Electromobility: Trends in battery development
Enormous global resources are currently flowing into the development of batteries. The lithium-ion battery with cell chemistry made of nickel, manganese and cobalt currently dominates electric cars. But this composition is by no means without competition, and the lithium iron phosphate cell is just one of the promising candidates. In a study, the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI explained which cell chemistry can be expected where and what that means.
The ideal cell
The ideal battery cell is robust, cycle-resistant, also has a high calendar life, a high energy density (volumetric and gravimetric), does not contain any expensive raw materials that are difficult to obtain and is, of course of particular interest from the industry’s point of view, cheap. Even from this incomplete selection of requirements it becomes clear that it can only ever be a compromise. However, future material compositions and development steps in the already known technologies promise significant progress, especially in terms of energy density and costs. Fraunhofer ISI has broken down what development can be expected in these areas between 2025 and 2035.
volumetric energy density (Wh/liter) gravimetric energy density (Wh/kg) costs (Euro/kWh) 2025 2035 2025 2035 2025 2035 lithium ions 600 – 750 800 – 960 200 – 300 320 – 360 90 – 175 45 – 90 sodium ions 250 – 300 Over 400 140 – 160 Over 200 80 – 120 Below 40 Magnesium ions 150 – 300 Over 400 50 – 150 Over 300 No information Below 40 Lithium-sulfur 300 to 450 550 Over 300 700 No information 50 Zinc-air No information no information 100 – 200 200 – 300 100 – 150 10 – 100
Those: Fraunhofer ISI
This excerpt from the forecast makes it clear that the analysts at Fraunhofer are assuming that there could be massive shifts, especially in terms of costs. What is important here is that this depends, among other things, on economies of scale. If mass production is successful with a material mix, production costs can fall dramatically. Where prices develop naturally also depends largely on the price of raw materials. Fraunhofer believes that technologies that offer cost advantages or high availability of resources have a good chance. The former applies particularly to zinc-based cells, the latter to cells that rely on sodium and magnesium.
Where does which technology come from?
Fraunhofer expects that sodium-ion batteries will primarily be found in small cars, two- and three-wheelers in the foreseeable future. This would mean that the LFP cell, which is expected on a broad front, would have competition. Both are considered robust, cycle-resistant and potentially inexpensive to produce. Due to their potentially higher energy density, magnesium-ion batteries also have a chance. However, it is estimated that this will only happen from 2040 onwards.
One of the central questions concerns the dependence on raw materials. Here, cells that do not rely on the currently most commonly used mix of nickel, manganese and cobalt still have comparatively good prospects, albeit only in the long term. In the next 5 to 10 years, the supply of nickel, manganese and cobalt will remain critical, summarizes Fraunhofer. However, this could be a key factor in accelerating the development of an alternative to the NMC cell. At the moment, the majority of these competitors still have a lower energy density. Translated, this simply means: more raw materials have to be used for the same energy content.
It is foreseeable that three traction battery technologies will be found in new electric cars in the next few years. The lithium-ion battery with NMC cells will dominate for the time being. In recent years the proportion of cobalt and manganese has decreased in percentage terms. Last year, the price of nickel rose to an all-time high shortly after Russia’s attack, and in 2023 it fell, although not to pre-war levels. Such variables in the raw materials market have a major impact on prices of new electric cars. After all, the battery is the most expensive component.
What will be the proportion of LFP and sodium?
This is another reason why lithium iron phosphate cells have good prospects on the market in the medium term. How quickly they will face competition from sodium-ion batteries is controversial. Prof. Dr. Markus Hölzle from the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) expects that by 2030 just three percent of all new electric cars will be powered by sodium-based batteries. In our opinion, this is a conservative estimate, which could also have been too low depending on developments on the raw materials market. With a prospective price of less than 40 euros per kilowatt hour of energy content predicted by Fraunhofer, there is a strong incentive for the industry to use resources here. Because one thing can still be assumed: customers expect electric cars that cost less and drive further at a time than is currently the case.
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