Dr. Christina Toigo

© Dr. Christina Toigo

Bright prospects for the battery sector

PRO Flexconvert met with Dr Christina Toigo, expert in energy storage and hydrogen technology at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria. A conversation about technical principles, opportunities and challenges for the converting industry.

Dr Toigo, the battery sector in Europe is currently experiencing a real boom, with e-mobility constantly gaining new market shares. On the other hand, we are still clearly lagging behind Asia. How would you characterise the current situation?

Dr Christina Toigo: The situation offers reasons for optimism. But as with every change and every integration of new things into a system, it simply takes time. The change has to reach companies and private individuals. If we look at e-mobility, everyone is talking about the range that is perhaps still lacking. Of course there are obstacles and barriers, but we are undoubtedly talking about an industry of the future!

I always find it a great pity when I see that the ifo forecasts for Germany are moving downwards. As a company, you need to counteract in a decisive manner and commit to the new technologies: “I want to step on the gas here, I want to help shape them!”

How are the German-speaking countries within the EU positioned in the battery sector?

C. Toigo: Unfortunately, Austria is still a big blank spot. You can look at where the giga-factories are being built in Europe. Germany, with its numerous companies, has created a solid foundation – with the corresponding subsidies. Not so much has happened in Austria yet, although I see great potential here – especially with suppliers and specialised machinery.

In Europe as a whole – and possibly particularly in German-speaking countries – we are sceptical about e-mobility. While China is focusing on electromobility with all its might, leading politicians in this country are still emphasising “technological openness”. Hydrogen in particular is often cited as an alternative . . .

C. Toigo: Anyone who wants to, is of course welcome to be sceptical, but in my opinion there is hardly any way around electrification. When it comes to hydrogen, private transport should be left out of the equation. The technology may make sense for buses, lorries, ships and perhaps even for air travel. I am convinced that everything that concerns the daily journey to the shops, nursery and work will be purely electric. This is definitely associated with a change in mentality, as I can report from my own experience. I’ve been travelling electrically myself for three years. Yes, it requires planning and yes, there are charging points that may not work. We really are just at the beginning. The sun is shining here at the moment, my car is currently charging – and thanks to the photovoltaic system on the roof, it’s not costing me a cent! I recently travelled from Lower Bavaria to the North Sea. Especially with children, I have to take a break every two hours anyway, which can be perfectly combined with a charging stop. The situation is perhaps different if I’m travelling to Berlin on business and am used to driving for six hours without stopping …

At the moment, we’re hearing more and more about electric ranges of up to 1,000 kilometres. Is that actually realistic, or is it more down to the hype?

C. Toigo: It’s certainly realistic if you install enough storage! The question is rather whether it makes sense if you are travelling in small areas. Originally, the idea behind e-mobility was that cars should be smaller in order to cover everyday needs. Now everything is moving in the opposite direction: German car manufacturers in particular are making everything bigger, thicker, with more range and more extras. It may sound tempting to be able to travel 1,000 kilometres on a single tank of petrol, but the question arises as to whether this is even necessary for classic private transport. I recently saw a statistic that said that most people want a range of over 600 kilometres. On the other hand, there is another statistic that puts the average distance travelled by the population at around 50 kilometres per day. There is a huge gap between perceived needs and reality!

Let’s take a look at the converting industry. For some years now, interest in battery production has also been growing enormously in our sector. What role do you think the converting industry can play for the battery sector?

C. Toigo: Many companies want to be involved, but in many cases there is a lack of knowledge about the value chain for battery technologies. When do I need which materials and in what thickness? What quality standards do I have? There are basically many starting points for batteries: They are traditionally produced in large strings. We need a film that is coated, dried and then cut before it goes into the following sections. Of course, this is exactly where a converter can come into his own. On the one hand, this involves metal foils, which are traditionally used as arrester foils, or PE and PP, or film laminates in two or three layers, which can function as separators. Later on in the packaging process, plastic/aluminium composite films are needed for sealing, welding or laminating.

Let’s perhaps take a step back to involve potential newcomers to the subject: can you illustrate how all the different individual parts and process steps are turned into a lithium-ion battery, for example?

C. Toigo: In the first step, we start with a metal foil, which is usually made of aluminium or copper, and more rarely stainless steel. This is then coated with the active material, which we call “slurry”. You can imagine this substance as being similar to honey – a viscous mass that is applied in a certain thickness. In the next step, the liquid is dried to form a solid layer of 100-150 μm on the metal foil. The separator is then added: Films made of polyethylene or polypropylene, or multi-layer film laminates. In principle, we are talking about two electrodes and a separator. In the next step, the battery is filled with an electrolyte and sealed. The closure is also a composite film, i.e. plastic-aluminium/metal, which seals everything. This creates a first small cell that can be charged. On its own, this would not be powerful enough to operate a mobile phone or a laptop. The larger the devices, the larger the dimensions and the number of cells.

The public still criticises lithium-ion batteries: Critical raw materials are required, and the mining of lithium can endanger workers and the environment. At the same time, sodium-ion batteries are increasingly being discussed as an alternative. How far has development already progressed in this area?

C. Toigo: Here, too, the Asians are well ahead of us. Cars with sodium-ion batteries are already being sold there! This technology is also attractive because the basic manufacturing processes are completely analogue. If I have a line that currently processes lithium-ion material, it can be converted to sodium-ion with relatively little effort. The same applies to the materials: here, too, we need a metallic arrester foil and a plastic separator. There is even exciting research in which the plastic separators are being replaced by bioplastics (e.g. alginates or cellulose derivatives). Lithium-ion batteries often contain cobalt and nickel. They are the main reason for the large CO2 “backpack” and perhaps also an explanation for the sometimes not-so-good reputation of electromobility. Lithium is extracted in South America, then shipped to China and processed before finally ending up here in Europe. As a result, I first have to drive up to 60,000 kilometres in my electric car to balance out my ecological footprint. That’s why a more economically and ecologically sensible cell chemistry is certainly a factor that can trigger a further “push”!

What is your message to those who are toying with the idea of getting into battery production but are perhaps still hesitating?

C. Toigo: In many cases, companies are sitting on a goldmine of materials, equipment and expertise. They may not even know what the individual production steps for batteries look like – and they realise that getting started can be very expensive. This is where I like to come in and provide an overview. You don’t have to invest 15 million euros straight away to get started – you can actually start small. There are a number of innovation funding programmes for SMEs – not only in the battery sector, but also in the field of hydrogen.

This interview was first published in issue #2 of PRO Flexconvert.


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