Verkor, the “French Northvolt” – L’argus PRO

The argument. Verkor is still unknown in the drum world. How was your business born?

Philippe Chain, co-founder of Verkor. Verkor is a daughter of the European battery alliance wanted by the EIT (European Institute Energy). The latter’s role is to bring out innovative companies in the field of energy, such as Northvolt, in Sweden, which is a great success and which will supply the Volkswagen group. The EIT InnoEnergy wanted the birth of other equivalent projects and hired Benoît Lemaignan who went to Grenoble to find battery experts. At the end of March 2020, Christophe Mille, whom I met at Tesla and who worked at Apple, called me to inform me thata “French-style Northvolt” is being built. I am convinced by the project since Europe is going to switch to electric; we hold a few seminars in June, then in July we announce the creation of Verkor, which brings together six co-founders: Benoît Lemaignen (chairman of the management board), Christophe Mille (technical director), Sylvain Paineau (strategy director), Gilles Moreau (director of Innovation), Olivier Dufour (Stakeholder Engagement) and myself (Client Director). Today, Verkor is based in Grenoble in the same area of ​​activity as the CEA and employs 85 people.

Philippe Chain, co-founder of Verkor

How did the links with Renault come about?

From the start of the creation of Verkor, in July 2020, Renault was quickly interested in our business. We spoke with Luca de Meo, whom I have known for a long time, Gilles le Borgne (R&D boss) and José Vicente de los Mozos on the industrial side. For a little over six months, we imagined how to work together and the signing of the partnership took place in July 2021.

Verkor, Renault and Alpine

What are the terms of the contract?

alpine factory battery
Verkor will supply the high-performance battery cells for the future Alpine Crossover GT from July 2025.

Renault took a stake up to 20% of the capital (two members sit on the supervisory board) and will be Verkor’s first client. We are going to develop and industrialize the cells to the Alpine DZ110 (note: Alpine Crossover GT) but the battery pack will be mainstreamed on all Renault models developed on the CMF-EV platform. Our company will supply high-performance cells (89 kWh) from July 2025, which will then be assembled in the Renault factories in Douai and Maubeuge. Envision will take care of supplying the cells of the low versions (50 kWh). The assignments of our batteries on future vehicles are not made because it will also depend on our production capacity.

What will be the capacity of the Dunkirk plant in GWh?

In 2025, Verkor will be able to supply 300,000 vehicles, or 16 GWh of cells, 10 of which are reserved for Renault. Our capacity will increase to 50 GWh in 2030 thanks to the extension of the Dunkirk plant. If Renault is our privileged customer, we will also supply other customers which I cannot talk about because we are currently in negotiations.

Verkor will not disrupt chemistry

Do you have projects for less powerful cells or for plug-in hybrids (PHEV)?

We will have the ability to manufacture batteries below 89 kWh. On the other hand, Verkor does not work on PHEVs. It is a transitional technical solution but it is not sustainable because it is expensive and cumbersome, and there are the problems of bonus/malus and homologation figures. With the market under pressure, Verkor is focusing on batteries for electric vehicles.

Among the 40 sites targeted, why did you choose Dunkirk to set up your gigafactory?

The final choice is dictated by a long list of criteria and Renault was involved in the decision. We wanted 150 hectares of land to be able to expand and increase our production capacity by 2030. We also need a favorable location in terms of maritime and motorway services, with a sufficient pool of jobs, because we need a workforce specialized in the management of industrial installations, a know-how that is difficult to find. But the essential point is access to clean energy because our strategy is based on the decarbonization of the battery industry. Manufacturing cells requires large amounts of electricity. The presence of the Gravelines nuclear power plant is an advantage, as is the heating network of the port of Dunkirk. We will collect it from other sites to operate our ovens. It is cheap and carbon-free energy.

verkor battery factory dunkirk
Located in the port of Dunkirk (Hauts de France), the Verkor gigafactory will deliver its first batteries in July 2025.

Will your cells mark a break in chemistry?

Verkor is not going to disrupt chemistry, it’s everyday efforts to increase the capacity of lithium-ion batteries. The requirement vis-à-vis Renault is to put itself at the best level. Our competitiveness is based more on manufacturing processes.

Tesla is 10 years ahead

That is to say ?

We will differentiate ourselves from our competitors on manufacturing efficiency by bringing operational excellence. Making a battery is a continuous and long process of ten cascading steps. Each step has its own yield and the latter is important at the end of the chain. Every point earned reduces cost and carbon footprint. Our team has a perfect knowledge of all the factories in the world. with its vehicles, You’re here took ten years in advance, Verkor wants to do the same and acquire the most modern and most digital gigafactory. The battery industry needs a quantum leap.

Yann Vincent, the boss of ACC, says Europe can win the battle against Asia. Do you share his opinion?

electric vehicle battery production
In addition to ACC (Total-Saft/Stellantis) from the end of 2023, Verkor will be the second manufacturer to produce batteries made in France.

Yes, I believe so. Europe will come to market with the latest chemicals and state-of-the-art factories. The Asians left earlier but their production lines are therefore older. When you visit a factory like that of the Korean LG Chem in Poland, you notice that the different stages of production are independent of each other, and that the information is centralized. It takes a long time to manufacture a cell and a defect can only be discovered 4-5 days after the start of production. In our future factory, we will integrate the ten steps in the cloud and add a layer of artificial intelligence. The machines will communicate with each other and, in this way, we immediately spot if there is a fault. The challenge is to improve performance through 4.0 technology and reduce scrap rate. Verkor relies on the Grenoble battery ecosystem, and the experience of the people we brought together in this project made it possible to go quickly. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our capabilities in the battery industry.

Will the European Union protect this nascent industry?

It has the desire to create a competitive industry and many projects are flourishing (Northvolt in Sweden, ACC in Germany and France, etc.). I don’t know if Europe will tax Asian manufacturers but it must above all encourage manufacturers to produce cars with low carbon footprint batteries. Europe also wanted to move up a gear thanks to its ability to mobilize financing. For example, Nortvolt quickly found 3 billion euros for its project.

The Verkor Innovation Center R&D site

What are your objectives in terms of lowering the price of cells?

Verkor will manufacture high performance cells that are not comparable with the prices currently advertised on the market. Compared to anything comparable, prices have fallen in recent years but now they are falling less quickly. However, we are confident because the securing of raw materials and the improvement of processes will make it possible to play on costs. Industry efforts will continue and supply will increase with the opening of lithium mines. At the same time, we continue to improve chemistry formulations to use less cobalt. Ours will be below 10% whereas, for example, that of the first Renault Zoé contained 35%. We use more nickel to improve energy density, and more silicon in the anode to improve recharging capacity. But, in the current context, very clever who will predict the cost of batteries.

verkor battery industrial process
If Verkor does not revolutionize battery chemistry, the manufacturer relies on an industrial process at the forefront of innovation, based on digital technology to differentiate itself from its competitors.

What is your roadmap between now and the delivery of the first batteries in July 2025?

We are on the development of the first cell for the Alpine DZ110 project. The first prototypes are in progress and will be presented to the Renault group in the coming weeks. Then we will go in stages of six months. Our R&D center, the VIC (Verkor Innovation Centre), based on the Grenoble peninsula, is under construction and will recruit 250 people. The research laboratories and the small assembly line will be operational in two months. At the end of 2022, will come the pilot production line which will then manufacture the prototype cells in larger quantities. The next step will be the development of serial cells. As for our Dunkirk plant, the consultation phase (authorizations, building permits, Seveso standard, etc.) will take a year. The works will logically begin at the beginning of 2023.

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Verkor, the “French Northvolt” – L’argus PRO

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