They are everywhere: in our smartphones, our tablets, in pacemakers. But it is in the automotive sector, a sector in full transformation, that electric batteries represent a real challenge in the face of the energy transition.
What are they for ? Who makes them? What are their limits ? Here is what you need to know about electric batteries.
Lithium-ion, at the heart of batteries
Rechargeable batteries in electric cars today work with lithium-ion cells. Such a battery is composed of lithium, cobalt and often nickel on its positive electrode, and graphite on its negative electrode. In between, there is liquid lithium where the electrons circulate. The movement will cause an electrical reaction to operate a device or recharge it. In short, a small chemical factory.
The main advantage of the electric vehicle is “to be more economical in CO2 and to contribute to the reduction of the greenhouse effect”, explains Xavier Mosquet, senior associate director within the firm BCG.
A production dominated by Asia
“Today the major world manufacturers of batteries are Chinese, Korean and Japanese”, specifies the specialist, while Europe represents only 3% of world production according to the European Commission.
China, which accounts for half of global sales of electric cars, is leading the way: the country is home to two-thirds of global cell production capacity. Among the main world manufacturers, the Chinese Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), the Japanese Panasonic and the South Korean LG-Chem. The American Tesla has set up its “Gigafactory”, a huge lithium battery factory, in Nevada (United States).
Mass investments in a growing market
Despite a sluggish automotive market due to the health crisis, investments in electric batteries, which represent around 40% of a vehicle’s value, are increasing. Volkswagen announced in May an investment of 1.1 billion euros in a Chinese battery maker, Gotion High-Tech.
But Europe is trying to break through. Brussels, which forecasts that the number of electric vehicles will increase tenfold to reach 200 million by 2028, last December gave the green light to an “Airbus of batteries”, with state aid of 3.2 Billions of Euro’s. Objective: to increase the European market share to 25% by the end of the decade. According to BCG, the global automotive battery market could reach 45 billion euros in 2027, of which 20% to 30% in Europe. Tesla has announced a large site in Germany and Swedish Northvolt is building a large plant in northern Sweden.
Autonomy, environment: batteries are not unanimous
Problem: batteries in electric cars are frequently criticized for not offering sufficient range, compared to heat engines (diesel or gasoline), which are the main obstacle to purchasing. The number of stations and the charging time are also debates.
Another sensitive point: the social and environmental impact. The extraction of cobalt, one of the components of batteries, “poses a problem in terms of violation of human rights”, underlines Sabine Gagnier, advocacy officer at Amnesty International. The NGO conducted an investigation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, showing that cobalt was mined by children. However, the country “totals 50% of the resources at the global level”, she adds. Manufacturers are also working to improve the recycling of these batteries, some worn components of which end up in landfills.
What competition for batteries?
The competition is stiff to compete with Tesla, by far the most media player in the sector. The American group General Motors unveiled in March its Ultium battery, which could allow a vehicle to travel up to 645 kilometers with a single recharge. Solid batteries should also increase vehicle range, in addition to reducing recharging times.
Finally, hydrogen is seen as a means of supporting the energy transition by making it possible to store electricity on a large scale and by serving as fuel in electric vehicles, guaranteeing better autonomy than batteries.