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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”