively rare. Li-ion batteries featuring NMC chemistry for instance, which Northvolt will produce, require as primary materials for active material the metal oxides nickel (Ni), cobalt (Co), lithium (Li) and manganese (Mn). Besides these, batteries also require other metals and plastics for various components including wiring, electronics and casings.

 

Of most interest are metals including copper, aluminum and steel, and active materials found in the electrodes which are of the highest value.

 

Most materials found in batteries can be recovered and recycled. And the intention of Northvolt’s recycling program is to maximize recovery of high-quality materials and to do so using methods which minimize the environmental footprint of recycling. Doing so will close the loop on battery manufacturing and lead to three key beneficial outcomes:

  • Reduction in consumption of raw (virgin) materials
  • Reduction in the environmental footprint of cells (and in effect EVs)
  • Support a new European economy

 

The recycling process

After collection and energy recovery through deep discharging, battery packs will be dismantled down to at least the module level. For this, we envision developing highly automated machinery, utilizing machine vision and smart software to identify battery pack models, thereby facilitating their disassembly and recycling.  

 

There are advantages to automation of recycling processes, including increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Automation will also be safer, reducing operator exposure to risks associated with the dismantling.   

 

Dismantling allows for steel casings, aluminum current collectors in the modules, copper bus bars and wiring, as well as plastics and other electronics, to be recovered for external recycling. 

 

Cells and modules will then be crushed in an inert environment, and electrolyte solvent evaporated 

 

The now crushed remaining material constituents are then sorted depending on mechanical properties such as density, size and magneticity. For this, air separators, sieves, and magnetic separators are usedand copper and aluminum are isolated for recycling. The remaining material, known as black mass, is then subjected to a hydrometallurgical process. 

 

 

 

 

Hydrometallurgy – commonly known as hydromet – involves dissolving metals in a solution containing sulfuric acid under optimized conditions. Impurities such as copper, iron, and aluminum are then removed using techniques including precipitation, solvent extraction and ionic exchange. 

 

Now free from impurities, the nickel, manganese and cobalt are recovered in one solution using solvent extraction. Although high-quality, this NMC solution isn’t necessarily immediately fit for being reintroduced into battery manufacturing and so concentration levels and ratios of the solution are adjusted accordingly.  

 

Finally, battery-grade lithium can be recovered from the remaining solution. 

 

Precise extraction rates vary metal to metal, but in general are very high. Melin (2019) highlights 20 published studies reporting an efficiency for lithium often at 100%, while nickel, cobalt and manganese generally have an efficiency between 80 and 99%. A recycling efficiency for other metals such as copper, aluminum and lithium, is typically between 90 and 100%. 

 

 

The hydromet process has several benefits compared to other recovery processes. One is that it enables recovery of high yields of high purity active materialsuitable for re-introduction into fresh battery production. Another is that this process does not require high temperatures, as opposed to pyrometallurgy. 

 

Altogether, a comprehensive recycling program, combined with implementation of effective recovery programs for EV batteries, are fundamental to a successful and sustainable battery-powered industrial revolution. The benefits of this approach go beyond sustainability though, and include delivery of a vibrant new industry reflective of the need for a conscientious approach to powering society.

Securing a robust European ecosystem for Li-ion battery recycling

With the advent of electric transportation, we are rapidly moving towards a future dependent on Li-ion batteries. A responsible and modern approach to this industrial revolution must involve establishing a sustainable model for Li-ion battery manufacturing. However, that approach cannot end with manufacturing. Instead, it must extend to incorporate battery recycling as a fundamental aspect of a sustainable electric vehicle (EV) industry.

 

Batteries are, after all, systems which simultaneously require considerable amounts of energy to produce and valuable natural resources – points which underscore the importance of adopting an environmentally sound approach to their manufacture and end-of-life handling.

 

Northvolt is pioneering a green battery – a concept that begins with a blueprint for sustainable Li-ion battery manufacture, but extends into a fully built-out, robust ecosystem for recovery and recycling of batteries.

 

Use of the term ‘ecosystem’ is appropriate because of the complex, multi-layered nature that this new industry will assume.

 

There is, for instance, the requirement for interaction and collaboration between varied actors including consumers, automobile industries and battery manufacturers. There are a variety of technologies involved as well – several of which remain under development. Equally, recycling activities will have to be coordinated across widely distributed geographic regions, over timespans involving many years given the anticipated lifespans of batteries.

 

Of course there are already solutions available to support the recycling of Li-ion batteries. And despite misconception surrounding the issue, most Li-ion batteries used today are indeed recovered and recycled. Some 97,000 tonnes of Li-ion batteries were recycled last year alone – mostly in China and South Korea.

 

While this is encouraging, it does not mean that Europe is sufficiently prepared for handling recycling of Li-ion batteries through the forthcoming decades. The emergence of huge volumes of Li-ion batteries onto global markets to power EVs changes the dynamics of battery recycling substantially.

 

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2019 suggests that by 2040, 57% of all passenger vehicle sales, and over 30% of the global passenger vehicle fleet, will be electric. Aside from a sheer increase in recycling capacity which will be required, new challenges stem from the introduction of novel EV battery systems which are quite different in form and chemistry compared to those batteries found in portables.

 

Today, the vast majority of recycled batteries come from portable electronics which are recycled as electronic waste from consumer goods including used laptops and mobile phones. Accessing the batteries within these products is relatively straight-forward from a recycling perspective and their recovery from consumers benefits from existing national-level electronic waste disposal schemes.

 

The situation is quite different with EV battery packs, which are much larger, more complex in design and build, and feature Li-ion cells based around new chemistries. Moreover, Europe simply has not yet implemented comprehensive recovery schemes of the type which will facilitate effective European recycling.

 

So what consequences do these new dynamics carry for recycling?

 

To begin with, we need to establish smart, efficient and safe ways to recover batteries once they reach the end of their life. EV owners cannot simply remove their battery pack and place it into an electronic waste collection point in their local community. The issue of recovery likely requires digital tools to identify and locate batteries when they reach end-of-life, as well as practical solutions for collection and storage of batteries prior to recycling, and finally transport to recycling stations.

 

Once battery packs are recovered, we need technologies to support early steps of recycling which involve discharging batteries and stripping packs down to cell level – something involving removal of external housing which encases the cells. Awareness of these kinds of challenges is important and means we can already begin to think about recyclability of battery packs as we design them.

 

As for the cells themselves, while current recycling technologies do exist – featuring effective hydrometallurgical treatments – these must be refined to ensure that they are optimized for recovery of materials found in modern EV battery cell chemistries, in particular those elements found in so-called active material of cells, including cobalt, nickel, and manganese.

 

 

Considered with this perspective there are clear logistical challenges to recycling of Li-ion batteries in the future. That industry should aim for this whole ecosystem to run efficiently, with the lowest environmental footprint possible, and that there are European regulations governing the transport of Li-ion batteries adds further complexity to the matter.

 

While technology has a large role to play, so does national and international policy. A recent European Commission evaluation of the European Battery Directive, which was established in 2006 as EU legislation to govern the batteries as waste, acknowledges that regulations must be refined to catch up and prepare for the future that is rapidly approaching, stating: “While key circular economy goals are reflected in the directive, such as addressing the supply of materials and recycling, there is still significant untapped potential.”

 

Ultimately, legislation can facilitate recovery, transport and recycling of batteries within Europe, or hinder it.

 

That recycling to recover materials directly supports sustainable practices of battery manufacturers, and that there already exist legal responsibilities of battery manufacturers with respect to duty of care over end-of-life batteries, it is clear that recycling and manufacturing go hand-in-hand.

 

It is encouraging to note therefore that accelerating European recycling capacity is emphasized by the European Battery Alliance (EBA) – an initiative to which Northvolt belongs, established by the European Commission to advance a “comprehensive set of concrete measures to develop an innovative, sustainable and competitive battery ecosystem in Europe.”

 

In relation to recycling, the EBA’s measures highlight the importance of “access [to] secondary raw materials by recycling in a circular economy of batteries.”

 

Top-down support for establishing recycling of Li-ion batteries of this sort will prove vital to the endeavor ahead – just as supportive policy for deployment of renewable energy is proving today. At the same time, however, there is a role to be played by many other stakeholders, private industry actors of energy and automobile sectors and battery manufacturers such as Northvolt.

 

 

Northvolt’s advance of a green battery is tightly tied to developing solutions in response to all of the challenges of recycling. Recycling capacity will yield recovery of materials which will be fed back into the Northvolt’s cell manufacturing loop or otherwise be directed towards other industrial needs. Success will mean a reduced environmental footprint for the EV revolution, a new vibrant industry for Europe and ensure that the pitfalls of the past, where resources have been taken for granted, are avoided.

 

It’s an exciting future. One which can only be secured through a blend of technologies, fresh-thinking and collaboration across industries and effective legislation.

A glimpse into Northvolt’s R&D facility

One hundred kilometers west of Stockholm, in the forested suburbs of Västerås, you find Northvolt R&D – the cutting edge of Northvolt.

 

Developed for exploring battery technologies and manufacturing techniques, and cell design concept validation, the cell output of the R&D facility is modest compared to the Li-ion gigafactory that Northvolt is developing in Skellefteå – but the facility is nevertheless a key component in the Northvolt’s strategy.

 

Outfitted with all the capacities necessary for Northvolt to develop, produce and validate Li-ion cells, the facility features a clean room for cell manufacturing and several laboratories for material and cell research and validation.

 

The fully operational Northvolt R&D should not be confused with Northvolt Labs – a much larger manufacturing facility located just a few hundred meters away from R&D.

 

The clean room of Northvolt R&D contains active material production, electrode production, pouch and prismatic cell assembly lines as well as equipment for cell inspection.

 

 

A good amount of effort at Northvolt R&D is focused on work with small pouch cells – sample cells which are ideal for investigating results of methodical adjustment to fabrication techniques. Because of their size, using these cells enables us to test performance of active materials (found in anodes and cathodes) and other cell components in an efficient manner, whilst minimizing waste. Outcomes of research with small pouch cells then translates into development of full-scale prismatic cells.

 

Prismatic cells are considerably larger than the pouch cells and can be built to varying dimensions. Ultimately it is these, alongside cylindrical cells, which Northvolt will deliver to market via their integration into a variety of battery systems. Northvolt’s very first prismatic cell was produced at Northvolt R&D in March, but many hundreds more will be delivered before the end of the year.

 

Opposite the clean room are laboratories in which Northvolt engineers are involved in every aspect of Li-ion cell research and validation. Substances including raw materials, active materials produced in the clean room and much more, can be inspected at incredibly high resolutions (below the nanometer levels with some machines) to check for purity, consistency, material properties and quality.

 

The value of the research and other capabilities enabled by Northvolt R&D is clear as we consider its role in laying down the foundations for what will become Northvolt’s core cell technologies.

 

Manufacture of full-scale prismatic cell samples, for instance, is an especially critical step for Northvolt in order to validate cell design concepts. This work includes design and validation of cells for customers which include several automobile manufacturers requiring cells tailored to specific electric vehicle performance requirements.

 

Solutions for the shift to a decarbonized energy system can, at times, appear quite clear. Wind power, solar PV, and electric vehicles for instance. However, it is very much the case that tremendous amounts of work and ingenuity, across many industries, must be directed towards refining and delivering these solutions. Northvolt is playing its part in this exciting revolution and right now Northvolt R&D stands at the very forefront of this effort.

 

Every day, researchers at Northvolt R&D are pushing forward the boundaries of Li-ion battery technology with solutions which will power the vehicles, machinery and energy systems of tomorrow.

A portfolio of green battery solutions

One technology, endless applications

 

Across global industries and society are hints of a dramatic shift in the way that we generate and consume energy.

 

Fossil fuel-based energy systems are destined for obsolescence. Electrification is set to transform our world away from pollution and the environmental burden of carbon fuels. Sustainability is increasingly a fundamental of annual corporate policies.

 

The future is brighter for these shifts. But with the emergence of clean renewable energy has arrived a need to innovate new solutions for electricity storage and use.

 

“Just like the internet transformed how we work, socialize and interact, moving beyond the internal combustion engine (ICE) to a world of electric sustainable power generation and consumption is a profound change for citizens and companies alike,” says Northvolt’s Chief Business Development Officer, Martin Anderlind.

 

“But old habits die slowly. Despite global warming and its threat to mankind, the only way to consistently and quickly make people change habits is offering a better alternative at a lower cost. Sustainable wind and solar energy and electric cars are doing just that. Today, the only missing piece of the puzzle is a cheap and efficient way to store and retrieve this energy.”

 

“This is where batteries come in, and with the enormous amounts needed for these two huge industries alone, as volumes go up, costs will go down and all other use-cases will – like ships at high tide – be carried along as well.”

 

For this, we need to think differently. To assure success, application of cutting-edge cell design and battery systems development must be met with a responsiveness to both industrial customers’ needs and the priorities that define our age.

 

“Energy systems aren’t transformed very often,” says Martin. “And with most of this massive transformation ahead of us, we need to think about not only how we can get from here to there in the fastest and cheapest way, but also how to do it in a smart, efficient, sustainable and socially ethical way.”

 

Northvolt arrived onto the industrial scene with all this in mind, and a fresh business model for battery manufacturing and commitment to sustainability.

 

Key to that model was adoption of a dual role as both cell manufacturer and battery systems developer. With this comes a unique position to leverage control over the complete development process of battery products.

 

Working in this way has led to an initial product portfolio from Northvolt – a selection of lithium-ion battery systems built to capitalize on the strengths of the technology tuned to customers’ unique needs.

 

“Twenty years from now we will look back and wonder why it didn’t happen much sooner.”

 

Battery buildings blocks

The landscape of products powered by batteries is vast and diverse, reaching far beyond electric vehicles – a situation prompting Northvolt to developing two kinds of battery solutions: standardized and custom.

 

Based on either cylindric or prismatic cells, Northvolt’s standardized battery products are built to varying scales as solutions that like building blocks can be assembled and integrated into third-party products or simply stand-alone as plug-and-play solutions.

 

Custom battery products, on the other hand, are built by Northvolt to specification of third-parties for integration into their own applications, such as construction equipment, ships and trains. Here too, customers will have the option to choose between cylindrical or prismatic cell formats as the most fundamental building blocks.

From cars to trucks to trains and tools

Supplying the European automobile industry with high-performance, green batteries has been a key motivator for Northvolt since its earliest days.

 

Asked what it is that’s going to make a real difference here, Martin, says: “Electrification of the auto industry really comes down to battery cell chemistry.”

 

“It is the heart of the electric vehicle in the same way as the combustion engine has defined vehicles for the past hundred years. Given the importance of cells, we are working closely with partners in the industry to tailor battery cells to suit exactly the kind of vehicle and customer experience desired.”

 

“This means optimizing solutions for specific vehicles, applications or market segments. For instance, heavy trucks or commercial vehicles may prioritize power or cycle life‚ whereas a regular passenger vehicle may value cost per kWh or fast charging .”

 

“To achieve this we invite our customers early and deeply into the design process. Doing this enables us to truly understand different market segment needs and provide optimized solutions,” says Martin, highlighting Northvolt’s partnership with Scania.

 

 

Battery cell development for the automotive industry will be undertaken at Northvolt Labs in Västerås, which serves as a platform for product research and industrialization of the custom cells Northvolt has already contracted to supply.

 

With its 350 MWh/year manufacturing line, Northvolt Labs will be capable of mimicking the full-scale manufacturing processes (albeit with less automation) planned for the Northvolt Ett gigafactory in Skellefteå.

 

A close bond between Northvolt and the vehicle industry is clear in the on-going work with world-leading mining giant, Epiroc, where we are delivering heavy-duty battery systems to power a pioneering fleet of underground mining vehicles. Reflecting versatility of these battery packs, the same systems used here (Badass Voltpacks) are slated to go into the world’s largest battery-powered vehicle on rails – a train being develop by Railcare.

 

Li-ion batteries will transform other sectors too.

 

“Power tools, home appliances, gardening equipment – shifting most of these over to batteries, going cordless, leads to great improvements and flexibility in many more areas than today.”

 

“Work will be safer – people and machinery can get entangled in cords and can injure themselves and others. More flexible and productive – freeing ourselves from a dependence on outlets nearby means that we can also look forward to increased flexibility, productivity and in many places lower cost. As long as you’re charged, you can work almost anywhere.”

 

“Today we generally accept that gas-powered machines are noisy and polluting. This has a big impact as this work can’t be performed in populated areas in early mornings or late evenings, or without great disturbance and associated health risks. But this changes with batteries. With silent, battery-driven machines, operators can increase uptime and flexibility and our streets will become quieter, cleaner, safer and much more pleasant.”

 

 

Supporting renewable energy

Considering the massive accumulated volume of cells required by all these different markets, there is every reason to embrace standardized products where it makes sense. Standardized products, while not suited to all circumstances, are perfectly fit for many.

 

Standardization means more common components. And more common manufacturing processes. Altogether, it means more efficient production and lowered costs of energy storage.

 

One market sector where Northvolt will be delivering standardized battery solutions is the electricity grid, where they will be used to support renewable energy generation and use.

 

“Grid energy storage perform a number of different services, in order to keep our grids operating and in balance,” explains Martin.

 

“To accommodate this, Northvolt offers a family of grid products that can serve multiple services and revenues streams, while supporting the ongoing transition more renewable solar and wind energy generation, handling increased power peaks or simply back-up crucial industrial loads.”

 

Just as different vehicles carry different requirements, so do stationary energy storage systems.

 

“Our lineup of standard products range from modular building blocks such as the High Voltblock to packs, racks and complete solutions such as the Life Voltrack – built to fit specific grid requirements and which can be scaled to meet various project needs.”

 

Smart, collaborative design

Across these sectors, Northvolt’s control of each step of the manufacturing process of battery cells and products means expert teams working in-house on everything from initial concept and design, through prototyping, validation, certification and into serial production.

 

As Martin says: “With deep vertical integration from raw material preparation and active material, to cell development and system design, Northvolt has unique competences and advantage in designing, developing and manufacturing solutions to fit specific application needs. That we are also working in close collaboration with customers to design and refine products for their different and unique end-uses simply adds further depth to an already holistic strategy.”

 

Setting a new standard in digitalization of battery assets

The digital frontier

All battery customers are rightfully concerned for loss in battery power and energy through life and usage. Performance degradation is inherently par for the course with batteries, but with new approaches on the horizon the status quo isn’t something we are bound to.

 

By leveraging tools that define the state of the art in modern industry, including machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), a digital infrastructure can be established that enhances battery performance, curtails degradation and extends operational lifespans.

 

Considered in its fuller sense, this digital approach goes further still – setting manufacturers up to work in a wholly new landscape, with a data-driven foundation enabling the fine-tuning and tailoring of future products from cell chemistry to system design.

 

Oscar Fors, Northvolt President, Battery Systems comments: “Batteries are often thought of as passive systems – we plug them in, and they provide power. But we see batteries as a far more dynamic asset. If you can properly understand them and develop the right tools to work with all the insights on offer, we can tap into batteries in a way never seen before.”

 

“It is here where we see substantial opportunity for improving the operational performance and lifetimes of batteries, and it’s driving an approach we’re calling Connected Batteries.”

 

Bringing Industry 4.0 to batteries

With electrification of industries where batteries are a new asset in play, users are not necessarily familiar with intricacies of operating and managing batteries. Since poor battery management is a sure road to battery degradation, the issue represents a challenge which must be overcome if we’re to fully exploit all that battery technology has to offer.

 

Fortunately, the situation is one that may be improved upon through a combination of intelligent data analytics, enhanced traceability and automation. Carefully applied, these technologies may yield far better lifetime management of battery assets than otherwise possible.

 

As is characteristic of Industry 4.0, the key to securing this goal rests in harnessing data. To this end, Northvolt is building telemetry and data collection into every aspect of its business and products.

 

Landon Mossburg, Northvolt Chief Automation Officer, explains: “Recognizing the dynamic nature of batteries and that increasing number of data points leads to far better basis for management and performance.”

 

“We’re moving beyond simply collecting current and temperature measurements. We want to know everything we can about batteries, from design and manufacture right through to operations and the ambient environment during deployment.”

 

Data collection at Northvolt begins with manufacturing, where virtually every process will be tracked. Subsequent to this, battery materials and components will be tagged with metadata so that their origins can be traced with specificity.

 

Once batteries are deployed, core parameters over which Northvolt is gathering battery performance data include temperature, state of health (SOH), state of charge (SOC), cooling system performance, electrical measurements, and usage metrics. This data is also supplemented with contextual information on where the asset is situated and how it’s being used.

 

At Northvolt, battery telemetry will be streamed to a secure facility where data will be evaluated by self-learning algorithms and intelligent systems. Customers will own their battery data, but in sharing it with Northvolt, substantial untapped value will be unlocked for them.

 

These systems will analyze battery telemetry data alongside all other data, for instance environmental and contextual information, and use the results to inform a range of diagnostics and subsequent operations to ensure that batteries deployed around the world are being used, charged, and treated as well as possible.


On the customer end, operators will have access to a Northvolt-built API app providing immediate, real-time insights. Here, simply scanning a QR code with a smartphone will allow for components and whole battery systems to be quickly identified. The data provided through the app will facilitate O&M, asset management, logistics and much more.

 

“Knowledge on how asset use influences the long-term nature of a battery and battery cell consumption lifespan will open up significant new ways for customers to work much more cost-effectively with batteries,” says Landon.

 

Inner workings of Connected Batteries

A core aspect to the Connected Batteries solution is machine learning enabled pattern detection. Once patterns are identified as being causally related to some aspect of battery performance, they can be used to develop optimized solutions and reactive measures. These can be pushed out over the wire to batteries and implemented through software/firmware.

 

Solutions could be implemented on individual batteries which are flagged for action, or across a relevant segment of all globally deployed batteries.

 

“This is not simply about collecting data but taking a proactive approach to implementing new protocols that enhance battery performance,” says Oscar.

 

“You can consider it a rule-based system: ‘If A and B, then execute C’. For instance, once a pattern is learnt, its subsequent detection can trigger a particular protocol to engage. That protocol, executed through the battery management system (BMS), may be a particular cooling pattern, or other adjustment.”

 

With this digital ecosystem of connected batteries, there is an envelope of some 10-20% in typical lifetime battery degradation in power and energy which Northvolt seek to reduce.

 

Applications

There are numerous circumstances where digitalization of batteries in ways outlined above will yield considerable advantages. At Northvolt, applications are considered across three timescales: immediate/operational, tactical and long-term strategic.

 

In the immediate context, systems will identify significant, potentially problematic, deviations from the norm or ideal envelop within which batteries should be operated. Alerting technicians to this, remedial action may be taken in real-time, beginning with contacting the battery owner/operator. The beauty of this is that diagnosis (and solutions) can be prepared in advance of dispatched technicians reaching the battery in question, thereby reducing asset downtime.

 

In the tactical timescale, Northvolt will evaluate patterns that will enable it to determine new, refined practices to optimize battery performance, for example adjusting BMS parameters in response to use profiles.

 

A short, simplified use-case illuminates how the system will function:

 

Imagine a mining vehicle, operating a hot-swap battery protocol (where a depleted battery is exchanged for a fresh, fully-charged one). Northvolt detects a pattern of repeated overcharging events and flags the battery. Subsequent analysis reveals the problem: the exchange of batteries is taking place at the top of the mine and precedes the vehicle’s descent down into the mine during which regenerative breaking is leading to over-charge of battery. The solution is a simple one: hot-swap at the bottom of mine, avoid over-charge and prolong the life of the battery.

 

Many more scenarios can be imagined too. For instance, ones relating to seasonal or weather-dependent charging considerations and the delivery of solutions involving compensating across appropriate parameters. Or solutions building off the idea that although optimal charge may typically be between 10-90%, situation-specific circumstances may prompt that being adjusted to 20-80%.

 

Across the long-term strategic scale, new insights on performance coupled with traceability (bringing fresh perspective on otherwise unknown manufacturing process variables) is envisioned to empower Northvolt with perspective to work at a whole new level of battery cell and system development and manufacture. (A topic dealt with in part 2.)

 

“This is a truly new area for battery R&D,” said Oscar. “With this kind of intelligence, we can tune operating parameters, adjust firmware, design cooling solutions customized to certain circumstances or better charging management software in response to particular charge profiles…the options are endless.”

 

Predictive maintenance & novel business models

Beyond improving battery performance, novel business cases and beneficial commercial practices emerge with the digitalization of batteries.

 

For instance, digital architecture for battery systems will enable Northvolt to predict with pinpoint accuracy when assets need to be serviced or replaced. There is every reason to expect that so-called predictive maintenance of this sort will be met with the same kinds of success as can be seen within other industries that have adopted the Industry 4.0 approach.

 

In turn, a consequence of these solutions taken together is new flexibility in how battery products are purchased. The doors open on the introduction of usage-based dynamic warranties which work in the favor of battery owners, and purchase agreements which recognize that customers will be operating within the best possible bounds of battery usage and care.

 

As Oscar says: “By providing owners with the tools to get the most from batteries we can substantially improve the value proposition of every business case – that’s good for us as a manufacturer concerned with encouraging battery-based electrification, and for our customers.”

 

These advantages exist irrespective of the use-case for battery systems, and most certainly extend to stationary battery storage system performance. With these systems, understanding how the delivery of particularly grid services is precisely impacting the health and longevity of a battery system asset will be key to owners determining the most cost-effective deployment strategy for their investments.

 

Towards an evolution in battery technology

Altogether, Northvolt’s approach represents a significant departure from that taken by traditional battery cell manufacturers which, historically, have not engaged with data analytics in the manner envisioned by Northvolt. Indeed, Northvolt expects that its adoption of this new methodology will bring about a significant competitive edge.

 

That being the case, the implementation of these technologies will deliver strategic gains that extend well beyond optimizing battery usage and the associated benefits of this.

 

Earlier, Oscar noted the long-term applications of digitalization – a context where enhanced battery data insights will drive new innovation in battery manufacturing itself.

 

As Landon Mossburg, concludes: “Manufacturing data coupled with telemetry leads to unrivalled product intelligence with which we can fine-tune operations. But beyond this, we’re talking about the DNA of battery packs, and with that we’re able to begin manufacturing batteries with a whole new set of data-driven priorities.”

 

This is a topic to be picked up in part 2.