Battery technologies are set to play a key role in Europe's energy strategy for reducing our CO2 emissions and mitigating human impact on climate change. And digital technologies have a major role to play in developing the next generation of safe, sustainable batteries.

Battery technologies are set to play a key role in Europe's energy strategy for reducing our CO2 emissions and mitigating human impact on climate change. They are a key technology for clean mobility, as well as for ensuring a greater share of intermittent and distributed renewable energy sources in our energy mix. The rapidly expanding global battery market has been estimated at €250 billion annually from 2025 onwards, driven primarily by the needs from the transport and energy sectors.

Europe's position as a global leader in the automotive market is being seriously challenged by the transition to electro-mobility in which batteries are estimated to count for up to 40% of the value of the car. The battery market is clearly strategic for Europe. It is an industrial and economic opportunity, with the possible creation of 4-5 million jobs. Today, it is dominated by Li-ion technology from Asia. While Europe has strong European industrial companies in the upstream part of the battery value chain (e.g. battery material manufacturers, production equipment suppliers) and in the downstream part (suppliers like Bosch or Continental, car manufacturers, recycling), there is today no strong European player positioned in the core design and large-scale manufacturing of battery cells for electric vehicle applications. This is a key challenge for Europe.

In the near future, new generations of ultra-performing batteries, safe and sustainable will be necessary, primarily driven by the needs of electro-mobility. Competition to develop them is already high but still very much open. No clear winning technology is yet ready for large scale deployment. This could change the game.  This is an opportunity for Europe which can build on its scientific and industrial assets to come back and become a major player in the future battery market.

The Strategic Action Plan on batteries

To address the battery challenges, the European Commission launched in October 2017 the European Battery Alliance alongside representatives from industry, research and the European Investment Bank, with the aim of creating a competitive European battery sector with sustainable battery cells at its core. In May this year, the Commission published a strategic action plan on batteries setting out in detail how it proposes to achieve this goal as an annex to its Communication on Sustainable Mobility for Europe.

It acknowledges the need for Europe to support the rapid development of battery manufacturing capacities in Europe as well as the ramping up the research into the next generations of high-performing batteries. To address the latter, one of the key measures announced in the plan is the development of a  Flagship activity around the batteries of the future.

This new action will aim at ultra-performing, safe and sustainable batteries both for the mobility and the energy storage sectors. By taking a longer term perspective, this initiative should be designed ultimately to put Europe at the forefront of the race to develop the battery technologies of the future.

What do we mean by new generations of ultra-performing, safe and sustainable batteries?

For the automotive sector, we mean batteries providing at least a similar performance as conventional fuel engine in terms of autonomy, fast charging and safety. They should enable to drive for at least 700km, they should recharge in a few minutes and have a lifetime of 15 to 20 years with no reduction in safety and performance over time.

We need also green and sustainable batteries, meaning for instance batteries with higher energy efficiency, produced with the lowest CO2 footprint (e.g. using green/renewable energy), re-usable (e.g a secondary use for stationary storage) and recyclable. They need to take into account the availability of raw materials, sourced either directly from mining or indirectly through future recycling. They should avoid the use of rare resources. Today, batteries critically depend on cobalt and lithium, the global reserves of which are largely outside Europe. They also need to be economically affordable.

Cracking the battery chemistry challenge should be at the core of the initiative

For this to happen, we clearly need to mobilise all our scientific, technical, industrial and manufacturing expertise across the full battery value chain. We also clearly need scientific and technological breakthroughs to be made at the core of the battery cell to find and engineer new battery materials and electro-chemistries that can fulfil our needs.

Battery cell chemistry is still very poorly understood in many aspects. They operate very much as a black box. Finding new battery chemistries is a very slow process, largely based on iterative experimentation, trial and error, with many promising technologies that fail before reaching the market.

While there are many promising avenues based on lithium or beyond lithium concepts such as solid-state batteries, organic batteries, sodium-ion, lithium-sulphur and metal-air batteries, no one can really predict the future winning material-chemistries combinations that can best fulfil our diversity of sectorial needs going much beyond the immediate needs of the automotive sector. 

Mobilising our effort for cracking the battery material-chemistry challenge and for accelerating the time to market of new battery technologies is essential and should be at the core of the battery flagship.

AI for the batteries of the future

The preparatory work for the ground-breaking battery research started last January with a first workshop hosted in Brussels. Since then, a group of stakeholders has worked out a first vision paper which was at the core of a workshop on The Future of Batteries that I attended in Vienna on 29 October.

The vision is to invent the 'batteries of the future'. They propose to use the power of digital technologies to radically change the way research on new high-performing battery chemistries is performed. One of the ideas is to reverse-engineer battery chemistries by using modelling, simulation and artificial intelligence to explore, discover and validate new materials and chemistries with a desire state of performance in a very much automated way. Another idea is to build smart batteries with embedded sensing capabilities and with self-healing functionalities so that they can be aware of their 'state of health' and can even rejuvenate themselves when necessary.

These are certainly ambitious and highly risky ideas but at the same time, they are very promising. They have the potential to provide Europe with a decisive competitive advantage and open new industrial opportunities for smart high performing batteries 'made in Europe' and adapted to specific sectorial needs. While we are at the very beginning, these first ideas could well complement the shorter term initiatives proposed in the context of the EU Battery Alliance initiative. 

What happens next?

The workshop gathered a lot of interest from industry and research stakeholders. The proposed vision received broad support from the participants. Based on the feedback received, it will be now further elaborated and will form the basis of a more comprehensive 'Battery Manifesto' that should be published by the end of the year. It should provide a strategic and inspiring vision and the major areas of work required with clear targets to reach. It should become the foundation for the ground-breaking research and gather a wide support from all stakeholders, academia and industry but also the public authorities. It should also clearly layout the relation and complementarities with the other initiatives launched under the European Battery Alliance.

Building on this, our objective is to kick-start research activities in the coming months using funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programmes and then to ensure its upscaling and continuation in the future.

Batteries will, literally, be the power behind the sustainable, connected society of the future. Making sure that Europe is a leading player in this key technology sector of the future is a vital part of the wider strategic agenda of the EU, from tackling climate change to the digital single market. The battery flagship will, I am convinced, help ensure that batteries ‘made in Europe’ are well and truly ‘included’ in everything we do.