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All eyes on e-mobility in Brandenburg

Hardy Graupner
December 10, 2019

The eastern German state of Brandenburg is aiming to become a pivotal player in pushing e-mobility. Not only will it be home to Tesla's first European Gigafactory, BASF looks set to build a large cathode factory there.

EV charging station
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/blickwinkel/D. Maehrmann

The eastern German state of Brandenburg surrounding Berlin has been a large producer of renewable energy, with a seemingly endless number of wind and solar farms scattered across its vast rural areas.

Among other things, it's that availability of green energy that had prompted Tesla CEO Elon Musk to build the electric carmaker's first European Gigafactory near the community of Grünheide in Brandenburg only a half-hour ride away from Berlin.

Musk announced his plan about a month ago, and if everything goes according to schedule, production of batteries and electric vehicles will kick off as early as 2021.

E-mobility cluster taking shape

While Tesla's decision saw Brandenburg's regional authorities over the moon, their excitement over the plant, which could eventually create as many as 8,000 new jobs, was boosted this week when German chemicals giant BASF was reported to be finalizing plans to build a brand-new cathode factory at its already huge facility in Schwarzheide in Brandenburg where the company produces synthetic materials.

"That's another big catch for Brandenburg," the B.Z. and Bild dailies agreed Monday evening, with the two newspapers being the first to report on the expected €500 million ($554 million) investment.

There's no official confirmation yet from BASF itself, and Brandenburg's premier, Dietmar Woidke, warned Tuesday the deal "was not yet in the bag," adding though that talks were underway.

BASF employee in Schwarzheide, Germany
BASF already employs some 1,800 people in Schwarzheide, and it could soon be a lot moreImage: picture alliance/Keystone/J. Zick

The news about a likely BASF investment came only hours after the European Commission's anti-trust body had approved over €3 billion in state subsidies for the continent's electric battery sector, including the production of battery cells so as to make Europe more independent of dominant Asian players.

It's a no-brainer to figure that at least part of the cathode active materials (CAMs) that may be produced in Schwarzheide would go to the nearby Tesla Gigafactory.

Why cathodes?

Cathodes play a central part in batteries for electric cars. Their ability to release and take lithium ions back in says a lot about the batteries' capacity and performance. If cathodes can release a great amount of ions without the structure becoming unstable, cars have more energy at their disposal, meaning first of all they have a bigger range.

On the other hand, the faster these ions can be moved out and in again eventually impacts electric vehicle's acceleration parameters and — even more importantly — how long recharging takes.

BASF has done a lot of research in tailor-made cathode active materials (including nickel and cobalt). The company's own experts say the firm's efforts will go a long way toward producing midsize EVs with twice the current driving range, smaller battery sizes and costs as well as drastically reduced charging times.

Interest in Brandenburg soaring

Tesla and BASF are not the only ones interested in making Brandenburg an e-mobility center. Shortly after Tesla announced its multibillion-dollar investment in Grünheide, US battery producer Microvast also made public plans to build a factory in Ludwigsfelde, Brandenburg. It's to make fast-charging batteries for electric vans and SUVs.

Microvast is also relocating its European headquarters from Frankfurt to Ludwigsfelde.