Put utmost effort into developing, procuring materials for EV batteries

Demand for batteries used for electric vehicles is rapidly expanding around the world. To not lag behind, Japan’s public and private sectors must put all their efforts into developing batteries and procuring raw materials for them.

About 30 companies, including makers of such batteries, materials makers and trading houses, have announced they will establish an association. The aim of the group is to tackle issues such as battery development and efficient supply, in cooperation with the government, as an “All Japan” project.

The global proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs) is accelerating, as one nation after another announces a ban on sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles in around 2030 to 2040 for the purpose of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions through decarbonization.

Automobile manufacturing is Japan’s core industry and the nation will suffer a considerable loss if it is late in riding on this trend. It is especially important to strengthen the competitiveness of batteries, which determine the capabilities of EVs.

Japan had originally led the world in batteries. Akira Yoshino, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, developed the prototype for lithium-ion batteries in 1985 at Asahi Kasei Corp., after which Sony Corp. launched mass production of these batteries for the first time in the world.

In 2016, Japanese companies led the global automotive lithium-ion battery market with a share of about 40%, but in 2019, they were overtaken by China and dropped to second place.

Reasons for this include China’s encouraging the introduction of EVs with strong government support and its superior price competitiveness.

The situation is similar to that of semiconductors and LCDs, where Japan held the lead early on but was soon swept aside by manufacturers from Taiwan, China and South Korea. In order to avoid a repeat of this situation, it is hoped that a strategy will be worked out based on the lessons learned from the past.

Current lithium-ion batteries are expensive, a factor that makes the price of EVs rather high. Vehicles’ range on a single charge is short, so improving battery performance is also an issue.

First, the domestic EV market must grow to achieve lower prices through mass production. It is important for the government to clarify the targets for the spread of electrified vehicles and to make it easier for companies to make large-scale investments in areas such as research and development.

Stable procurement of raw materials is also essential. This is because China is trying to hoard rare metals such as nickel and lithium, and there is a possibility of a supply shortage. The United States and Europe have put forward policies to strengthen procurement.

Japan, too, has to diversify procurement sources and develop technologies to reduce the use of rare metals, among other matters, under public-private sector efforts.

Next-generation all-solid-state batteries are expected to be put into commercial use. Because of their high energy efficiency, they can be recharged in a short period of time and provide extended range for EVs.

China is investing a huge amount of funds in the technology, but at present, Japanese companies hold the largest number of related patents in the world. Toyota Motor Corp. plans to sell vehicles equipped with the next-generation batteries in the first half of this decade. Japan must overcome technological challenges and maintain its superiority.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 14, 2021.