“There Is Hardly Any Way Around Circular Economy”

Interview with Prof. Dr. Jens Leker, Managing Director of the Institute of Business Administration at the Department of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Münster

What role does Business Chemistry play in battery research? What potentials arise for students in this “interdisciplinary interface” and why is there hardly any way around circular economy? Those and other questions are answered by Prof. Dr Jens Leker, Managing Director of the Institute of Business Administration at the Department of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Münster.

Henry Woolley and Atif Javed in the lab
© Prof. Dr. Jens Leker

When some people think of battery research, they first consider chemistry, physics and laboratory work – what shapes battery research from an economic chemistry perspective?

Prof. Jens Leker: “Laboratory work is important for developing new technologies to store electric energy more efficiently. Especially the energy density and the energy efficiency of the battery have great technical significance for various application purposes. However, there is often no accompanying detailed economic and ecological evaluation. In Business Chemistry, we support the development of future technologies by adding economic and ecological aspects to the laboratory work. A high market acceptance of lithium-ion batteries or future battery technologies is only possible if they are competitive from a cost perspective and if they contribute clearly to meeting climate targets. We examine these criteria along the battery value chain – from mine to recycling.“

What methods and models has your research group developed for battery research and what are their distinguishing features?

Prof. Leker: “Methodologically, three types of models are used in our research group: Cost Modelling, Life Cycle Assessments and Supply Risk Methods.

Let's start with our main area of expertise: Cost Modelling. Our research group has developed its own model to estimate cell costs for different cathode materials. We see, for example, that a reduction of the cobalt content in lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese (NMC) cathodes can reduce costs. We also work with process cost models to investigate the influence of different process parameters on the production costs of battery cells. This model helps us to examine the influence of, for instance, different coating processes on the total costs. We know from practical experience that a large part of the costs is already determined in the design phase of a new product, so our models also support the selection of promising candidates for future battery technologies.

Additionally, we use Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to quantify the environmental benefits of different battery technologies. One aspect is the CO2 emissions that arise along the value chain from the extraction of raw materials to production and recycling. Extracting cobalt requires a lot of energy, which largely comes from fossil fuels. The production of various cathode materials is also very energy-intensive. Among other things, we are investigating how the choice of production site and the associated energy mix influence the ecological footprint of the battery.

Battery production requires different raw materials and chemicals. They have different costs and environmental impacts, but are also associated with different supply risks. Cobalt, for example, is currently still elementary for the production of cathodes. However, most of this rare material comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where political unrest poses a supply risk. With our Supply Risk Methods, we evaluate various lithium-ion technologies with regard to these risks.”

The importance of circular value creation of batteries increases, and the demand and requirements for batteries are rising in equal measure. What contribution does Business Chemistry make here?

Prof. Leker: “When we look at ecological aspects of lithium-ion batteries in the context of our research in Business Chemistry, there is hardly any way around circular economy. Currently, there are two recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries: pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy. These processes have different characteristics in terms of energy demand and the possibility of recoverable materials from recycling. Life cycle analyses allow us to assess the environmental impact of these recycling processes and identify potential areas for improvement.
We also plan to extend our cost modelling to the recycling phase. A better understanding of the cost situation in battery recycling will allow us to incorporate potential recycling costs – or revenues – at early stages of product development.
Currently, the development of batteries with solid electrolytes is being discussed in order to increase energy density. In the medium term, our life cycle analyses and cost models should help to provide estimates of recycling costs and environmental aspects even before mass production of solid-state cells begins.

What opportunities and challenges await students who choose a focus on Business Chemistry at the International Graduate School BACCARA?

Prof. Leker: “We operate as an interdisciplinary interface between technology and business. Students have the opportunity to learn about a wide range of methods, combining economic cost assessments with ecological life cycle analysis.

Let's imagine that you or your friends from chemistry are developing a new 50Ah sodium-ion battery with good technical properties in the laboratory. Two interesting questions arise from the industry's point of view: 1. What costs can we expect for this new 50Ah sodium-ion cell? 2. What is the carbon footprint of this cell, and what potential contribution to climate protection can be achieved in an application such as stationary battery storage? With the Business Chemistry focus, students are equipped with the tools to answer these questions. Ecological and economic results can be fed back to the students in the lab because their own chemical background and understanding enables them to communicate in the same language.

We expect students in Business Chemistry to be eager to learn economic and ecological methods and to be creative in developing new method improvements. Their efforts are rewarded with a strong practical orientation and a broad understanding of everything from cost optimization to climate protection.”