Energy Storage

Tesla, Mining Companies Look for Advancements in Lithium Technology

Advancements in battery technology are critical to continuing growth in the energy storage market, and energy industry analysts say those advancements also are needed to move e-mobility forward and combat climate change. The transportation sector accounts for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, just ahead of power generation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lithium-ion batteries have been the product of choice for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers, and several groups are working on improving current battery technology, along with developing new sources of low-cost, fast-charge batteries. That includes the Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO), part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. The VTO coordinates activities with the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC); the USABC in July announced the award of a $2.4 million contract to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, to lead a program to develop low-cost, fast-charge batteries for EV applications.

“The lithium market is in its infancy. It is going to explode to the upside,” Andrew Bowering, founder, director, and financial officer of American Lithium, told POWER. “Just listen to [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk today 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. Nothing replaces lithium in our lifetime where mobility is required.”

1. Tesla is looking at improvements in battery technology for electric vehicles (EVs) in order to reduce the cost of the company’s signature EVs. Courtesy: Tesla

Musk has poured money into battery technology (Figure 1), with an eye toward reducing the cost of his company’s EVs. Musk, speaking at Tesla’s “Battery Day” on Sept. 22, said a new generation of EV batteries will be more powerful, will last longer, and be half as expensive as the company’s current cells. Musk said his company’s new and larger cylindrical cells will provide five times more energy, six times more power, and 16% greater driving range—though he said full production is about three years away.

“We do not have an affordable car. That’s something we will have in the future. But we’ve got to get the cost of batteries down,” Musk said. EV industry researchers have said that price parity, or the point at which EVs are equal in value to internal combustion-powered vehicles, is reached when battery packs cost $100/kWh. EV consulting firm Cairn Energy Research Advisors said that Tesla’s battery packs cost $156/kWh last year.

“New battery configurations by Tesla and others are all going to be based on lithium-ion for years to come,” said Bowering. “Advancements in battery configurations will affect capacity, lifespan, reliability, and ultimately cost. These improvements will drive investment in EVs and electrification further.”

To that end, Musk at Battery Day said Tesla would manufacture battery cells at its plant in Brandenburg, Germany, what Musk calls Tesla’s Berlin facility, though the plant is 30 miles from Berlin. “Yes, we will be manufacturing cells in Berlin. Yep,” Musk said on Battery Day. Analysts, though, noted that Tesla’s current permit application to operate the facility does not include cell manufacturing, and those analysts also said the German government likely would want to review those plans.

A final decision on Tesla’s revised permit for the plant—where Tesla wants to produce 500,000 EVs annually—is expected in December. Musk said that improvements in batteries would require further technical breakthroughs, though he has offered that reductions in the cost of batteries (driven by production improvements) would enable his company to market a $25,000 EV, which he has said is important to reach his target of annual sales of 20 million vehicles. The price is $10,000 to $15,000 below the current average price of the least-expensive Tesla model, the Model 3. The current timeline for manufacturing at the Brandenburg plant calls for the first vehicles to come off the assembly line in July 2021. Tesla on Sept. 24 said it would have to start a new approval process for battery production, and as of early October no timeline for this application has been made public.

Musk discussed a dry-coating process in his September comments. That process, developed by researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS, coats electrodes with a dry film instead of liquid chemicals. The process saves energy and eliminates toxic solvents. Maxwell Technologies, a San Diego, California-based company acquired by Tesla in early 2019 for $200 million, is working on a dry electrode technology. Maxwell last year said its electrode enables an energy density of more than 300 Wh/kg in current demonstration cells, and the company has said it sees a path to more than 500 Wh/kg. Those levels would be a large improvement over Tesla’s current battery cells, enabling longer range. Maxwell last year said its technology would result in a 10% to 20% cost reduction versus state-of-the-art wet electrodes, while potentially doubling battery life. Tesla, along with partner Panasonic, expects to save money, time, and factory space using its subsidiary’s technology.

Part of Tesla’s cost savings would come from producing lithium at a site in Nevada near the company’s so-called Gigafactory. Musk told company shareholders on Battery Day that Tesla has secured rights to 10,000 acres in Nevada where it would produce lithium from clay deposits using a process developed by the company. If successful, Tesla would be the first company in the world to commercially produce lithium from clay.

Lithium to date has been produced either from brine, mostly found in South America, or spodumene hard rock, usually found in Australia. Nevada has several lithium clay projects under development, including the Thacker Pass project from Lithium Americas Corp. (LAC), which has been seeking federal permit approval for more than a decade. LAC also is developing the Cauchari-Olaroz project in Jujuy, Argentina. Another Nevada development project is overseen by ioneer Ltd. LAC has said it can extract lithium from clay through a process that involves acid leaching. Tesla said its process won’t involve acid.

“Tesla endorsed the lithium claystones,” Bowering said. “Tesla engineers have been all over the planet for years looking at lithium sources. They are now making a bet on Nevada… [which] has several sedimentary lithium deposits that are the future of lithium mining and in a mining-friendly environment. Nevada sits on top of a major caldera of super volcanoes that populated the sediments with minable concentrations of lithium like nowhere else in the country.”

Tesla said its plan in Nevada involves mixing clay with table salt and then adding water. The company said the process causes a reaction where the salt would leach out with lithium, and the lithium then would be extracted. The leftover clay would be put back in the ground to mitigate environmental damage, much like the current mining industry practice of returning rock to the earth after minerals are extracted.

“It’s a very sustainable way of obtaining lithium,” said Musk, who did not say where in Nevada the company had obtained the lithium rights or whether development has started. Bowering said continued strained relations between the U.S. and China, which dominates the global supply of lithium and battery manufacturing, means the U.S. must develop its own lithium reserves and ramp up its battery production in order to meet demand.

“Chinese-U.S. relations are going to drive further investment and development in domestic U.S. lithium production, cathode manufacturing, and battery production,” Bowering said. “The U.S. currently produces 2% of its required lithium. As the demand increases, a domestic source is required.” Bowering said, “The U.S. 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.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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