The world's largest chemical company is either BASF of Germany or Dow Chemical of the USA, depending on how you make the measurement. Both have been belatedly but strongly entering the electric vehicle business with materials and participation in device manufacturing joint ventures. For example, Dow entered lithium-ion traction batteries by acquiring a Swiss company developing advanced cathode materials. In such batteries, the cathode largely controls both price and performance. Dow also set up the traction battery joint venture Dow Kokam which currently employs a simpler lithium manganese cathode chemistry. These traction batteries are used or likely to be used by pure electric vehicle manufacturers ZeroTruck and Motive Power Systems (Ford conversion) and hybrid vehicle manufacturers Volkswagen and, for aircraft, the Bye conversion of Cessna planes, for example. Alliance with an East Asian leader in lithium- ion batteries reflects the fact that the West has been a laggard.
BASF is one of the licensed suppliers of the Argonne National Laboratory's patented nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) cathode materials—combination of lithium and manganese-rich mixed metal oxides. Like the cathodes used and being developed by Dow, this employs less cobalt than is used in the first generation lithium cobalt oxide traction batteries, reducing exposure to cobalt price hikes and improving performance in several respects. In February this year, BASF announced that it will invest well over $100 million to develop battery technologies. The investment, spread over the next five years, will focus on lithium-ion technology, other new battery concepts and partnerships including at the $50 million factory in Ohio that will produce cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries. Partly funded by the US Department of Energy, it will be on stream in mid-2012. The R&D and production investment is in line with the company's strategic focus on new products.
BASF is trying to leapfrog currently favoured second generation lithium-ion battery technology through an alliance with third generation battery maker Sion Power with its lithium sulphur traction batteries only used in military and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles UAVs as yet. In addition, BASF is venturing into electrolytes segment for lithium-ion batteries by forming a global electrolytes team in its Intermediates division. Commenting on this strategic move, Andreas Kreimeyer, member of the Board of Executive Directors and Research Executive Director of BASF, said, "By entering into electrolytes activities, we are taking yet another step to support our customers' competitiveness in the electromobility business."
BASF had already started working towards developing specific formulations for high-quality electrolytes based on organic carbonates for customers in the battery and automotive industries. The company expects to commercialise the first products by the end of this year. In lithium-ion batteries, electrolytes can affect life and some other performance characteristics including safety, not least because today's electrolytes are often toxic liquids that can leak on impact and require heavy expensive containment which reduces the range of land, water and air EVs. Most third generation electrolytes are therefore solid state - usually inorganic, in contrast to the organic formulations often employed today. However, solid electrolytes raise issues such as low temperature performance and sometimes life. BASF also has a joint venture bringing flexible photovoltaics into production that may one day be used on cars. Honda certainly thinks that it needs flexible solar on its vehicles: it has its Honda Soltec factory producing them already. This highlights how it is rendered increasingly difficult for third parties to supply key enabling technologies to automotive companies that do it themselves.
The new IDTechEx report, "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning" is based on a computer scan of 40,000 patents revealing inter alia that Toyota is increasing the number of lithium-ion and alternative traction battery patents faster than any of the independent suppliers, who are responding by alliances with motor manufacturers in some cases, the NEC-Nissan battery manufacture Automotive Energy Supply Corporation AESC being one example and JS Yuasa Mitsubishi in Lithium Energy Japan another. However, backing all horses, some of these independents are filing lithium-ion patents in their own name as well as through their joint ventures. Watch this space.
For more attend Electric Vehicles Land Sea Air in June in Stuttgart, Germany. Never before has there been an opportunity in Europe for people in land, water and air electric vehicles and their components, infrastructure and test equipment to compare notes in one event. Delegates already signed up vary from Airbus, Hudson Power Sports and Hudson Yachts to Sony, the Bulgarian Electric Vehicle Association and Robert Bosch Venture Capital.