Jul, 2020

Gert Meylemans: "Before entering a new market/region, you need to ask yourself the question – what advantage will I bring to the new market?"

Director Communications of the EUROBAT Association spoke about global trends in the battery industry development.

Gert Meylemans

The 2-nd annual international conference Battery Innovation, organized by “AKOM group of companies” and “Innovations Accumulator” the scientific and technical center, was held in February 2020 in the city of Togliatti.

This specialized event aimed at the development of production, science, technology and engineering in the field of chemical current sources and energy storage systems brought together leading industry experts from Russia and foreign countries.

For the first time, the conference was attended by EUROBAT Association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers, represented by Mr. Gert Meylemans, Director Communications. In an interview with the conference organizers, he spoke about the global battery market trends, decarbonisation issues and smart batteries.

- What is EUROBAT today and what tasks are set for the Association?

- For more than twenty years, EUROBAT has represented EU manufacturers of automotive an industrial battery, as well as the suppliers to the battery value chain. I joined the Association not so long ago - about two years ago. Over the past years, because of the changing business environment and legislative frame work, interactivity between members and Secretariat increased accordingly and we believe members very much appreciate the added value and first hand insights we bring to them. The general functionality of the direction of my activity (communications) has been strengthened to ensure more effective work with our members-identifying their communications needs and receiving feedback.

On the other hand, the need to change the approach was dictated by life itself, because now policy makers  who are involved in making decisions on the industry as a whole, have become more demanding: they want to know exactly what is happening on the ground, what the industry is doing, how it is developing, and what needs to be done in order to effectively support it. Our goal is to help our members to navigate the regulatory framework so that they can do business accordingly.

- What are the most pressing issues for the European battery industry today?

- Environmental issues, climate changes, the ongoing numerous debates on the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions , circular economy action plan, new industrial strategies, new technologies, new strategies on mobility and on energy storage….- all this puts a lot of pressure on policy makers and as a result the industry as well. More legislative initiatives are expected this and the coming years, hence we need to increase reach out to policy makers, making sure they will take on board the requirements of the battery industry.  

- How can all this affect the activities of “AKOM”, which is the only Russian member of EUROBAT?

- The “AKOM” market is now primarily concentrated within the Russian Federation, but the changes that are coming to the EU market may also affect the Russian market. For example, this may apply to the revision of the policy for batteries that are installed in car assembly plants of foreign brands operating in Russia.

- What is EUROBAT's policy on existing battery technologies?

- Some EUROBAT members are exclusively engaged in the production of lead-acid batteries, some - only lithium or nickel technologies, some even all of them. We, as an Association, are completely neutral about which chemical technology is should be used, we prefer the market to decide on the choice of chemistry. In that sense we are fully agnostic and are convinced all technologies are needed to achieve the EU decarbonisation targets. In our negotiations with the legislative bodies of the European Union, we defend the interests of manufacturers of all types of batteries that are currently on the market and are members of our Association. All existing technologies have a strong innovation potential. No single technology can cover all areas of application, combining high performance, low cost, long service life, excellent safety, and minimal environmental impact.

- What is the Association's opinion on lead-acid technology?

 Imagine what would happen if we now take and with one stroke of the pen will remove lead from the market. The EU has set certain goals for decarbonizing the economy with targets for 2030 and 2050. If lead is removed from the market now, the transition period will take so long and will be so expensive that the indicators set by the European Union will not be achieved.

Lead technology has been present on the battery market for 150 years. If you ask my personal opinion whether lead will be on the market in 20 years, I can't tell you anything. I am guided by the forecast indicators, which clearly show that starting from 2023-24, there will be a gradual growth of lithium-ion technology – however, sales of lead based batteries are still forecasted to grow in absolute terms.  

- What are the main problems of lithium-ion technology?

- I think you know the general principle of operation of a modern lithium-ion battery: the ions in lithium go in a vortex flow from one pole to the other. The problem is that these batteries sometimes are  not always stable in specific conditions and they can overheat due to the constant movement of ions. In order to stabilize the operation of a lithium-ion battery, cobalt (for example) is added to it. However, there are other considerations regarding the use of cobalt, copper, zinc, or something else to stabilize the operation of lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is a less common metal, so the issue of cost and availability comes into the foreground. An ethical approach to the selection of raw material supply sources is also important. Cobalt deposits are located in Democratic Republic of Congo, and the main lithium deposits are in South America and other countries. There are also questions about the use of child labor in the extraction of these metals in certain countries.

- Given these aspects, is there a need to develop new technologies??

- No one is going to give up lithium ion and it will remain the leading technology for the next decade. At the level of industry research centers and within corporations, laboratory studies are conducted to bring to market the so-called solid-state lithium battery, in which the liquid ion process does not occur and the core does not heat up. Another approach is lithium-air technology, in which air will be an integral part of the core. Due to this, in theory, the cost price is reduced, stability is increased, and overheating should be eliminated. This is good news. And the bad news is that this technology will not appear on the market until eight or even ten years from now.

- In which countries are the main trends in the development of the global battery industry being formed?

- If we consider the issue from the point of view of the development or application of certain technologies, the Asian countries – Japan, South Korea and China – have advantages in this regard. Thanks to initiatives as the EU Battery Alliance and Battery Action  Plan, we see since 3 years several initiatives in EU where initially giga plants have been built /or being built – often by Asian or US producers but more recently there are also European and national initiatives announces such as Northvolt and Saft Batteries.

- How do economic and environmental issues relate in this case?

- Climate change over the past 10 years has become such a serious problem, widely publicized at all levels, that the authorities nor industries can no longer dismiss this issue. As a result, a new growth strategy has been put forward and it will implicate a battery of new legislative framework. I am referring EU Green Deal.  Among several initiatives to decarbonize the EU economy, it aims to achieve two main objectives of relevance for our sector. The first is to get clean energy by connecting energy storage devices to renewable sources, whether they are wind turbines or solar panels. The second is increased attention to the development of new technologies for the growth of the electric vehicle segment. Of course, this abrupt paradigm shift is a significant problem for a number of manufacturers, who may have focused too long on the internal combustion engine only. And there was no clear structure of battery manufacturers for the new field of application. That is why the European Union initiated the creation of EU battery Alliance in 2017, an Alliance that embraces European Commission, EU member states, the European Investment Bank and more than 400 industrial, innovation and academia stakeholders. It is planned to create about ten giant plants in the European Union in order to be able to meet the demand for lithium-ion batteries, which is guaranteed to grow at the projected pace. Several of such plants are or will be built in Europe over the next three years: in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Sweden and France. The EUROBAT member SAFT has announced such a giga factory in France. In addition, Tesla is going to build its own factory of this type in Germany.

- Who is the investor in these projects?

Regarding the EBA, it is a combination of EU member states, the EU institutions through European Investment Bank and private investments.   As another global trend we see that oil and energy giants and companies are/were engaged only in traditional carbon energy begin to absorb or create battery manufacturers to diversify their own assets. They are preparing for the inevitable, knowing that as of 2050, Europe should become carbon neutral.

It is worth mentioning another trend- automakers are starting to develop their own batteries. For example, Volkswagen now has its own production of batteries for electric vehicles.

- EFB, AGM, and GEL are widely used in the production of modern lead batteries. What technologies could be next?

- As far as I know, no technological breakthrough is currently expected in this category. Research centers have experience in implementing programmable functions that will be integrated into batteries via the control module. We are talking about creating a "smart" battery. The introduction of smart functions will reduce the charge rate, significantly increase the battery life cycle, and so on.

If we talk in general about the market for starter car batteries, it is a market of relative low interest from the end user. He is almost not concerned with everything related to production and marketing technologies. Buying a car battery is not based on previously built plans, but as a result of a stressful situation. People begin to realize that they have a problem with the battery when they get into the car in the morning after a cold night and can't start the engine. Then they take action, and very rarely these actions are planned in advance.

- “AKOM” aims to become a global brand. What do you think companies that enter the global market need to take into account, and what challenges do they have to meet?

- I can only consider such issues from the point of view of legislation. Entering any national market with its product, the company will need to meet all the EU/global requirements regarding the collection and disposal of used batteries. In addition, there are more and more requirements for ethical standards in the selection of raw material suppliers. An environmental approach prevails at all stages of battery production and disposal. Another important point to take into account in my opinion when going beyond national borders: you need to ask yourself the question-how am I going to compete in a new market? What will be my advantage? How will I beat other market participants: at the expense of price, quality, or something else?