Every working day in BASF’s global battery materials development network starts in Japan, the land of the rising sun. A few hours after the last e-mails with data updates have been sent out by the R&D team in the United States, the working day starts in BASF’s development laboratory in Amagasaki, Japan.
Since 2014, BASF has been operating this laboratory in the city of Amagasaki, near Osaka and therewith in the heart of Japan, from where Korea is just over an hour away by plane. Japan and Korea are the global centers for the development and production of lithium-ion batteries (LiB), a technology commonly used to power everything from smartphones to power tools and now enabling the revolution from diesel or gasoline-fueled cars to electric vehicles.
BASF has been active in the market for battery materials for many years, focusing on cathode materials in lithium-ion batteries. Cathode materials are mixed-metal oxides of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which determine all the key properties of the battery. Due to the technical importance of cathode materials for the battery, these cannot be sold easily to different battery producers on the basis of standardized specifications. They have to be customized for every individual battery product. Only this ensures the high quality, power, and safety of such batteries and guarantees a long driving range for electric vehicles.
This is where the Amagasaki laboratory comes in. The main task of the team is to work with customers to customize BASF’s cathode materials. “The one-to-one development cycle we run through with each of our customers typically takes six months,” says Dr. Hiroyoshi Noguchi, who is responsible for the customer application tests. “It starts with small-scale samples, which we test in our lab as well as in our customers’ labs”. The materials are modified on the basis of these test results and input from the customers. “Five to ten development cycles are quite normal,” Noguchi adds. “But that’s not all. Once the materials have been improved, customers also request large product volumes to run various levels of tests. Everything is very time-driven due to the high development speed of the industry. But given our proximity to Japanese and Korean customers, we are available all day for phone calls and sometimes even make the one-hour trip for meetings in person.”
BASF isn’t just researching and developing battery materials in Japan. Since March 2015, BASF has been a majority shareholder in BASF Toda Battery Materials LLC., a large-volume manufacturer of cathode materials in Japan. “With BTBM, we are able to quickly take modified cathode materials from laboratory scale to pilot scale and even into production”, Ryosuke Takeuchi explains. The chemist splits his time almost equally between Amagasaki and the two BTBM production sites in the Western part of Japan. “We not only have to demonstrate to our customers that we are able to produce our products on a large scale, we often have to supply tons of product to allow them to run pilot and production trials,” he adds.
Beside modifying cathode materials, another key task and expertise of the Amagasaki laboratory is testing these materials in small batteries. Hundreds of small test batteries are analyzed in parallel – 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year. “We have optimized our test workflow and achieved a very high throughput without compromising on the quality of the results,” says Dr. Zhen-Ji Han, an expert in electrochemical testing. “In addition to routine testing for our customers, we also develop new test protocols for our BASF R&D colleagues around the globe”. Investments are currently being made in the Amagasaki laboratory to further improve the throughput of test results. Running hundreds of test channels day and night produces a gigabyte of data every day. Yohko Tomota is responsible for data evaluation: “We use a global data architecture and fully automated data evaluation tools to make sure that we get all the information we can out of our data,” she explains.
But Amagasaki is not the only place where BASF researches and develops battery materials. BASF has facilities all around the globe: A development laboratory in Beachwood, Ohio, and production facilities in Elyria, Ohio, serve North American customers. Research into next-generation battery materials is concentrated in Ludwigshafen, Germany, the global headquarters of the BASF group.
Dr. Martin Schulz-Dobrick, Head of the Amagasaki Laboratory, started his research work in Ludwigshafen before relocating to Japan in 2013 to build up the Amagasaki laboratory. “It is a great pleasure for me to see how products that we developed some years ago are now finding their way into the market. The team here in Amagasaki is working hard to make BASF even more successful as a supplier to leading battery producers in Asia. We have team members from Japan, Korea, and China here in the lab. This helps us tremendously in day-to-day interactions with our customers,” Schulz-Dobrick says. “We are proud to be such an essential part of BASF’s global network of battery materials research and development, especially with our proximity to and close links with key customers.”
Dr. Markus Hoelzle,
Director Battery Materials Development,
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