Cuts in Battery Research Funding: “Loads of Fatal Consequences”

As a land of poets and thinkers, the Germans have made a name for their nation. We have gained a worldwide reputation as connoisseurs and experts in the art of engineering. However, we are not precisely known as the best in battery technology. As a late starter, we have left this field to Asian players with astonishing perseverance. However, around the time when the transition to electric mobility became apparent, we picked up speed and got our act together. Within just a few years, battery research in Germany has managed to put itself on par with the expert elite of the scientific world. The hard-earned know-how is worth its weight in gold for innovative industrial companies, for the feasibility of the mobility transition and for a wide range of skilled workers in this country. But just because of money, all of this could now fail.

“Real progress is slowed down in Germany while global competition continues at full speed.”

Professor Dr. Heiner Heimes

The budget freeze imposed on the Climate and Transformation Fund has hit battery research funding with a vengeance. All of a sudden, there was talk about a 75% cut – whereupon numerous researchers rushed to warn the German government of the drastic effects: on the fight against the shortage of skilled workers, while battery professions in the technology sector are already the most difficult to fill today – and on the competitiveness of key German industries, which spend up to 50% of the costs in funded research projects, meaning that the real loss of investment is even higher. After all, the government has listened. Of the 180 million euros that initially were to be cut, up to 70 million are now to be made available to drive battery research forward in 2024. A handful of new projects are thus possible – but real progress is slowed down in Germany while global competition continues at full speed.

What is often overlooked in the debate: Itʼs not just about a few projects. If less research is carried out, or no research is carried out at all in some places, doctoral positions are lost on a massive scale and fewer skilled workers are made fit for the market. Our industry is not yet at a stage where it can train all of its own people in the battery sector. Suppliers in particular currently need all the resources they can get to cope with the change towards electric mobility. They cannot take on all the tasks that the state no longer performs. This especially applies to our educational mission. However, the planned funding cuts are causing great uncertainty among students and academic staff. Many of them are now wondering whether they still have any prospects at a university institute. This is a looming loss that Germany cannot afford to make – apart from the fact that governments in other countries invest significantly higher amounts of money in their research.

“After ten years of intensive development work, Germany has finally reached a decisive point.”

Professor Dr. Heiner Heimes

“Time is money,” they say. So, by investing less money, you no longer need to worry about time? Well, the timing of the funding cuts is fatal in many respects. After a good ten years of intensive development work, Germany has finally reached a decisive point: Major projects such as the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Battery Cell Production FFB have been launched, gigafactories for battery production and recycling plants with efficient recovery processes are being built, and collaborations between industry and science are producing promising technological approaches. All of this is now at stake at the critical time when it is crucial to decide how the research results can be transferred to industry and made ready for series production, meaning how this expertise can be scaled up to reach the mass market successfully. Projects that do not have to be abandoned as a result of cost-cutting measures will be delayed by several months or even years in future. However, battery research is always about the question: Who is faster?

“Without education, there is no expertise. Without power, there is no energy.”

Professor Dr. Heiner Heimes

From electric vehicles to stationary energy storage: There will be loads of batteries! This is also reflected in the 2023 “Battery Monitor” which forecasts annual growth of 34% for the global market between 2020 and 2030. At the same time, competition pressure is also increasing – from new European and US companies as well as massively expanding Chinese enterprises. Around 60 battery factories are currently planned or under construction in Europe and 50 in North America – compared to 150 in Asia. Due to the Inflation Reduction Act and significant taxes on battery imports to the USA, the major Chinese players are concentrating on the European market. What we in Germany can offer to counter the experience advantage of Asian manufacturers for efficient and sustainable battery production are innovative production technologies for our own value chain.

But this requires resources. As we all know, nothing comes from nothing. Without education, there is no expertise. Without expenditure, no income. Without power, no energy.

This commentary by Professor Heiner Heimes, Management Member of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) of RWTH Aachen University, was first published in an abridged version in ELEKTRONIKPRAXIS on March 7th, 2024.


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