Many honours: numerous certificates and awards adorn the walls of Martin Winter’s office.
His chemistry teacher merely attested to his good performance at school – no more, no less. Today, Martin Winter is the face of German battery research. The success story of a man who keeps to the facts and follows his gut feeling.
The neighbour was the one who set the wheels in motion: he was a die-hard food chemist and inspired the teenage Martin Winter so much for the composition of food that he enrolled in food chemistry in Münster after finishing his Abitur, the German university entrance qualification. However, the initial spark went out at some point during his studies. Winter realised that he found the analysis of food alone not interesting enough. “In addition, I had to learn a lot by heart in botany. That wasn't my thing at all,” he says, leans back and laughs. The 54-year-old is sitting in the “visitors’ corner” of his office. Jeans, shirt, high forehead, alert eyes that keep an eye on his counterpart. Honorary professorships, certificates and awards hanging on the walls tell of motivation, commitment and a due portion of ambition: “I’ve always worked hard, I admit it. But the effort has paid off: the number of successes far outweighs the number of failures!”
The snow white coat hangs neatly on the coat rack, the bookshelves are orderly, next to them a clear desk – everything seems tidy. It fits into this picture that Winter has a penchant for stamps – the chemist has to chuckle about the impression: “I’m not really an orderly man. I rarely take notes and try to keep the things that are most important in mind.” Stereotyped thinking is not his thing. This restricts the view to the big picture. For him, illuminating topics from different perspectives and pointing out pros and cons in order to find the best solutions is an attitude towards life. On this basis, he is responsible for the major lines of research at both the Helmholtz Institute Münster, a Jülich branch office, and the “Münster Electrochemical Energy Technology” institute (MEET). His most important and faithful companion besides his keen mind: his gut feeling. “There are situations in which I have gathered all the facts, but still can’t get any further. My gut feeling is crucial then.” In 90 per cent of the cases he had been right. “I’m annoyed about the other ten per cent!”
The combination of gut feeling and knowledge contributed to the fact that Winter already had a good nose in the 1990s and relied on electrochemical energy storage and energy conversion: after graduating in food chemistry, he studied general chemistry and dealt with lithium-ion batteries (LIB) in his diploma thesis and doctorate. He negotiated problems that others could not solve before, his professional career picked up speed – similarly to the success story of the “magic battery”: it developed from a handmade rechargeable battery to a production-ready battery to the market leader in battery technology. Winter has contributed to this success story. “As the founder of modern lithium-ion chemistry, I see myself at the forefront – as far as electrolytes and anode materials are concerned, and also with our systemic approach that the materials are not considered individually, but in interaction,” explains the professor of physical chemistry. Today, in Germany and across the globe, he is the face of many of these topics.
Image above: Many honours: numerous certificates and awards adorn the walls of Martin Winter’s office.
Martin Winter, born in 1965, is the founding director of the Helmholtz Institute Münster (HI MS), a branch of Forschungszentrum Jülich. The HI MS comprises three partners: in addition to Forschungszentrum Jülich, these are RWTH Aachen University and the University of Münster (WWU). The scientific director of WWU’s “MEET” battery research centre, founded in 2009, teaches physical chemistry. In June 2019, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced that it had chosen Münster as the location for the planned research facility for battery cell production. Winter had been instrumental in preparing the application.
Critics accuse Winter of still relying on a technology whose potential has been exhausted. Winter sees that differently: for him, there is still a need for research and development, for example to increase the energy density and capacity of the LIB. Nevertheless, it is important to be open to other approaches. “This ‘either/or perspective’ misses the point and restricts us in the overall view. Depending on the application, we will need various battery systems in the future. That’s why we should explore new things and make existing things better, safer and cheaper,” says Winter. He adds that “I would also like colleagues in the battery scene to be as open as we are in the technology debate.”
Only with openness will it be possible to jointly establish a national battery cell production that appears in every pie chart for battery cell production and does not disappear under the heading “other”, according to Winter: “At the end of my career, people should be able to say that battery research in general has benefited from our commitment – in terms of the fact that we have built a national community and that we have done a lot for society – also with regard to retaining and strengthening the country’s economic power and innovative capacity.
An interview with Martin Winter
The list of your awards is long: you received the Federal Cross of Merit last year, the Faraday Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry in August 2019 and the Arfvedson Schlenk Award of the German Chemical Society in September. What do awards mean to you?
Awards contribute to improving the visibility of German battery research, both nationally and internationally. However, the Federal Cross of Merit was something special indeed because I received it for my commitment to the development of battery research in this country. The Faraday Medal particularly delights me, as it emphasises the unbroken solidarity between scientists at the time of the Brexit discussion. The Arfvedson Schlenk Award is the lithium chemistry prize – which is important to me personally as I’ve been involved with lithium and lithium-ion batteries throughout my entire life as a researcher.
There’s the white protective gown hanging on your wardrobe. Are you still doing research in the laboratory?
I go to the laboratory and surprise my staff with my presence. Or I’ll scold them if it’s messy. Being visible helps to motivate! (laughs) I haven’t been active in the lab for over 20 years – it’s better that way. I’d probably just create nonsense because I’m out of practice. As far as the major lines of research are concerned, however, I’m not only in the middle of them, but also have a decisive influence. However, I don’t promote any topics that I don’t consider important and I don’t follow every new topic trend.
What are your current research topics?
In addition to lithium-ion batteries, we’re researching lithium-metal batteries with and without solids as well as other alternative battery systems. The solid-state battery in particular has made great progress at the electrolyte level in recent years. The point now is to approach the whole thing systemically: for this, we also need a lot of process technology and characterisation know-how. Both are available in abundance in Jülich, where we cooperate intensively with the colleagues. However, the lion’s share of our research, 50 per cent, is accounted for by the LIB. We benefit from the cooperation with the colleagues in Aachen in this. They work on those parts of the added value that require more engineering know-how.
Many critics say that lithium-ion technology is mature. You, on the other hand, even see potential for optimisation...
... yes. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 5 – when looking at the mass-produced use in vehicles. Looking at performance and range, there’s still room for improvement. For comparison: I give combustion engines an 8 on the scale. Here, too, I see potential for optimisation – improved emission technology and lower fuel consumption, for example. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to John Goodenough, Stanley Wittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of the lithium-ion battery will give this technology a further boost, I’m sure. Especially since we want to implement this technology on a large scale in Germany – both in automobility and the energy transition. Understanding the lithium-ion battery even better will help us to develop other battery systems – that’s just like the 101 of mathematics. We have a lot of data on the lithium-ion battery and we know very much about its service life. These findings help us to master the challenges for other systems.
Why are there so many different statements about the performance of different battery systems?
Many don’t know the difference between theoretical and practical energy density – this is a big problem. With the theoretical energy density, the scientist only looks at the cell reaction, that is, the chemical equation and the voltage under standardised conditions – all this without housing, necessary auxiliary materials, and under the usually incorrect assumption that the reaction takes place one hundred per cent.
Could you give an example?
The theoretical energy density of a lithium-ion battery is very low at around 600 watt-hours per kilogram, but we can practically realise almost 50 per cent of this value. For comparison: the theoretical energy density of lithium-sulfur batteries is much higher at almost 2,700 watt-hours per kilogram, but, so far, we’ve only been able to put about 10 to 15 per cent of this into practice. The lithium-ion battery therefore performs very well in practice. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t investigate and improve other battery systems. We mustn’t say that they’re better with only a theory and the wishful thinking associated with it as justification. What concerns me the most, however: I read press reports again and again in which the practical energy density of lithium-ion batteries is compared with the theoretically possible energy density of other systems. That’s dubious.
What does your battery of the future look like?
There’ll be many batteries of the future – depending on the application. One of them is certainly the lithium-ion battery. It’s still completely open how big the future lithium-ion battery will be and who the partners will be, for example hydrogen and fuel cells. However, this “either/or” discussion bothers me.
How do you feel about hydrogen?
The fuel cell is a splendid technology, scientifically highly sophisticated, but in practical terms not yet so mature. I can easily imagine a hybrid car with a lithium-ion battery that also runs on a fuel cell instead of a combustion engine. In Germany, however, the combustion engine will remain in use for a long time to come because our industry cannot and does not want to switch so quickly.
Why has Germany such difficulty in making changes?
In addition to an exceptional loyalty to old technologies and a pronounced scepticism towards the new: one reason is certainly that we have so many political, legal and administrative framework requirements to take into account that we can no longer move forward at a striding pace, but rather just at a trotting one. This applies not only to battery research, but to all areas. It frustrates me that we need years for things that would actually only take us months. It’s worrying that many people know this, but the situation is actually getting worse and worse.
... so Germany could do more?
Absolutely. The fact that developments are progressing much faster in China or North America is also due to the fact that our mindset in Germany is geared to cautious action, that we often weigh things up for a long time and postpone decisions. In addition, things are also rejected from the outset because people are afraid that they could be wrong!
Have you ever flirted with changing over to the free economy?
Yes, by all means. I keep getting lucrative offers. However, I’d have to turn my back on everything here, including the people who come because they want to work with me! Honestly: what would I be without my staff? I have a cooperative relationship with my colleagues. We interact on a friendly, first-name basis, I’m approachable. I won’t let it go just like that!
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau