2021 R&D SPEND
Millions of Euros
Umicore is known for the breadth and depth of its internal expertise and know-how, with leading international scientific and engineering talent dedicated to developing the next generation of sustainable products and process technologies. Thanks to our team’s in-depth knowledge of metallurgy and materials science, a significant part of our technology is delivered using our own R&D findings.
With fast-moving societal megatrends, including the accelerating move to cleaner mobility and electromobility, as well as the need for a circular economy, we cannot find all the solutions by relying on our internal expertise alone. That is why Umicore is forging partnerships and developing technologies in collaboration with leading industrial or academic partners, through market intelligence, open innovation and investment in start-ups.
To push the boundaries of clean mobility and recycling, and to contribute to a sustainability-driven world and the green economy, Umicore’s innovation activity is embedded in the core of our business and our strategy - adding value across the organization and supporting our long-term growth. Our Corporate R&D organization is a cornerstone of our technology development, connecting the R&D departments in our business units and ensuring that all parts of the business harness operational synergies for innovation and tap into our deep R&D expertise. In this way, we ensure that innovation is woven into the heart of the business and that our R&D insights are inspired by the market and the needs of our customers.
This is particularly true for clean mobility and recycling, where global megatrends and political and market demands are accelerating the pace of innovation. Umicore has an advanced position in this rapidly developing area, setting new industry standards with advanced and sustainable product and process technologies.
For clean mobility, we are a leader in automotive catalysts for emission control and fuel cells and are already a long-standing leader in cathode materials to power the EVs of today and tomorrow. For recycling, we are an undisputed champion in precious metal recycling and a pioneer in the fast-growing sector of EV battery recycling.
R&D expenditure in fully consolidated companies amounted to € 245 million, 10% higher than the € 223 million last year. The increase results from higher R&D costs related to new product and process technologies in Rechargeable Battery Materials and Fuel Cell Catalysts, an increased effort in battery recycling, and advanced technology development related to decarbonization and emission reduction programs to meet our ambitious sustainability objectives. Umicore also increased its efforts in its mid- to long-term corporate technology development and open innovation collaboration programs.
The R&D spend represented 6% of Umicore’s 2021 revenues and capitalized development costs accounted for € 28 million of the total.
To further strengthen our innovation capabilities in a way that supports robust business growth for years to come, Umicore has created the New Business Incubation (NBI) unit. Formally established in 2020, NBI works in a startup-based environment that benefits from the support and scale of Umicore’s global organization. At an early stage, NBI identifies winning technologies with the potential to become mature businesses over a horizon of 5 to 15 years. The innovation pipeline is focused on sustainable product and process technologies that enable continued long-term business growth and secure our pioneering leadership in the areas of clean mobility materials, recycling and green hydrogen.
NBI manages all aspects of business development, exploring, identifying and developing future business opportunities in adjacent and new markets. This allows Umicore to selectively expand in these markets in line with its strategy and strengths.
New incubators are set up within NBI as standalone businesses comparable to start-ups, where the technology is deployed, pilot lines are built and commercial sales portfolios are developed. Projects with the potential to reach industrial scale, combined with a strong business model, are transferred to an existing Umicore business unit or could become a new business unit in their own right.
In 2021 the NBI activities included solid state and silicon anode battery materials, battery recycling and exploration of opportunities related to hydrogen generation and storage. In early 2022, these battery recycling activities became one of the first ventures of NBI to graduate into a standalone business unit within Umicore, designated Battery Recycling Solutions (see Battery Recycling for more information).
NBI also houses key competencies that play a critical role in Umicore’s innovation strategy. For example, NBI’s Open Innovation team supports projects in collaboration with universities and start-ups worldwide. An example of a startup which Umicore co-created is Re|Source, a blockchain solution to trace responsibly produced cobalt from the mine to the electric car. The IP team is crucial for generating and protecting high quality IP.
NBI has also put together the Strategic Insights and Analysis team. This team contributes to better understanding of market dynamics and industry roadmaps, using corporate forecasting methods and artificial intelligence to provide strategic input to our steering committees and innovation boards. The Umicore Technical and Digital Academy provides learning opportunities to our employees in areas such as technology, digitalization and innovation as described in the UTDA story.
The transportation sector is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions, producing approximately 7.3 billion tonnes of CO2 in 20201. Passenger cars are responsible for a large part of this pollution, accounting for 41% of global transportation emissions in 2020. As such, the transition to zero-carbon mobility, with a combination of electric, hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, will play a key role in achieving international climate targets.
Umicore has unique strength in this fast-growing sector, where innovation is driven by the urgency of government climate targets, accelerating plans to phase out sales of fossil-fuel powered vehicles and the consequently accelerating penetration of battery and fuel cell electric vehicles. As a materials technology company, we provide a full offering to support this innovative roadmap towards ever cleaner vehicles.
We are a global leader in the supply of automotive catalysts to clean the exhaust gases from internal combustion engines for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles and for all fuel types.
We provide cathode materials for electric vehicles and the catalysts that are used to power fuel cell-driven vehicles. Most importantly, Umicore also has the capabilities to recycle all these materials and drivetrain components when they reach the end of life, thereby sustainably closing the loop. The scarce resources used in clean mobility technologies create a large carbon footprint from primary sourcing. The ability to recycle and re-use battery and catalysis materials is therefore crucial.
European regulation is setting ever stricter requirements and it is expected that Euro 7 emissions standards will be implemented in 2025, mandating unprecedented levels of cleanliness for ICE vehicles. Looking further ahead, we also anticipate more stringent emission standards in the United States for passenger cars (LEV IV and Tier 4 criteria in 2026) as well as significantly more stringent emissions standards for heavy-duty diesel (EPA and CARB in 2027). Current China 6 emission norms are one of the most stringent emissions standards in the world, and it is expected that China will implement even tougher China 7 emission standards for passenger cars and heavy-duty diesel transportation as of 2027. Furthermore, from January 2027, it is also expected that automotive batteries will have to declare quantities of recycled content, and by January 2030, minimum levels of recycled content will be required, with higher minima enforced from 2035.
Umicore has a unique position in catalysis, supporting clean mobility across all drive-train technologies, with a leading position in gasoline and fuel cell applications. Our continuous innovation in catalyst particles and technologies helps our customers comply with increasingly stringent emission regulations and meet targets to improve air quality and reduce CO2 footprints.
Internal combustion engine catalysts
Legislation increasingly requires gasoline vehicles to be equipped with particulate filters. Our work focuses on innovative and efficient catalyst technologies, optimizing the distribution of the catalytic material in the pores of the filter to enable an optimal balance of backpressure, filtration efficiency and chemical reactivity.
An example of our innovation in this area during 2021 is a new collaboration between Umicore and the truck manufacturer, Scania, to develop clean engine technology for the transportation services market. The sector faces increasingly stringent emission standards for NOx (nitrogen oxides, a key component of smog) and particulates for heavy-duty road engines. This requires state-of-the-art engine technology and innovative catalytic emission control systems.
Together, Umicore and Scania have developed a next generation Exhaust Aftertreatment System (EATS) using a twin Selective Catalytic Reduction (Twin-SCR) approach that allows the EATS to remove NOx with very high efficiency at a significantly broader range of temperatures. The system uses the latest Vanadium SCR catalysts (V-SCR), capable of meeting the performance and durability targets required by current and expected future emissions legislations, as well as complying with applicable regulations globally. This future-proof performance makes the newly developed engine and exhaust treatment system a truly global platform for Scania’s parent company, Traton.
Fuel cell catalysts
Umicore’s Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cell catalysts are designed to provide the automotive industry and green hydrogen production with high performance fuel cells. With 30 years’ experience of manufacturing fuel-cell catalysts, Umicore has proven know-how in catalyst development, scale-up and industrial scale production.
To complement the development of fuel-cell catalysts, in 2021, Umicore set up a portfolio of projects to explore opportunities in the generation and storage of hydrogen. One example is the development of PGM-based catalysts for liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) applications in FCEVs and other mobile applications. This technology has the potential to transform the way hydrogen can be stored and used to power FCEVs. LOHC technologies provide an effective alternative to compressed hydrogen, as they allow hydrogen to be chemically bonded to a stable liquid organic carrier, aiming at making the storage and transportation of hydrogen safer, more practical and cost-efficient. As a result, LOHC technology may help to overcome some of the existing logistics and infrastructure challenges associated with the use of hydrogen as a fuel for clean mobility. Umicore will conduct this research with support from Anglo American’s PGM market development program and in cooperation with Prof. Peter Wasserscheid at the University of Erlangen, co-founder of the company Hydrogenous LOHC Technologies.
Umicore is a leading producer of cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and is committed to developing materials that deliver higher energy density, faster charging times and higher cycle life at a competitive cost, while always meeting the strictest safety standards. Our technology roadmap spans short-, mid- and long-term research horizons for lithium-ion battery materials
High-nickel cathode chemistries are currently a strong focus of attention, as nickel helps deliver higher energy density. Umicore has successfully repositioned its offer to become a major player in high-nickel chemistries. This was a major factor in setting up the intended joint venture with Volkswagen for precursor and cathode material production capacities in Europe to supply Volkswagen’s European battery cell production.
Silicone-based anodes can also boost the energy density in lithium-ion batteries, thanks to their higher capacity. This is early stage project within our NBI unit.
Solid state batteries are another area of our innovation focus. Solid-state batteries are expected to substantially increase the energy density compared to commercially available lithium-ion batteries today, thus alleviating the two largest concerns for passenger EV adoption: cost and range anxiety. The safety profile of solid-state batteries also exceeds that of traditional lithium-ion as a result of its truly all-solid cell architecture, avoiding the use of liquid organic electrolyte. Alongside several leading car manufacturers and cell makers, Umicore has invested in Solid Power, a U.S. developer of solid-state battery technology, demonstrating our commitment to furthering solid state battery technology together with partners.
Alongside its own research programs, Umicore promotes open innovation and supports the development of promising technologies for breakthrough battery materials. In 2021, Umicore’s dedicated Open Innovation team was involved in over 140 open innovation collaborations focused on battery material development.
Umicore is the world’s leading recycler of complex waste streams containing precious and other valuable metals. Our closed-loop business model is a powerful strategic differentiator that has helped us build a pioneering position in the recycling of rechargeable batteries. Our battery recycling plant in Hoboken, Belgium, has an annual input capacity of 7,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries and battery production scrap, the equivalent of 35,000 electrified vehicle (xEV) batteries.
As demand for electrified vehicles (xEVs) grows exponentially across the world, our battery recycling expertise and long-standing competences in hydro- and pyrometallurgy recycling processes place Umicore in a unique position to meet the needs of automotive manufacturers and the wider EV supply chain. To this end, we have been investing to grow our battery recycling business and established ‘Battery Recycling Solutions’ (BRS) as a new business unit in 2021, after two years of intensive business incubation in NBI.
The creation of a dedicated organization underlines our commitment to make battery recycling and our closed loop offering an essential part of our contribution to the sustainable electrification of the automotive industry. After intensive research and piloting activities, our latest generation and proprietary recycling technology is ready to come on stream. This process is a significant step-up in recycling performance, with increased extraction efficiency of cobalt, nickel and copper to reach over 95% yield for a wide variety of battery chemistries. This includes the capability to recover most of the lithium in EV batteries, solving a key constraint in existing recycling capacity. The recovered metals will be delivered in battery-grade quality at the end of Umicore’s recycling process, allowing them to be re-introduced in the production of new lithium-ion batteries.
With minimal waste and impact on the environment, this next-generation recycling technology will be vital for the surge in EV adoption, putting Umicore in a strong position to forge commercial partnerships in the EV value chain. A recent customer to sign up with BRS was Automotive Cells Company (ACC), using the technology for its pilot plant in Nersac, France.