Research Factory at the ZSW

Producing Novel Battery Materials in Quantities up to 100 kg

16. November 2021, 10:25 Uhr | Ralf Higgelke
ZSW, Batteries, Powder-Up!
This image is a scanning electron micrograph of particles in a cobalt-free cathode material produced at the ZSW.

For universities and research organizations, it is almost impossible to obtain high-performance cathode materials for research work on high-performance batteries. With Powder-Up!, the ZSW in Ulm now wants to change the situation.

The energy density, service life, costs and safety of Lithium-ion batteries depend very much on the cathode materials. Therefore, fast access to larger quantities of the latest cathode materials is so crucial to keeping pace with global leaders in battery manufacturing.

With the large-scale project Powder-Up!, the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) is setting up a pilot plant in Ulm in southern Germany in the next few months. The aim is to produce high-performance cathode materials in batches of up to 100 kilograms for future generations of lithium-ion batteries.

Science and industry partners in Germany and Europe will be able to draw on these cathode materials for their pilot plants. According to ZSW, this closes a serious gap in the scientific landscape in Germany. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding Powder-Up! with nearly 20 million euros.

“As it stands, Germany does not produce next-generation cathode materials on an industrial scale, so it is nearly impossible for universities and research institutions to use these materials when they investigate high-performance batteries,” says Prof. Markus Hölzle, a member of the ZSW’s Board of Directors and head of the Electrochemical Energy Technologies Division in Ulm. “Powder-Up! is going to close this gap.“

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From Metal Salt to Cathode Powder

ZSW researchers engaged in the Powder-Up! project aim to build this pilot plant to scale-up synthesis of tailored cathode materials from one to ten kilograms and then all the way up to 100 kilograms. They will share these materials with research and industry partners seeking to develop battery cells.

The standard process chain for producing cathode materials on a large scale is complex with many subordinate steps. This plant will be able to execute the entire workflow. It will have the equipment to produce the precursor in a precipitation reaction with raw materials such as nickel and cobalt salts and sodium hydroxide. Such precursors are then processed with lithium salts at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, and get the finishing touch by post-treating its surface. Every step is crucial to the final quality of these materials.

To make powder under factory-like conditions, the Powder-Up! plant will be equipped with machines that have proven their merits in industrial use cases. These machines cover the entire process chain, but also enable researchers to investigate individual stages of production. To meet the standards for quality, the production line will be enhanced with top-notch tools for fast data acquisition, processing and analysis.

The initial effort to develop formulas and processes will take place at the smallest scale. Researchers aim to create the target formula for a selected process, quickly and at low cost. The next step will be the piloting phase, where the ZSW scales up the optimized parameters. Researchers can then assess the impact of synthesis parameters on resource use, product yield, particle design and electrochemical performance. They aim to use digital analytics tools, connected process steps and seamless process data acquisition to gather statistics and scientifically evaluate data.

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