SAFT, the leader of French batteries
Batteries have given us some independence regarding power sources. It gradually revolutionized our societies and communication media. French researchers have greatly contributed to these breakthroughs. Unfortunately much of the industrial developments are currently made in Asia. A French industrial stands apart: Saft. Founded in 1918 in the southwest of France, the company is producing rechargeable batteries for multiple markets!
Saft is a member of RS2E since its launch in 2011. A logical partnership as the group is very active in R&D with 9% of its revenue reinvested. Anne de Guibert, who coordinates the group's research activities since 1996, opened us the doors of her laboratory in Bordeaux (France).(Picture: Saft primary and secondary batteries © Saft)
SAFT: a world-class group
Saft is the only French manufacturer of batteries whose expertise extends over several types of technology and 3 continents (13 production sites). Four thousand employees are working for the company, including 465 in R&D. Among them fifty people are specialized in applied research in the field of batteries.Before taking the responsibility of battery research at Saft, Anne de Guibert worked at several other companies in the battery field. A CNRS researcher associate at only 23, she then decided to switch to the private sector. It seemed to her more dynamic: richer in opportunities and responsibilities.At 37, she coordinated the CEAC's (Pb-Acid battery division of Alcatel and then Fiat) group research. After another change of leadership at CEAC, she was hired by Saft as their research director. As of today she is working with the group since 19 years. In addition to research management, she describes her specialties as "electrochemistry, electrolytes and carbon." (Picture: Anne de Guibert © Saft)
Applied research: a source of competitiveness
Under her leadership, the research department of Saft has become a major strength in the success of the group, particularly through the development of Li-ion chemistries. A difficult challenge given the investments of Asian groups. But the French industrial faced the challenge: a majority of its research team is now working on this technology. This led to many patents and innovations.For example, Super-Phosphate (SLFP), SAFT version of lithium-iron phosphate batteries is developed since 2009. Its particularities? It provides a better safety, a longer cyclelife and an increased calendar life, as well as a strong power. (Picture: coating room © Saft)
This R&D strategy was beneficial to Saft, which is now covering multiple markets with its batteries: aviation, water transport, telecoms, army and renewable energy storage (India, Hawaii, California, Bolivia...). Saft has even become a world leader in Li-ion batteries for satellite applications (whose yield allows reducing the surface of solar panels, which then lowers the costs. A crucial improvement when taking into account the fact that it costs tens of thousands of euros per kilo of charge sent into orbit). Another advantage of Li-ion, "it covers the entire Ragone" (a comparison chart of battery technologies) underlines Anne de Guibert. This allow to meet both power uses (energy recovery) or energy uses (stationary storage). In other words Saft knows how to produce batteries for high value niche markets.
The group even received several awards for the quality of its batteries. For example Saft won the Innovation Award from the Ferrari team, in recognition of its high-power Li-ion batteries' performance (the KERS, Kinetic Energy Recovery System). Another example: in 2014 the group received the Innovation Award presented at the Energy Storage North America show for its stationary storage Li-ion solution, Intensium Max.
The keys to success
To achieve those results, Saft’s lab uses similar tools to those of public labs, in particular texture and structural analysis equipment (XRD, SEM FEG ...). Batteries are complex systems involving several phenomena on only a few centimeters: thermal, mechanical, electrochemical, crystallochemical... Analysis techniques to monitor these phenomena in time and space are essential.However, some features are quite unique such as rooms dedicated to coating the electrodes’ active material, a X-ray fluorescence device, a lack of Swagelok cells (the battery tests are done in coin cells) and in general much more equipment dedicated to electrochemical tests!
Picture: XRD device and characterization engineer © Saft
Like all manufacturers, Saft is also on the look for any advancies from the competition through benchmarking studies. They consist in to taking apart and analyzing the latest commercialized battery cells.
But Anne de Guibert's team is not solely focused on the "material" aspect of battery research. She recalls that one of her missions is also "to put more science into processes." For example, it can be to understand and correct differences between two batteries produced on the same machines with the same raw materials but on two different factories. To test its ideas, the lab benefits from a nearby Li-ion pilot line which can quickly produce industry-grade cells from its latest results.(Picture: coater machine © Saft).With this in mind, the research team can also count on the support of the development group (the "D" in R&D).
Even if the majority of its staff is dedicated to Li-ion, the lab doesn't work only on this technology. Teams are also studying non-rechargeable lithium batteries, supercapacitors or older technologies such as Ni-Cd. These technologies are also in high-demand from customers, e.g. Saft is the US military first supplier of primary lithium batteries. The group has even entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2003 after developing the most powerful battery in the world for an Alaskan electricity utility.
Apart from pure "research" activities, some of Anne de Guibert’s team members are participating in the training of tomorrow's researchers through the supervision of graduate students. Anne de Guibert is also personally involved in teaching with courses at ENSCBP (Stockage et Conversion de l’Energie specialization founded by RS2E). For her, it is a crucial handover "it takes time but can help to identify good interns and it's also our duty to hand on our knowledge."
Tomorrow's technologies and working with RS2E
One of RS2E's challenges is to bring together public and private researchers, despite the persistent cultural differences. Anne de Guibert indeed thinks some research topics are historically neglected: "public researchers sometimes consider some subjects as less noble, such as electrolytes or processes."Fortunately, the gap is gradually diminishing within the RS2E network thanks to the emphasis on technology transfer. While waiting to fill it, Saft brings its industrial vision to different network's decision-making bodies. The group also participates to projects such as NAIADES, which has just begun. The aim? Studying the commercial possibility of Na-ion batteries, one of our core projects.
Before closing the interview, we asked Anne de Guibert what technologies she expects to see coming out of the labs in the next few years. As all experienced researcher, she shared her enthusiasm for tomorrow’s batteries by mentioning the Li-rich NMC technology (or HE-NMC), ionic liquids or negative electrodes made of silicon. For these electrodes, she underlines the need of improvements on the cycling behavior and the necessity to increase the percentage of silicon, "why not around 20%". For other technologies, such as redox flow, she emphasizes the need for multidisciplinary research since obstacles are not only chemical but also physical.
Finally, she takes the example of Na-S batteries. A complex technology (molten salts at high temperature and highly corrosive) that has been commercialized to a niche market to insist that researchers shouldn't be discouraged. Although a technology might seem complicated, industrial applications may still exist!
A beautiful French industrial success, Saft is now trying to confirm its status as an international industrial powerhouse. The group has launched a third production line at its huge factory in Jacksonville (Florida). The ultimate goal is to reach new market opportunities in the US and to increas its market share in the Li-ion market.
Although Anne de Guibert notices that things still need to be done for a better synergy between research and industry, changes in attitude are in progress in the small world of electrochemical energy storage research.
NB: RS2E wishes to thank Anne de Guibert for her availability, the access to her lab and to the Li-ion pilot chain.