INSIGHT: Chemical majors racing for Li-ion batteries market

08 July 2011 16:14  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--If you’ve ever seen a mock-up of a concept electric automobile you are likely to have been struck by the size of the battery. Think about its weight and the heat generated as it pumps out power.

So the electric autos of the future require lighter components - plastics for sure; and better and more efficient drive trains. Add to that the coatings, gaskets, cables and fluids that have to perform effectively in a new environment and you have a significant amount of chemicals.

Currently, $2,700 (€1,900) worth of products from the chemicals and plastics industry are used in a typical, conventionally-powered automobile, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). In future that value will be a lot higher.

The power source (battery) market alone for electric vehicles could be worth $7.6bn by 2015, according to research published in 2010, and is likely to rise quickly from then.

Not surprisingly, chemicals suppliers are jumping on the bandwagon ready to supply materials for the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries used in electric vehicles today and preparing to supply possibly different product lines in future.

BASF, for instance, said on Thursday that it would invest a three-digit million euros sum over the next five years in research and development (R&D) and on the production of battery materials.

Its first electrolyte formulations for Li-ion batteries will be on sale by the end of this year. The electrolytes are complex mixtures, based on organic carbamates, that are needed to transport charge inside the battery and help improve performance.

BASF is constructing a plant to produce a range of battery materials in Elyria, Ohio, in the US. Part of its multi-million Li-ion investment will be the $50m earmarked for Li-ion battery cathode production, which is due to start in 2012.

“With our research activities we are substantially contributing to making electric cars affordable, environment friendly and sustainable,” said BASF research director, Andreas Kreimeyer. “For this we need batteries and further innovative components that provide a greater driving range with less weight and lower costs.”

It is all to do with battery efficiency, heat, weight and cost. “Along with battery materials, plastics and composites for lightweight automotive design and solutions for improved heat management, such as infra red (IR)-reflective pigments for coatings and vehicle interior uses, have major roles to play,” the company adds.

Electric vehicles have to be designed to carry that additional 200kg of battery weight but maintain an acceptable driving range, Materials used in the vehicle have to exhibit what the company calls “completely new properties in terms of temperature stability, electromagnetic screening and fire resistance”. All in addition to being lightweight and structurally robust.

BASF says it is working on fast-curing epoxy, polyurethane and polyamide resins for fibre-reinforced body vehicle bodies which can save up to 100-150kg in the structural and chassis components of a vehicle.

Coatings and pigments can help reflect the additional heat generated by the battery, while foams can help insulate batteries and other components from the cold.

BASF is not alone, of course, among chemicals makers in trying to gain a foothold with suppliers of batteries to the auto industry and with industry players themselves.

Other Germany-based companies like Evonik have products aimed at the Li-ion market. Evonik has tied up with auto-maker Daimler in a Li-ion batteries venture.

Major Japanese chemical companies are creating alliances and establishing ventures to feed the growing markets for the materials that will make greater ‘electromobility’ possible.

Mitsui Chemicals has planned to have a plant to produce Li-ion battery materials on-line later this year. Japan’s Kureha and Itochu have formed a joint venture to produce anode materials and  polyvinylidene difluoride binders in Japan for Li-ion batteries. A second binders plant may be built in China.

Saudi Arabia’s Sabic Innovative Plastics has joined forces with German vehicle and power train systems maker IAV to develop plastics to replace metals in electric and hybrid vehicle power trains.

Returning to electrolytes, such a key component of the power pack, Dow Chemical of the US said this week that it was forming a joint venture with Japan's Ube Industries to serve the market.

The 50:50 venture, Advanced Electrolyte Technologies, is expected to be created formally later this year and is designed to lever Ube’s electrolyte technology into the broader materials offering of Dow to the Li-ion battery market.

“The growing demand for alternative energy production and energy storage systems places technologies such as advanced batteries for electric/hybrid vehicles and power generation at the very centre of the global mega-trends,” said Dow’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, Heinz Haller.

The company's Dow Kokam joint venture is spending $322m on the first phase, of a Li-ion batteries plant in Midland, Michigan in the US. 

The world’s chemical companies are geared up to supply Li-ion battery components including electrolyte, electrodes and separators. BASF says it is also conducting research on possible future lithium-sulphur and lithium-air batteries.

($1 = €0.70)


By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214



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