Friday 21st September 2018

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Electrifying the future

Solid state’s a contender, but lithium-ion has years of growth: Simon Moores

by Greg Klein

Lithium bulls faced a bearish backlash last February, when Morgan Stanley circulated a note predicting “2018 to be the last year of the global lithium market deficit, followed by significant surpluses emerging from 2019 onwards.” More pessimism rained on lithium from a report by Wood Mackenzie. Meanwhile some prognosticators talk up the solid state battery’s inevitability. Does all that indicate an end to the Li-ion battery’s quarter-century run?

Solid state batteries will come, but Li-ion still has years of growth: Simon Moores

Not according to Simon Moores. After a dozen years of following energy minerals, the managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence maintains that enhancements in Li-ion prices, availability, capacity and use will sustain the battery and its raw materials for years to come.

He presented the case at his annual world tour appearance in Vancouver, this year held in conjunction with the Cambridge House International Mining Investment Conference.

Although lithium-ion batteries typically sold for about $280 per kilowatt hour back in 2014, he pointed out, Benchmark foresees prices dropping below $130 this year. “Selling prices are still coming down, even though raw material prices have been high.”

Li-ion’s availability keeps increasing as more megafactories begin operation. Back in 2015 three such facilities were in operation or in the planning stage. Currently Moores counts 41 scheduled for operation by 2023 and expects more to be announced. “Not all of those are going to happen,” he cautioned. But “even if you take that down by half—and that won’t be enough to supply all these EV plans—you’ve got a major raw materials problem. The raw materials industries are not fit and not suitable to supply this amount of batteries.”

As of last year, the capacity of existing plants totalled about 112 gigawatt hours. “By 2023, you’re looking at around 450 gigawatt hours of capacity.” More than half will be in China, where some non-Chinese companies are building their plants, likely to be joined by Tesla and Panasonic. The Gigafactory duo will become the world’s largest Li-ion battery producers, with a capacity of just over 250 GWh in 10 years, Moores said.

Solid state batteries will come, but Li-ion still has years of growth: Simon Moores

Simon Moores: Total Li-ion capacity could reach
“anywhere from 800 gigawatt hours to a terawatt,
but it’s huge…. We believe the battery capacity will
be there, but the raw materials will be the problem.”

By that time, total capacity could experience a “massive, 10-fold” increase: “It could be anywhere from 800 gigawatt hours to a terawatt, but it’s huge…. We believe the battery capacity will be there, but the raw materials will be the problem.”

Meanwhile Li-ion continues to beat expectations as the batteries become increasingly energy-dense. Measured in watt-hours per litre, the energy density of an 18-650 cell in 1992 stood at 200. “Then scientists said commercially we could get to about 350 watt-hours per litre—not theoretically, but in the real world. In 2002, that reached 420. Then the scientists said we could probably get to 550 watt-hours per litre in the real world. Then in 2012 we got to 600. Right now we’re at 770. But there is a limit… the limit’s 800. So the question is, where does lithium-ion go from here?”

The answer is battery packs, he noted. Using the example of Romeo Power Technology, Moores said, “It depends on the applications and types of batteries, but they can improve lithium-ion batteries by anything from 25% to 200% with pack engineering.”

Meanwhile Li-ion uses expand, especially with stationary storage: “underestimated, not talked about, it’s got to be on your radar.” Large-scale storage arrived last year at Aliso Canyon, California, after a leak shut down a natural gas-generated electricity plant. With Tesla, Samsung and others involved, “essentially they did 329 megawatt-hours in eight months.”

In December current began flowing from the 129-MWh plant that Tesla installed in South Australia, winning Elon Musk’s bet that he could complete the project in less than 100 days. Since then Musk has talked about building a one-GWh facility—“and he might do that just for the headlines,” Moores suggested.

Utility batteries are getting bigger and being installed quicker…. This is about to impact the market and no one’s even talked about it.

Those projects demonstrate that “utility batteries are getting bigger and being installed quicker…. This is about to impact the market and no one’s even talked about it.”

As for solid state batteries, they’re “about five years away from seeing something real and in place,” Moores said. “The other question is whether they’ll actually be real, truly solid state batteries. But they’re coming.”

A key difference between the two technologies involves replacing Li-ion’s graphite anode with a lithium metal anode, which of course calls for even more lithium. “That gives a 70% better energy density on paper than lithium-ion. But there is a cost to that.”

The lithium metal comes from lithium chloride, produced through electrolysis, which is “really bloody expensive.” Another important difference involves replacing Li-ion’s liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte. Scarce so far is publicly available info on the materials used to make it.

Discussions of solid state tend to neglect “the niche supply chain that’s needed to feed it,” Moores said. “That’s probably the most critical factor to commercialization.”

Still, he emphasized, solid state has attracted “a lot of disciplines, a lot of money, a lot of brainpower going into this industry. It’s one to watch.”

Read Simon Moores discussing Bolivia’s lithium potential.


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