The trend in new car registrations is clear: electric mobility is now also gaining momentum in this country. In July, the Federal Motor Transport Authority in Flensburg registered an added share of a good eleven percent for purely electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. In 2019 as a whole, battery-powered cars plus hybrids were still just over two percent. Urged by climate change and the strict political requirements for reducing CO2 emissions - for example in the EU - German car companies also want to be at the forefront of e-mobility, not just in Europe but on all world markets, especially China. And all of these electric cars need rechargeable batteries that are equipped with high-performance battery cells.

According to Wolfgang Bernhart, management consultant at Roland Berger in Stuttgart, the global capacity of the cells produced will be around 300 gigawatt hours (GWh) this year. The expert from Stuttgart has been observing the development for many years and is considered one of the best experts on development. By 2030, he estimates, this will even increase to around 1,800 gigawatt hours, i.e. six times as much. 

The German carmakers will probably also increase their needs significantly: The Volkswagen Group with VW, Audi, Skoda, Seat and Porsche, Daimler with Mercedes and Smart, BMW and also Opel, which is now part of the French PSA Group, already have dozens of new e-models announced for the coming years. By 2030, they want to generate up to half of their global sales with electric cars.

So far almost all cells from Asia

The high-voltage batteries required for this are usually based on lithium-ion cells. Around 40 percent of the added value of a purely battery-powered e-car is based on the batteries fitted with these cells. But regardless of whether the fully electric VW ID.3, the BMW i3, the Mercedes EQC, the Porsche electric sports car Taycan, the e-Smart or the electric Corsa from Opel: At the moment, cells from suppliers in China, South Korea or Japan are almost exclusively used.

"Asians dominate the market for lithium-ion cells for electric cars," says Wolfgang Bernhart. According to his market analysis, last year manufacturers from the Far East accounted for almost 90 percent of production capacity. First and foremost Chinese companies such as CATL, BYD or Wanxiang Group, followed by LG Chem, Samsung or SK Innovation in South Korea and the Japanese electrical giant Panasonic, on whose cell technology the electric car pioneer Tesla has so far also relied. The US had around ten percent market share and the rest of the world - including the EU - had just one percent.

Europe has failed so far

No wonder. The attempts of Europe to enter the market have so far failed miserably. The world's largest automotive supplier, Bosch, announced its withdrawal from cell technology two years ago. Too expensive, too risky to catch up in view of the lead of the Asian competition, it is said from the headquarters in Stuttgart-Gerlingen. And the Daimler group, which launched the first electric smart in 2013 with lithium-ion cells developed together with the German chemical company Evonik, stopped its own cell production in 2015. Their own technology was too expensive and the production volume too low. Since then, the Daimler battery factory in Kamenz, Saxony, has also been installing cells from Asia, for example for the Mercedes-Benz EQC.

That should change now. The EU Commission wants to fund the research and development of European battery cells as part of its IPEC ( Important Project of Common European Interest ) program with a total of 3.2 billion euros. And Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier announced that a total of around 1.7 billion euros would be deducted from this for research and development projects with German participation. In addition, about the same amount is to be added from the national economic stimulus program to deal with the Corona crisis.

But do the Europeans, do the Germans really need their own cells? "Absolutely," says Stefan Bratzel, Director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach. The risk of relying solely on deliveries from Asia is far too high. And it is precisely the German premium manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes or Porsche, who owe their image and the high prices they achieve to the technical lead and the special quality, "to differentiate themselves from the competition" in the future when it comes to energy storage systems.

What the gasoline and diesel engines were historically, the electronic drives will in future be, and for this purpose, particularly powerful batteries will be needed in the future, says Bratzel. According to Bratzels, the cells are not simply "commodities" such as tires, shock absorbers, windshield wipers or injection valves that can be bought anywhere because they hardly differ in terms of technology and quality. Therefore it is also justified that the state should support the development of this technology in order to strengthen this economically so important branch.