Frank Blome heads Volkswagen’s Center of Excellence for Battery Cells. In this interview he explains how batteries are changing the automobile, what drivers should know about charging their e-cars and what advances we can expect to see in the next generations of battery technology.
Many people enter unknown territory when they buy an electric car. Can they be sure that the batteries will perform?
Yes, absolutely. For our new electric models we’ve essentially built the car around the battery, so there’s plenty of space to store power. This lets us achieve ranges of up to 550 kilometers, and at affordable prices. The battery modules used to be distributed in various places in the car – but now the battery is compactly located between the axles in the underbody. This means we have a central distribution point for the energy. It’s one of the big advantages of our new MEB electric drive platform.
How long do the batteries last?
Our aim is always for our batteries to last as long as the cars. We guarantee a minimum capacity of 70 percent for eight years or 160,000 kilometers. But drivers can also influence the length of a battery’s service life. Normal charging is better for the batteries than rapid charging, and charging the batteries up to just 80 instead of 100 percent also increases their service life.
Isn’t it a little impractical not to charge the car completely?
In most cases 80 percent is more than enough. Many customers tend to drive short distances, like going to work or going shopping. The battery doesn’t have to be charged 100 percent for that. You do your driving and charge the car when needed, usually at your home wallbox. Of course, if customers want, it’s always possible to charge cars up to the full range. To meet this need, Volkswagen is working with other carmakers to build a network of rapid charging stations on European freeways. That will especially help customers going on long trips, like setting off on vacation.
Can you describe how the battery is structured?
The battery systems in our new e-car models are flat and located between the axles in the vehicle’s underbody. They’re shaped a little like a bar of chocolate. Every battery system is composed of a variable number of battery modules, which in turn consist of individual cells. The advantage of this modular structure is its flexibility. The greater the range the car should have, the more modules we incorporate into its battery system. But the basic structure is always the same. This makes our production both variable and cost efficient.
Research is also being done on the next generations of batteries. What improvements can we realistically expect?
We’ve made enormous progress over recent years. The energy density of lithium-ion batteries has doubled since 2014, for example, making it possible to increase the range of our new e-cars. I’m expecting further significant advances in lithium-ion technology – although no longer at the same rate. The next big leap will probably be to solid-state batteries. We are working intensively on this technology with our partner QuantumScape.
What can solid-state batteries do – and when will they be ready for use?
Solid-state batteries have an even greater energy density than today’s lithium-ion batteries and therefore enable longer ranges. They’re also lighter, more economical, and can be charged faster. But it will be several years before they’re ready for large-scale industrial production. That could be sometime between 2025 and 2030.
How is battery research done at Volkswagen?
In addition to Group Research, a key role is played by the Center of Excellence in Salzgitter, where we consolidate our expertise and develop it further. Our experts at the Center of Excellence are working in all the fields – from developing battery cells to producing and recycling them. The site also has a high-voltage center where our specialists run extensive tests. The batteries have to perform under extreme conditions for days and weeks at a time before they are approved for use in cars. A pilot production line will start up in Salzgitter this year to help further expand our knowledge of production processes. It will play an important role in how we shape future developments and ensure performance, costs and quality.
Raw materials are a critical issue in battery production. Can you ensure that no human rights are violated in mining and extracting these materials?
We insist that all of our suppliers ensure humane mining conditions – and we check to make sure they comply with our agreements. We don’t want to profit in any way from child or forced labor. Upholding human rights is an integral part of Volkswagen AG’s sustainability requirements. All of our suppliers are also required to have their subcontractors agree to meet the environmental, social and compliance standards.
Cobalt is considered an especially problematic raw material. How do you handle it?
We use only industrially mined cobalt for our batteries. Companies that buy cobalt from illegal small mining operations are not accepted into our supply chain. We also join initiatives to uphold human and environmental rights. One example is the Responsible Minerals Initiative, which is developing a certification system for cobalt smelters. In addition, future generations of battery cells will have significantly less cobalt. That will help lower costs and increase energy density. Over the medium term, we will be reducing cobalt from the current level of 12 to 14 percent to below five percent. It’s also conceivable that there will one day be batteries without any cobalt at all.
The Volkswagen Group is planning a major e-mobility campaign with nearly 70 electric car models and a correspondingly high need for batteries. What role are partnerships playing here?
For our next MEB models we’re currently working with three partners as strategic suppliers of battery cells. They are LG Chem and SKI for Europe, and CATL for China. SKI will also supply our battery cells for the US market. In addition, we have recently joined with European partners to form the European Battery Union, which will promote battery research throughout Europe. This new consortium will cover the entire battery value chain, and joint research is expected to begin in early 2020. The primary aim is to gain broader expertise in battery cell production.