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„We must believe in the unbelievable“

Battery cells are of great importance to the Volkswagen Group. Batteries account for 40 percent of the value added of electric vehicles. And the further development of energy storage systems is the key to the widespread introduction of electric mobility.

M. Stanley Wittingham, who was born in Britain, laid the scientific foundation for the lithium-ion batteries commonly used today. In the early 1970s, the chemist researched the use of lithium in batteries in the USA - for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. Whittingham accompanied this year's Science Award from Volkswagen and BASF in Wolfsburg - and on a trip to the Volkswagen Center of Excellence in Salzgitter was able to gain an impression of how his discovery of that time is now being put into practice in the pilot production of battery cells. 

  • Science Award - Prize for Future Research

    The "Science Award for Electrochemistry" was launched by BASF and Volkswagen in 2012. The aim is to support excellent scientific and engineering achievements in electrochemistry and provide impetus for the development of high-performance energy storage systems. The prize is endowed with a total of 70,000 euros, of which the winner receives 50,000 euros.

    This year, the jury of six experts honored the work of Prof. Dr. Kimberly See from the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena/USA). Kimberly See was honored for her outstanding contribution to the research of batteries based on multivalent cations and sulfur.

    Further information can be found at Science Award Electrochemistry.

An interview with M. Stanley Whittingham, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2019, about the future development of battery cells

Nobel Laureate M. Stanley Whittingham at the Volkswagen Center of Excellence Battery Cell in Salzgitter

Mister Whittingham, how does your scientific research that was just recently rewarded with the Nobel prize for electro chemistry relate to battery cells that are built today, for example here at the Center of Excellence in Salzgitter?

I would say, I worked on the first experimental aspects. You know, can we make a lithium battery? How do we make it? And we did it on a very very small scale, starting back with single crystals in 1972. So, we’ve come from those little guys, to this huge effort. You see it right here, at VW. You see it in great stories, in transport. So, it’s been a great journey from the idea to reality.

Are there any practical solutions you saw today that really surprised you?

Well I think it’s amazing, switching from the really challenging times – both in the battery area, and then for Volkswagen a few years ago – to seeing, really, electric vehicles happen, and seeing how we have modern methods in making these batteries, far beyond what we ever dreamed of.

How do you project the further development of lithium batteries? Are they going to be just better and better or is there a physical and chemical limit?

I think we can make the batteries at least double the energy density of those today. You know, we can’t go much beyond that. It’s not like Moore’s law for semi-conductors (note: which says that the speed of computer chips doubles every two years), so there is an ultimate limit. But we should be able to get twice the energy density. So, twice the range, from the same size of battery that we have today. And hopefully, no more expensive. So we cut down the costs, increase the energy density, make them safer. We can all have one.

Functionality of a lithium battery that also powers e-cars such as the ID.3
ID.3: The vehicle is not yet available for sale in Europe

Today we use lithium ion batteries. What are the most interesting new approaches you would bet on?

I think it’s going to be lithium for the next ten, or twenty years. The question is: Can we get rid of the organic electrolyte? Than we can devise a battery that we can use pure lithium metal and maybe use a salt or electrolyte, be it inorganic or polymeric. So, I think that’s where the search is going to go, and that’s where most of us would put our money for twenty years out.

M. Stanley Whittingham in front of a Volkswagen ID.3
ID.3: The vehicle is not yet offered for sale in Europe

Are there any concepts that might sound like science fiction today, but from your point of view could soon be part of everyday life?

Well, I think, 50 years ago when we started out, with say these cars behind me, it would be science fiction. But now we’ve made it. So I think we’ve got to believe that we can do it. We must believe in the unbelievable. Then we can make it happen.

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