Northvolt, the Swedish manufacturer of cells for lithium ion batteries, has signed a contract with Stora Enso, the Finnish wood and papermaking giant. Object of the deal: to use wood from northern forests to make the anodes, that is to say the negative electrodes of the cells. So what is the point of this innovation?
Whether to equip the electric vehicles, balancing networks or storing renewable energies, batteries are called upon to play an increasingly important role in the energy transition. But in this area, as in many others, Europe is still too dependent on Asian countries for its supply of materials and components. This is why the European Commission has launched an ambitious project entitled “Airbus batteries” aimed at developing the entire sector on our continent, from the production of raw materials, the manufacture of cells and batteries, to their recycling. . The key: thousands of jobs and independence from Asian and American manufacturers.
An important milestone in this project was reached in May 2022 when the first European gigafactory, built by Northvolt AB in Skellefteå, northern Sweden, began delivering its first cells. Founded in 2015 by Peter Carlsson, a former executive of Tesla, this company has already concluded major cell delivery contracts with major manufacturers such as Volkswagen, BMW and Volvo. It also partnered with VW to build a second gigafactory in Salzgitter, Germany. Production is expected to start there in 2024.
Partnership between two Scandinavian companies
A few days ago, Northvolt caused a stir by announcing the signing of a contract with a global giant in the wood industry and paper production: the Finnish company Stora Enso, one of the largest private forest owners in the world. Objective: to use wood from northern forests in the manufacture of batteries. More precisely to shape the anodes, that is to say the negative electrodes of the cells.
In most of the “chemical recipes” used to produce lithium ion type batteries (the most widely used in the world), the anodes are made of graphite. A material that you know well since it is the component of pencil leads. It is actually one of the forms of carbon. Its chemical formula is simply “C”.
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Historically, graphite is extracted from mines, which have been exploited since the XVIIe century in England, then in Germany. But nowadays, graphite is more and more often produced industrially by high-temperature pyrolysis of organic substances derived from coal or oil. Among the main producers there are Japanese companies, but above all European ones: German, French (Imerys) and British. For this component of batteries, Europe does not depend on other continents. However, the manufacturing process is energy-intensive and polluting.
This is probably the main reason why Northvolt came up with the idea of extracting the carbon used to produce its anodes, no longer from coal or oil, but from wood harvested in sustainably managed Scandinavian forests. The objective is transparent: to reduce the carbon footprint of batteries and therefore to “green” their image somewhat. The Swedish manufacturer also highlights a reduction in production costs.
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A new source of raw material
As they explain in the press release published on the occasion of the signing of their partnership, Stora Enso and Nothvolt will each take charge of part of the production process. Stora Enso will handle carbon extraction from lignin, a polymer present at a rate of 20 to 30% in wood. The company is aiming for a production of 50,000 tons per year in its factory in Sunila, near Helsinki. Northvolt will take care of the design of the cells, the development of the production process and the industrialization of the technology.
” With this partnership, we are exploring a new, more sustainable source of raw material for the European production of batteries. explains Emma Nehrenheim, chief environmental officer at Northvolt. ” And at the same time we are developing less expensive battery chemistry “, she adds. ” This demonstrates that it is possible to develop the battery industry in a sustainable way while generating a positive impact for society and reducing production costs. “.
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