The German company develops next-generation technology to meet anticipated demand of the e-mobility market.
BY ANNA SPIEWAK & JOSEPH JONES
As an increased number of people drive to and from work adding to traffic congestion on the roadways, the amount of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide in the air continues to grow, impacting our health and our climate.
Thankfully, the increasing popularity and anticipated innovation-driven growth of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) can help remedy some of these air-quality challenges and noise issues, which is particularly beneficial in large cities. These cars are fun and practical. They fuel with electricity, unlike conventional vehicles, thus producing fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants that contribute to climate change and smog, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
For this reason, the necessity for a rapid shift to plug-in electric vehicles and other clean technologies continues as the automotive market jumps on board in support of EV adoption. Volvo, for example, recently announced plans to launch all of its new models as either fully electric or hybrids by 2019. Jaguar Land Rover will follow suit by 2020. And Ford has announced plans to greatly boost its planned investments in EVs to $11 billion by 2022, and targets offering 40 hybrid and fully electric vehicles in its model lineup, according to its Chairman Bill Ford.
Battery materials explained
With automakers embracing electrification in a rapidly evolving industry, advanced battery materials will remain at the forefront of driving EV adoption rates—and that’s where BASF comes in. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are what power electric vehicles. And BASF’s portfolio of application-specific, tailor-made cathode active materials (CAMs) supports lithium-ion battery technology for electrified vehicles with high energy density, reliability and efficiency. BASF invests a great amount of research and development into improving the effectiveness and versatility of its cathode active materials and intends to remain a global leader in this space for many years to come. By 2025, these efforts will help realize a vision of an electric midsize car with twice the real driving range (from 180 miles to 360 miles on a single charge) and battery lifetime, half the battery size and cost, and a charging time reduced to only 15 minutes, according to BASF e-mobility experts.
As the leading chemical supplier to the automotive industry, BASF is the first and currently the sole supplier of cathode active materials to battery producers with manufacturing operations in North America. “BASF provides cathode active materials (CAMs) to the battery industry. And those materials are coated on the positive electrode of a battery’s cell,” said Heiko Urtel, CEO & Business Director for BASF Battery Materials North America. “These CAMs are the major contributor toward reducing the cost and increasing the range of a battery, while also improving the lifetime and the charging behavior. With our R&D activities, we are really focusing at the heart of our OEM customer needs to address these requirements with high-quality solutions and innovation.”
“Another key area of technical focus for battery manufacturers is to remove as much cobalt as possible from their cathode active materials,” said Eric Rohlfing, Sr. Technical Advisor, ARPA-E & Office of Policy, U.S. Department of Energy. Rohlfing took part in a BASF panel discussion titled “The Energy Race—E-mobility,” during the recent Atlantic Summit on Infrastructure + Transportation held in Washington, D.C.
Cobalt is a key raw material used in the cathode element of lithium-ion batteries, and its price has tripled over the last two years. BASF is actively supporting the overall market trends towards cathode active materials with even higher energy content and lower specific costs. To do so, cobalt content is gradually decreased while nickel content is increased. Long term, the German company is working on a new class of cobalt-free materials containing primarily cost-effective manganese. With that in mind, BASF intends to continue perfecting its battery materials chemistry, reduce cobalt loadings, and allow OEMs to meet the increasing innovation needs of the e-mobility market in the most cost-effective and sustainable manner possible, according to Urtel.
History of clean-air initiatives
BASF is no stranger to pioneering automotive solutions to enable pollution prevention. Through its acquisition of Engelhard Corp. in 2006, the German company can lay claim to inventing and mass producing some of the first-generation automotive catalytic converters back in 1973, in response to clean air laws that have only grown more stringent in the intervening decades. That’s why catalytic converters (the metal canisters underneath your cars that prevent harmful exhaust gases from entering the atmosphere) are continually refined, allowing manufacturers to meet new and emerging emissions regulations around the globe. To date, more than 1 billion tons of pollutants have been eliminated by BASF catalytic conversion systems since the development of the so-called three-way catalytic converter in 1973. Industry experts estimate that, since that time, Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards have led to an overall 95% reduction of carbon monoxide emitted by vehicles, greatly improving air quality—and quality of life–for us all.
Today, while remaining a global leader in catalytic emissions systems and technologies, BASF is going a step further with its clean-air initiatives by putting electric vehicles at the forefront of its innovation focus and positioning its battery materials technology as an equally important contributor to the cause of clean air. By 2025, there will be approximately 1.5 billion cars on the roads worldwide. This is why BASF is committed to fostering a responsible and sustainable global supply of raw materials for battery ingredients, including nickel, cobalt and other natural resources.
BASF is working to ensure that the raw materials needed for batteries can be brought into the value chain in accordance with all three dimensions of sustainability—society, environment and the economy. Electromobility can, thus, also trigger sustainable development. The creation of a sustainable and low-carbon value chain for batteries is needed to contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. There are three main starting points to achieve this goal: 1. Create better working conditions; 2. Establish binding sustainability standards for the extraction of raw materials; and 3. Effective cooperation between companies, international organizations, governments and civil society is urgently needed. That is precisely the approach of the Global Battery Alliance of which BASF is a founding member. The Global Battery Alliance is a unique public-private partnership and central cooperation platform, made up of 30 members that join efforts to ensure that the battery value chain is socially responsible, environmentally and economically sustainable and innovative. Workers’ safety, environmental protection, recycling and innovation for environmentally friendly energy storage are the main focus areas of the initiative.
“BASF is always looking to provide sustainable solutions to the automotive industry to meet the more-and-more stringent targets on emissions and on fuel economy,” Urtel added. “E-mobility provides a very good solution to help meet those targets in the future and this is why we want to be deeply engaged in that effort.”
EV challenges + solutions
There is no doubt that electric vehicles offer an evolutionary dynamic for the auto industry. In fact, several pundits predict an increasing shift to EV adoption in the years ahead. Tesla founder Elon Musk, for example, predicts that in 10 years more than half of new vehicle production in the U.S. will be dedicated to electrified vehicles. Nevertheless, the fact remains that globally, EVs currently account for only 1-2% of annual vehicle sales overall. According to research from the University of California Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies, EV awareness has essentially been flat since 2014. For this reason, several mobility experts gathered at the Atlantic Summit in the nation’s capital to discuss possible solutions to accelerate the electrified-vehicle transition and raise awareness that innovation is driving increased accessibility and practicality of EV offerings for us all.
For its part, BASF noted that consumer reluctance toward EV adoption to date is largely driven by three concerns—driving range of the cars, charging times and cost.
“Range anxiety reflects consumer concern about the distance electric cars can travel on a single charge. With a small car, you typically reach a range of 150 miles today, and this is not what customers expect. They want to reach 300, 400 miles per fuel load,” said Urtel. “This is what we as BASF want to tackle in terms of innovation—to increase the performance of the battery in the future—by 2025—to meet the 300 to 400-mile target per battery charge.”
Price is also a primary concern. The cost of EV ownership is currently high relative to traditional combustion-engine-powered vehicles. But that cost can be offset when incentives are leveraged. Manufacturers anticipate cost parity by 2025, if not before, and are working side by side with EV battery production supply chain partners to reduce costs and realize increased efficiencies. Another opportunity to speed up EV adoption and offset cost calls for greater involvement from the federal government, offering tax credits to those choosing to go electric, which is the approach that continues to be taken in the world’s leading e-mobility market -- China.
“The tax credit is a perfect way to ease Americans, and frankly people around the world, into electrified transportation,” said Cathy Zoi, CEO of EVgo—the nation’s largest public EV charging network. “Many people look at EVs as the playground of the rich—people who have a lot of money and resources; they don’t really think that this is of their world. So how do you create on-ramps for folks so that EV adoption feels more natural?”
Consumers rank the lack of access to efficient EV charging stations as an additional barrier to adoption. That’s why OEMs continue to advocate for more EV-friendly infrastructure initiatives and increased investment in charging stations in major cities and along major highways and travel routes.
Another way to speed up EV adoption, according to EV experts, is by better educating consumers on the many benefits, lifestyle advantages and greatly increasing number of model options associated with the electric vehicle market, as many are not even aware that a mainstream company like Tesla produces solely EVs.
Making an electric future a more sustainable one is also high on the priority list. “We’re going to have to do a better job than we currently do recycling lithium batteries and their components, because it’s really at a very low percentage right now,” Rohlfing added.
According to Curtis Zimmermann, Government Liaison, BASF, while the U.S. government is already involved in several incentives to help EV adoption, such as targeted subsidies and improvement of infrastructure for charging stations, it could learn some useful tips from its European counterparts, such as Madrid, Spain, Oslo, Norway or Hamburg, Germany.
“What these places are doing right now is restricting the entrance of internal combustion engines into crowded city centers during the normal work day to enhance the adoption of electric vehicles as a viable alternative,” Zimmermann said in an interview.
European countries have passed aggressive policies to tip the scales toward increased EV adoption. And the effects are visibly rippling through the auto industry. While the U.S. has not promoted plans for diesel- or gasoline-powered car restrictions, California, the most populous state, is considering the option. State Assemblyman Phil Ting, for example, has already proposed a 2040 gas car sales ban, according to the Coalition for Clean Air.
Other ideas raised during the Atlantic Summit included keeping the big Gen-Y market top of mind. Millennials tend to be less likely to fully commit to purchasing an EV, but more likely to rideshare, whether it be via Uber, Lyft or Scooter. EVs present an attractive and sustainable option in this market as well.
“The actual demand of what is increasing is eCommerce, use of shared mobility or transportation network companies—it’s scooters, bikes or other modes of mobility,” said Tom Madrecki, Director of Urban Innovation & Mobility with United Parcel Service.
For its part, BASF remains optimistic about the gradual and increasing adoption of the kinder, gentler electrified vehicles, and has continued to build new manufacturing plants and form strategic ventures across many regions of the world to ensure access to the best technology, talent and expertise while also increasing its production capabilities, according to Urtel. And other companies are doing the same.
“We need to make it easier for consumers to experience an EV ride,” Zoi, of EVgo, concluded. “There’s almost nobody that I have met that has driven an EV and then went back to a non-EV. That’s because it’s fun, it’s completely comfortable and the torque is fantastic if you’re a car person.”
View the BASF panel discussion at the Atlantic Summit here.