Does Tesla’s Battery Day Mean Energy Storage Manufacturers Must Become Miners?

The world is electrifying at a rapid pace and the mining industry seems to be becoming a quiet but key player in the electrification process. Tesla’s
recent ‘Battery Day’ announcements only highlight the incredible challenges facing the electricity storage market, and raise significant questions about how the market will evolve.

We know that demand for energy storage is surging to meet increasing demand for renewable energy and electrified transport. According to Maria Xylia at Sweco Sweden, only 3% of global capacity can be currently stored and energy demand itself is expected to increase over 50% to 2050. Storage is a fundamental necessity for the integration of renewables into a smoothly running and efficient energy system, and it needs to be cost-effective, high performance and safe.

As Dr. Young-hye Na, Manager, Materials Innovations for Next-Gen Batteries, IBM Research says, “Enabling better battery energy storage will be key to a successful energy transition to renewables and net-zero carbon emissions. While lithium-ion batteries have advanced significantly by cutting cost and improving energy density for the last decade, it is still too expensive to be widely adopted for EV and renewable applications, and heavy metals that are needed to make these batteries – ex. cobalt and nickel – have brought environmental concerns associated with their invasive and energy intensive mining.”

Tesla’s ‘Battery Day’ left experts somewhat puzzled. There had been high expectations of breakthrough announcements but the company laid out future plans for building its own batteries and its own supply chain, and for massively ramping up production to 2030. The company announced a new cell design which could cut battery costs in half but it’s yet ready. It can take up to ten years for a battery to move from the lab to commercial production. For an audience expecting significant change, it could be considered a disappointment – given the resulting drop in Tesla’s share price at nearly 10%, it certainly appeared the market thought so.

The difficulty is that despite an 85% collapse in battery prices in the last decade, battery storage is still expensive and relatively inefficient. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries dominate the market but the ability to scale remains a question, and the implications of large scale manufacturing are troubling. Current Li-ion battery designs, for example, require cobalt and nickel, many of which have highly localized supply chains – today over 60% of production comes from China and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and there are significant sustainability concerns around child labor and other unethical mining practices.

The lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow much more steeply for the next 5 years ($94.4 billion by 2025, according to ResearchAndMarkets). There is a significant difference between the amount of materials needed to supply the portable electronics market, vs. the transportation and grid market. This difference in scale means sourcing and sustainability issues that may have been a concern in the past are now impossible to ignore if that is the future of the energy storage market. 

One of the more dramatic announcements of the day was Tesla’s plans to mine lithium in the US, an interesting choice for a car manufacturer. Most of the global supply of lithium today comes from deposits in Australia and lithium brine deposits in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Tesla is planning to derive lithium from clay deposits in Nevada.  Andrew Bowering is the founder, director and financial officer of American Lithium, developing a lithium brine operation in Argentina. He believes that the future of storage development is Li-ion and believes there will come a time when the US will have its own manufacturing and supply chain, even if the question of when remains open.

Bowering says,The lithium market is in its infancy… (and)… it is going to explode to the upside. Just listen to Elon Musk talk about the amount of energy storage, and generation, required to electrify the global transportation fleet. The grid and stationary power is another massive enterprise itself. Lithium is going to be the primary component of the electric global fleet. That’s because it’s light, small and sheds its outer electron easily.”

Clearly the supply chain is a key issue for battery storage. Bryan Slusarchuk, President, Turmalina Metals even goes so far as to say, “Without mining, there is no Tesla.” There are of course rival technologies and different material options. Slusarchuk says, “While cobalt and lithium are often the most talked about metals when the topic of battery powered vehicles comes up, copper is overlooked by many. Copper, because of its high conductivity, efficiency and durability, is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to greening the economy. Electrification bodes exceptionally well for copper.”

It’s not simply alternatives to cobalt and nickel that are being explored, there are a plethora of approaches to new materials for batteries. For example, earlier in 2020, IBM researchers developed a heavy-metal free battery that relies on an iodine-based cathode and a safer electrolyte. Initial lab-scale tests showed that the battery could have higher power density, lower flammability and faster charging time than conventional lithium-ion batteries. 

Perhaps what matters most is the appropriate linking of technology to sectoral need. While batteries may predominate in the electrified transportation sector, there are many other storage solutions that have been used for grid-applications, such as pumped storage, hydropower, compressed air and even geothermal. These are pretty mature and reliable for large scale storage applications. But they also have very specific geographical requirements and constraints, are highly capital intensive and take up significant construction time.

Such technologies, or even batteries, are not the only options. There is growing interest in the potential for hydrogen to solve storage issues, especially long term seasonal storage – taking power generated in hot, windy summers through to dark, long winters for example. While the cost of hydrogen storage remains high, many experts expect to see the cost of electrolysers follow a similar cost curve to solar PV, resulting in a significant price drop.

According to Ben Richardson, Global Technical Support & Aftersales Manager at the Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) project at Bosch, “The roll-out of hydrogen storage will be one of the important steps towards decarbonisation and achieving net carbon zero targets by 2050.” Bosch is currently working with Ceres on developing a fuel flexible cell design. Richardson says, “This new cell design will improve cell design massively. It can generate power from a multitude of different sources, from conventional fuels like neutral gas to sustainable fuels like biogas, ethanol or hydrogen and at very high efficiency.” This makes it cost effective and scalable, lowering running costs and enabling wider penetration of renewables. 

One of the benefits of the SOFC approach is that If required, the systems can be networked to scale to a multi-megawatt output. Such as a system could act as a single large power plant based on many small, very efficient, digitally connected but self-contained units. This results in a wide range of possible use cases, such as powering data centres, residential quarters, shopping centres, hospitals, strengthening the electrical charging infrastructure or for energy supply in the industrial or commercial sector. The first prototypes are ceramic-metal cells with 10 kWe power

It seems as if one of the central issues in the low carbon transition, and the scaled up deployment of energy storage, is going to be access to materials. Bowering says, “I think the US is going to need to develop its own battery making facilities, which includes cathode plants and other component processing. There isn’t much point in establishing a domestic source of lithium and other minerals, if you don’t have the manufacturing domestically as well.”  Currently the US only produces 2% of the lithium it consumes. He adds, “The US needs to have domestic production of Li-Ion batteries, or it will become as dependent on this new energy source as it once was on foreign oil. The US will not be able to control the makers of this technology as it’s been able to control its providers of hydrocarbon based energy forms in the past.”

This geopolitical, economic and trade challenge is going to be an issue for every country involved in the energy transition. Every country with electrified power systems and a massive fleet of electrified transport, from trains and trucks to cars, ships and plans will require a quantum leap in effective, affordable storage. And IBM believes that it’s the use of quantum computing that will enable this to happen.

IBM is using an AI approach combining active learning with battery performance prediction to identify safer and higher performance electrolytes for its new heavy-metal free battery chemistry. At IBM, according to Dr. Young-hye Na, “We expect quantum computing to play a key role in understanding complex material’s behaviors and predicting outcome of chemical reactions as well as materials properties, helping us discover entirely new classes of materials.” 

The ability to develop new chemical approaches and materials that respond to the needs of specific technologies could be transformational. The IBM approach would see batteries’ performance controlled for various applications by tuning materials formulations and chemistries, and the development of cost-effective and sustainable materials would be a must.” Dr. Young-hye Na adds, “One of the benefits of the new battery chemistry we have developed at IBM Research is that it is highly tuneable to the requirements of a given application. We have developed different version of the battery that, at the lab scale, excels at energy density, fast charging, or low temperature operation. Developing the technology to meet the performance needs of the target application is critical.”

In order for any country to be a leader in energy storage, it will be necessary to ensure the accessibility of critical materials while minimizing dependence on imports, streamlining supply chains, and/or recycling materials. The development of a totally new class of materials with more resilient and transparent supply chains could also be an effective solution to lead the next generation battery market. Whatever else, there seems little doubt that the energy transition is going to drive major change in the storage markets. With the energy storage market across batteries and hydrogen set for a revolution in approaches, materials and price point, it must be hoped that manufacturers may not have to become miners after all.

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