Volkswagen Details Plan for New EV Battery Cell, Manufacturing

A new “modular” cell design for EV batteries is projected to be applicable for 80% of VW Group vehicles and drastically cut battery cost.

Volkswagen battery and electrification experts present information on new electric-vehicle battery and charging initiatives at the company’s March, 2021 ‘Power Day.’ (Volkswagen)

Volkswagen announced on March 15 a new development and business model for the production of batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) that is projected to yield as much as a 50% cost savings by enabling a variety of chemistries within a single, massive-scale “unified cell” platform. The unified cell is slated to enter production in 2023.

Cost-reduction potential for the various battery chemistries covered by the “unified cell” battery design coming in 2023. (Volkswagen)

It will be applicable to 80% of all VW Group brands and models, said Thomas Schmall, Volkswagen Group member of the board of management for technology and CEO of the automaker’s components group, during a “Power Day” webcast to unveil the company’s plan. “With the new battery strategy, we will make the battery a core business of Volkswagen,” declared Schmall, who went on to detail VW’s plan to expand to industrial-scale production.

It calls for two initial battery-making facilities in Europe – the first in 2023 in Sweden with production partner Northvolt and the second in 2025, at a repurposed VW engine-making plant in Salzgitter, Germany. Third and fourth battery plants are expected at still-undetermined sites in southern and eastern Europe. In 2030, VW plans for two more battery plants to come on stream, one likely in the U.S.

When a total of six European plants – operated in conjunction with battery-making suppliers – are at full production, VW will have some 240 GWh of batter-making capacity. “This will give us the freedom of high volume and scale,” said Schmall. This would be enough battery-making capability to supply 4 to 4.5 million EVs, VW said.

Volkswagen intends to use the same physical platform for battery cells with a variety of chemistries. (Volkwagen)

“E-mobility has won the race,” declared VW Group CEO Herbert Diess. “It is the only solution to reduce mobility emissions fast. E-mobility is the key pillar of Volkswagen’s forward strategy,” he said, affirming the company’s new plan to control its EV battery development and production. “Our goal is to secure ‘pole position’ in the global scaling of batteries,” he said. Conversion of current or former engine-making facilities to battery production is likely to become a common symbol of the auto sector’s transformation to electrification, according to experts.

Inside the unified cell

“From 2023 onwards, we will be ready for rollout,” of the new unified-cell platform, promised Diess during the webcast. Underscoring the company’s overall intent for its industrialization strategy, Schmall added: “The first challenge for a big OEM is scale. In the EV world, size matters – you need to find a way to have huge volume over a big spread of product portfolio.”

Cost-reduction breakdown for the “entry level” unified-cell chemistry. (Volkswagen)

Volkswagen discretely outlined the potential cost savings for the unified cell. For the potential maximum of 50% savings, it attributes 15% to the cell design, 20% to the less-costly cathode/anode material mix, 10% to production process and 5% to the battery-system “concept” itself.

From the examples presented by Frank Blome, VCG’s head of battery cell and system,

it appears VW intends to use the varying cell chemistries in prismatic-shaped modules. That would be a departure from its current pouch-type cells. The company is a customer for pouch cells supplied by LG and SK Innovation, which are in a legal conflict in the U.S. related to trade secrets.

For the new unified cells, Blome described an “entry chemistry” for comparatively inexpensive EV models based on a lithium iron-phosphate design, while the “high-volume” chemistry will be a lithium-ion chemistry with high manganese content. “Specific solutions” – presumed to be for performance or long-range models – will be handled by a nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) chemistry because “high nickel means high range and high performance.” Finally, “The end game, from our point of view, is solid-state,” Blome asserted.

Some 30% more range and significantly reducing charging time is projected for solid-state batteries, which VW calls the “end game” in EV battery development. (Volkswagen)

He said today’s typical NMC cathode chemistry for lithium-ion batteries “defines the cost of the cell by 40 percent and range by 90 percent.” VW’s proposed iron-phosphate cathode would be less expensive, while sacrificing a degree of driving range. For the mid-tier “volume chemistry,” he said its lower nickel content and total lack of cobalt makes the battery less expensive while sacrificing little in terms of range-dictating energy density.

For the unified cell’s anode, VW proposes synthetic graphite and silicon. “If we get silicon into the anode, we have better range – it’s plus-10 percent – and the charging time performs better, too, because the silicon can connect more lithium ions than just the graphite.” The Porsche Taycan and Audi eTron GT currently use this battery, Blome said.

But solid-state chemistry is the current goal for lithium-ion cells, he said. “The simpler design leads to higher performance and lower cost,” not to mention reducing weight, Blome said. “There is no barrier any longer for graphite or silicon for charging. He said solid-state charging time can be less than half of current state-of-the art technology and range “will be plus-30 percent because the cell has less weight and is simpler.”

Blome indicated VW expects solid-state batteries to be available around 2025. The technology will help VW achieve its goal of recharging a battery of 77 kWh capacity – such as that in today’s ID.4 – to 80% capacity in 12 minutes, less than half the current recharge time.

Charging expansion continues

The supporting measure in VW’s new battery-making initiative is a broad expansion of DC fast-charging in Europe, China and the U.S. Through its Electrify America subsidiary, VW is committed to a $2-billion investment to install fast-chargers in the U.S. It currently has some 560 in operation and has promised 800 by the end of 2021.

Volkswagen’s big push is for expanding the China infrastructure, where it said it soon will be delivering 1.5 million EVs annually. The company plans to expand from about 1,800 charging points at a maximum of 120 kW in the country today to 17,000 by 2025, with 300 kW-plus charging available in most major cities in China.

In Europe, VW continues to widen its Ionity charging network, with executives saying at Power Day that a new station in added in Europe every three days. The Ionity network is supplied by 100% renewable electricity and the company is using the Porsche charging experience to test new concepts and services. Porsche-exclusive charging facilities will offer a minimum of 350-kW charging or even higher levels. Finally, the company also said that starting in 2022, all electric vehicles on the modular MEB platform will be fitted with bi-directional charging capability.

Volkswagen plans to use its existing “Elli” home-charging as the foundation for a bi-directional charging ecosystem that it hopes can help buffer peak periods on the electricity grid. In this strategy, individual vehicles can serve as potential receptacles for the excess of renewable energy that currently goes to waste. The company said that in Germany, some 6500 GWh of renewable-generated electricity was lost in 2020 due to lack of storage capacity. Using such a model, VW said it hopes that one day all electric-vehicle charging will be free of charge.