Batteries for cars: a new branch of industry is emerging

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At VW, the employment forecasts go up and down. One study expects several hundred thousand jobs to be cut. Other studies smooth out such horror scenarios with the core statement: e-mobility will reduce the need for employees at Volkswagen to a lesser extent. Qualification is the key word here. Anyone who built engines for combustion engines yesterday will build batteries for electric cars tomorrow. VW is thus an example for the entire automotive industry, because all German car manufacturers are planning their own battery factories in order to become more independent of the Asian dominance in battery production and to have an influence on the most expensive part in the electric car. Critics warn: it’s about time!

At the VW plant in Salzgitter, around 7,000 employees produce almost one million engines per year. VW wants to build batteries for cars there in four years. Research and development are also located there. Salzgitter becomes Volkswagen’s global cell center. The Center of Excellence Battery Cells was opened in 2018, and a cell factory is to produce batteries in 2025. Pilot plants for the production and recycling of batteries are running and research laboratories are open.

Around 500 employees already work in the center. “These include technical staff for cell development, process specialists for their production and salespeople for purchasing and cooperation,” says Alexander Dittrich, Head of Battery Personnel. Around a third of the employees come from the Salzgitter plant, from other locations of the VW Group and from outside. “The colleagues come from 24 nations,” says Dittrich. After the Germans, Asians are the second largest group of origin. VW has thus bought know-how: Around 95 percent of the batteries installed in electric cars come from Asia.

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The production of batteries for electric cars is a completely new branch of industry for Germany. “Finding battery specialists is extremely difficult because this expertise is still lacking in Germany,” says Dittrich. In addition, the competition for these specialists is fierce because competitors and new entrants are also planning their own battery factories. And everyone needs staff for this.

This year, VW, together with the TU Braunschweig, offered a dual degree in chemistry for the first time, and next year the company will begin training as a chemical laboratory technician. The employees for the laboratory were prepared for their new work with the help of a Fraunhofer Institute and the first employees in the pilot plants were trained. VW is preparing for the new battery product.

In the first expansion stage, around 1,500 employees are to produce cells with an initial capacity of 20 gigawatt hours per year from 2025. “We will transfer these employees from the workforce at the engine plant and in some cases re-qualify or upgrade them,” says Dittrich. Cell production is highly automated, but activities similar to those in engine construction are required, such as plant operators and logisticians who transport parts from A to B. Numerous battery factories like VW’s are planned in Germany.

“Events are rushing” The battery market is in a state of upheaval: New materials make cells cheaper and more environmentally friendly, and an optimized battery design ensures a longer range at lower costs. Battery researcher Maximilian Fichtner talks about how Europe is catching up and the advantages and disadvantages of the various concepts.

Battery factories with capacities between one and 1.4 terawatt hours have been announced for Europe by 2030. “About half of them want to build up European manufacturers, the other half will be built up and expanded by established cell manufacturers from Asia,” says Dr. Axel Thielmann, Head of the Competence Center New Technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI. “In some research institutes and companies there are few pilot plants for the production of batteries in operation. What we now need is experience in the mass production of battery cells,” says Thielmann.

In this type of manufacturing, scrap plays an important role because of the mass of material that can be wasted in the process. “A large number of rejects therefore causes high economic damage and is therefore a competitive factor,” says Thielmann. To be competitive, production has to run smoothly.

Engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, chemists, physicists and IT experts are required to develop cells, and process specialists in production. They ensure that the cells are ideally produced in consistently high quality. “To do this, they must be able to understand, plan and control the process steps and automated production,” says Thielmann.

“By 2030, up to 100,000 jobs in Germany and 200,000 in Europe could be created in material to cell development and production,” says Thielmann. This is the result of calculations by the ISI. Around 30 percent of the battery factories announced are to be built in Germany today.

Varta is also planning to build batteries for cars on a new facility. The company has developed a cell that is used in hybrid vehicles and should be charged in six minutes. The established battery manufacturer is initially concentrating on batteries for premium vehicles with high performance.

At the end of June, the company opened another factory for lithium-ion cells in button cell format. These batteries are used in wireless headphones and hearing aids. Varta is the global technology leader in lithium-ion. The company produces around three billion cells per year. “We have a clear competitive advantage over the new battery manufacturers because we know the business from the bottom up and have the necessary specialist staff,” says Dr. Verena Drews, Manager Application & Test Lab. Varta has around 4,800 employees worldwide and locations also in Asia.

The manufacture of batteries is a complex and time-consuming process. Depending on the type of battery, it takes between 20 and 60 days until a battery is ready. “It’s very clean in a battery factory so that the lithium ions aren’t contaminated with particles,” says Drews. There are different zones with different security standards. “But it’s neither loud, nor hot, nor more dangerous than in other factories.”

The cells are developed depending on the application, and they are dimensioned accordingly. If the cell is to be small but needs a high energy density, different electrochemistry and different materials are used than when a large battery is supposed to deliver a lot of energy.

Cells in the 21700 format – they have a diameter of 21 millimeters and are 70 millimeters high – are built by Varta for use in cars. A battery module is assembled from several hundred batteries, depending on how much capacity the battery should have, modules are put together to form a battery pack.


(kbe)

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