German-based BASF SE (FRA:BAS), the world’s largest chemical producer, has outlined its long-term battery materials strategy, focused on cathode active materials, including manganese.

The cathode part of a battery is the positive electrode that acquires electrons from the external circuit and is reduced during the electrochemical reaction, and typically the primary active component of the cathode has been cobalt.

BASF believes that battery materials, in particular cathode active materials, are “one of the biggest growth areas of the chemical market”, and has committed to investing a “significant amount of money” in its battery material business in the next four years.

Solving supply problems

In a presentation at last week’s Vienna Motor Symposium, Peter Schumacher, President of BASF’s Catalysts division, reported that two new production sites for battery cathode active materials (CAM) in Finland and Germany are expected to come on stream in 2022.

“Our goal is to become a market-leading CAM supplier with the best-in-class sustainability and CO2 footprint globally,” Schumacher said.

“Cathode materials are a wonderful example for the importance of sustainable chemistry in many value chains for downstream industries and in this case for the automotive industry.

“A lot of the sustainability challenges also beyond just the CO2 footprint are hidden with the raw materials and as the leading chemical company, we also want to be a leader in changing this.

“We must begin at the mines and metal refineries as this is one of the key contributors of the CO2 footprint of the battery as minerals or metals like nickel, cobalt or lithium are many times only available in very low concentration in the respective ore bodies and isolating and refining metals requires a lot of energy.

“Also, some of these metals will become very scarce given the growth expectations which seem to accelerate given the many recent announcements. We will partner up globally to ensure a resilient, sustainable and robust metal supply chain.

“Further, metals need to be converted into an electrochemically active material, and the cathode material is the key raw material that drives performance and a lot of the cost of a battery.”

Manganese at forefront

BASF currently offers a broad CAM portfolio in the industry with a focus on nickel-rich nickel-manganese-cobalt (NCM) products and low or even no cobalt products for high energy density.

However, as Schumacher outlines, the preference for nickel-rich products is not sustainable, and BASF is committing to “fine-tuning the chemistry of our products”.

“One example will be manganese-rich products for which we have a very strong IP position,” he said.

“This new product family will play a crucial role in future for the low-cost segment as manganese is abundantly available at much lower cost than nickel or cobalt.

“We will customise materials to optimize the balance of energy density, fast-charge capability, cost and stability according to the requirements of our customers.”

BASF’s plans are good news for producers of high purity manganese products, who are already seeing a huge surge in projected demand.

Clear evidence of this trend came in recent months with separate announcements by Tesla and Volkswagen indicating that they intend to include manganese-rich batteries in their future EV production.

The latest numbers from Cairn Energy Research Advisors and CPM Group estimate that demand for high-purity manganese will be 13 times higher in 2030 compared with current usage.

– Daniel Paproth

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