Ensuring that the innovative spark is ignited

Curiosity, fun and team spirit are the impulses from which new discoveries are made. In Dr. Peter Kritzer’s case, all three factors frequently come together. At Freudenberg, he is responsible for innovative battery components and thermal management – and thus also for the safety – of electric cars. A topic that is also close to the heart of this visionary.

Sometimes, all it takes is a tiny impulse to build up a concentrated charge of energy until a spark finally ignites and triggers a chain reaction. It’s a bit of a paradox: a process that must be prevented at all costs in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles is highly desirable in other areas: for example, in the development of innovative products for sustainable mobility.

Providing impetus for creative chain reactions

Peter Kritzer, Senior Application Manager at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, is himself often the initiator of chain reactions that result from the combination of creativity and technology and ultimately produce innovative products that advance electromobility. “Every day, I have the chance to help shape the future of the automobile and make mobility more environmentally compatible. It’s worth working for!” said the father of two daughters. The driving force is his sheer endless curiosity. As Kritzer he put it, “Even as a child, I was very interested in technology and the environment and wanted to get to the bottom of things.” He has always been able to give his creativity free rein at Freudenberg.

Every day, I have the chance to make mobility more environmentally friendly.

Dr. Peter Kritzer, Senior Application Manager at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies

Innovations for environmentally friendly mobility

Working together in various teams at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, Kritzer’s work includes new types of seals for electric car batteries, battery safety components and improved thermal management of accumulators. “If we simply adopt the components of previous battery systems for the new generation of batteries, safety-relevant aspects may arise,” explained Kritzer, who holds a doctorate in chemistry. “For example, the heat generated during operation, and especially during charging, has to be dissipated.”

“A battery cell like this is a mimosa, very sensitive to shocks,” he pointed out. Moreover, a damaged cell is a danger to the entire system, because if it overheats, it can cause a chain reaction that, in the worst case, results in a 1,200 °C hot jet flame enriched with ceramic particles. He describes what this would mean for the vehicle occupants sitting above the battery vividly as a “mixture of welding torch and sandblast.” In his view, it will never be possible to completely rule out such a thermal runaway in an individual battery cell. “However, we can do everything possible to make it more difficult for a chain reaction to continue. To do this, we are developing products such as heat shields for battery cells and thermal barriers for battery housings.”

The heat shields for lithium-ion batteries initiated by Kritzer received the MATERIALICA Design + Technology Award in 2018. The principle involves a protective shield made of a heat-resistant material, a silicone-based elastomer, separating the individual cells. It has the effect of insulating the heat in a damaged cell until it has dissipated. The trick is that the heat shields have a specifically deformable structure with tiny air pockets that provide excellent thermal insulation. At the same time, it supports the cyclical “bulging” of the cells during the charging and discharging processes.

From idea to product

More than 100 of Kritzer’s ideas have ended up in the Freudenberg Group-wide “Ideas Pool”. Many have contributed to new products, such as the heat shields. But how does an idea become a product? He chuckles at the common perception of an “inventor” as a kind of Gyro Gearloose who has a flash of inspiration, then retreats into the quiet chamber to tinker and eventually comes out with an ingenious new gizmo. In reality, things don’t work like that, at least not at Freudenberg. Kritzer emphasizes that it is essential to exchange ideas with colleagues who think outside the box. “Innovations are created where colleagues have both the opportunity and pleasure to work together on defining visions.” This, he says, is where the activation energy for innovations comes from. He always keeps his ear to the ground, keeps an eye on technology trends and relies on swarm intelligence, because there is no such thing as “just one solution”. It is important to gather as many opinions as possible and then sort through them.

For an idea to break through, you need the courage to do things differently.

Within the Freudenberg Group, Kritzer finds almost endless opportunities to network with inspiring people around the world. “As soon as I hear about an interesting topic that a team is tackling, it starts working in me: ‘What is the solution for? Which other business group could it be relevant to? Or what part of a new technology could we adapt? I want to share my knowledge and encourage others to do the same. I like to think around corners. For an idea to break through, it takes not only a willingness to take risks but also the courage to do things differently.”

The battery technology expert enjoys getting ideas at trade shows outside his field, because some solutions already exist in other areas and in principle only need to be transferred to his own system. At trade shows, he takes every opportunity to talk to people. “I don’t ask sales managers what their product can do, but what they themselves would improve about it. That’s much more informative.”

Faster and further – but safely

Rising expectations placed on electromobility – shorter charging times and longer range – are driving engineers to push the limits of what is feasible in battery technology. The attraction and challenge lies in resolving technical contradictions. For example, between increasing energy density and safety, or between development and material costs and price pressure.

“Everyone wants ultrafast charging – ten minutes of charging time for a range of 400 kilometers. But the energy acting on the battery system is twice as intense as a race on the North Loop of the Nürburgring,” Kritzer explained. This is why thermal management is a major topic in the industry and why Kritzer and his colleagues in the E-Mobility team find themselves asking: What components can Freudenberg develop to make lithium batteries for electric cars safer?

This consideration also gave rise to the DIAvent pressure equalization valve, which makes electric vehicles safer. It fulfills two functions. In normal operation, it allows the battery to “breathe”; in the event of a malfunction – for example, if a defective battery cell overheats – it provides emergency venting and prevents the dreaded chain reaction of thermal runaway.

Kritzer’s thoughts have long since turned to other possible solutions, including emergency cooling concepts that quickly and specifically direct cooling media to where components overheat in the event of a malfunction. The basic idea is to use a foil that melts and releases a cooling component as soon as the temperature exceeds a certain threshold. “This is more efficient than peppering the entire system with sensors”, said Kritzer.

To relax, 1 hp is plenty

Such a restless inventive spirit also needs to relax sometimes. Kritzer finds balance in mobility with just one horsepower: “When my daughters started getting excited about riding, my wife and I joined in right away”, said Kritzer. “We didn’t feel like just waiting on the sidelines until the riding lesson was over. Now it’s our joint family hobby and a welcome change. It clears the mind for new and exciting topics.”

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