VRIC 2015 speakers look at emerging needs in energy and commodities
by Greg Klein
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Battery megafactories are on their way, heralding a potential “battery revolution,” says Simon Moores. Although they’re already ubiquitous, much more widespread than only a decade ago, he says batteries remain in a relatively “young stage of development.” Electric vehicles and large-scale storage for utilities could bring on a new phase demanding much more of the minerals and metals they require.
Speaking at this year’s Vancouver Resource Investment Conference, Moores dated the first commercial battery-powered watch to 1969. By the late 1990s, battery-powered tools, cellphones and mp3 players became common. By the mid-2000s laptops attained widespread use, followed by the “2007 smartphone revolution powered by Apple.” Tablets and other devices gained popularity. “It’s only now that we’ve evolved into a truly mobile world. You can just tell by the amount of mobile devices you have in your pocket now compared to 10 years ago,” the Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst pointed out.
But we’re now entering a new phase of fully electric vehicles—not hybrids—and electricity storage for utilities, he said.
Unlike the earlier mercury or lead-acid batteries, the new wave of batteries uses “niche minerals and metals, they’re not really commodities but specially processed and created products” using graphite, lithium and cobalt, among other minerals. Large-scale storage calls for lithium-ion or vanadium flow batteries.
The impending revolution wouldn’t be the first. The Apple iPhone triggered the “hand-held revolution” in 2007, not just outselling competitors but creating enormous additional demand. Its predecessor, the Nokia N70, sold a million handsets in a year, making it the best-selling smartphone of the time, Moores said. Less than two years later the iPhone emerged, selling a million handsets in 72 days. Last September the iPhone 6 sold 10 million in 72 hours.
Obviously that calls for more batteries, but there’s an additional factor that’s often missed, Moores emphasized. Notwithstanding miniaturization of electronics, batteries are getting bigger. In 2012 the iPhone 5 used roughly nine grams of graphite, he said. Two years later its successor took up to 19 grams. Similar increases apply to lithium and cobalt.
As for electric vehicles, the Nissan Leaf remains the top seller. But Tesla Motors’ approach “could be the tipping point,” Moores thinks. A key innovation was to build a car around the battery, “basically about the size of the chassis of the car” and more than twice the size of Leaf’s battery.
Other manufacturers had taken existing designs, stuck a battery in it and “then they complained the car didn’t go far enough.”
Now Tesla plans a $5-billion project to build the world’s biggest battery plant in Nevada. “They want to take what the world produced in 2013 and double that capacity in Nevada. The idea is lower-cost batteries, lower-cost cars, mass-scale commercialization of the EV.”
Korean manufacturer LG Chem has started building a $500-million battery plant in China. “We think that’s about a seven-gigawatt-hour plant.”
A manufacturer of iPhones for Apple, Foxconn has another battery factory planned for China that Moores thinks will produce about 15 GWh. Like Tesla, Foxconn’s new to the battery-building business.
Tesla’s factory, which the company hopes to see operating in 2017, would have a 35-GWh capacity. “The biggest plant today is about two gigawatt-hours.”
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