In January, I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference Europe 2019 in Strasbourg, France. This year's AABC Europe conference saw a change in location, moving from Germany to France. As always, the conference was a must-attend event due to the high quality of speakers and the balance of technical and market discussions.
As in previous conferences we've attended, such as ESNA 2018 and The Battery Show 2017, the discussions spoke to the maturation of the energy storage industry. Presentations featuring sky-high energy densities with no commercial viability were absent, while robust discussions were held on raw materials scarcity and closed-loop supply chains.
Below are the most important takeaways from the conference.
- Umicore changes its tune on Ni-rich NMC cathodes. Previously, Umicore pushed for the adoption of medium-nickel chemistries like NMC 622, citing its struggles to reach adequate cycle life in NMC 811 products and the ability to push to higher voltages with NMC 622 to get close to the performance of 811. However, Umicore's most recent work showed that the company was able to achieve nearly 1,000 cycles in NMC 811 cycled to 4.2 V. The company also hinted at an even more Ni-rich formulation it referred to as NMC 9XX with even more promising cycling data showing nearly 1,000 cycles at 4.3 V. If Umicore's long-rumored favorable cobalt supply deal was a factor in previously resisting Ni-rich formulations, it can no longer ignore demand from customers for NMC 811 and above.
- Is nickel the new cobalt? Not exactly. Throughout the conference, concerns over the price and availability of key materials used in Li-ion batteries were discussed. Historically, these conversations have focused on lithium and cobalt, with cobalt in particular, causing headaches due to political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chinese ownership of the supply chain (see our report on China's energy storage dominance for more details). Several talks focused on these materials, but nickel was regularly brought up as a commodity to watch. Nickel itself is one of the most abundant metals on Earth; however, the high-purity class I nickel required for battery precursors is in much shorter supply. Nickel won't create the same headaches that cobalt does for two reasons: It isn't mined in a singular politically unstable country, and the stainless-steel industry will continue to make up most of the demand and therefore stabilize prices more so than for cobalt. Nonetheless, given the industries' focus on Ni-rich chemistries, even minor price fluctuations in nickel will be felt throughout the supply chain.
- Silicon was notably absent from the conference. Silicon anode developers saw several notable funding rounds raised in 2018, including Enevate, Sila Nano, NanoGraf, and Enovix. However, this investor interest didn't translate into serious discussions at this year's AABC conference, as it was notably absent from the speaking agenda aside from that of Enevate. The presenters that did mention silicon used vague terms; Daimler's speaker noted "silicon will play an important role in the automotive industry," and Umicore's speaker mentioned its silicon product was receiving substantial interest from customers. However, the dream of utilizing silicon's full capacity in a Li-ion battery for EVs is unlikely to ever be realized. It is most likely that silicon-graphite composites will be used, with Si loading gradually increasing from a few percent today and unlikely to surpass 20% loading in the next five years.
- Solid-state batteries attracted the most attention and discussion but remain at least a decade away from making a dent in the EV market. Nearly an entire day of the conference was dedicated to the combination of lithium metal anodes and solid-state batteries, including a discussion on solid-state batteries with key startups like Solid Power and Ionic Materials, notable scientists including Ryoji Kanno (who worked with Toyota to discover LGPS electrolytes), and large materials companies like Solvay and Schott. Ionic Materials highlighted key developments in reducing the thickness of the electrolyte layer from 125 µm to 30 µm while still reaching 140 cycles, but notably using graphite anodes and NMC 811 cathodes – not lithium metal. The company's work on metallic lithium anodes is still early-stage, with no evidence of controlling dendritic growth during cycling. By contrast, Solid Power presented data using metallic lithium anodes with acceptable cycle life and a promising path to 300 Wh/kg, although the data presented was at either elevated temperatures (70 °C) or slow charge/discharge rates (C/10). The performance advantage of solid-state batteries requires metallic lithium anodes, yet no solutions to completely avoid them exist, and it remains the most crucial barrier to commercialization today.
Discussions and presentations from the show confirmed Lux's view that the future of Li-ion batteries will consist of incremental improvements in both costs and performance, with an elusive breakthrough chemistry like lithium-air or multivalent chemistries unlikely to emerge in the next decade. Companies interested in attending battery conferences are encouraged to attend future AABC conferences given the quality of the presentations and attendance of nearly all key stakeholders in the Li-ion value chain in Europe and North America.