Lithium and Beyond: What lies ahead for battery tech and the ASX stocks pushing the boundaries
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As the world transitions to net-zero, battery technology is seen as critically important in the transition to renewable energy.
Increased battery capacity is set to play a vital role in bolstering grid-scale capabilities, providing energy for residential and commercial use, while facilitating the electrification of transportation.
A significant need for energy storage to accompany widespread adoption of solar power in households, businesses, and industries will also see greater demand for battery technology.
According to Future Batteries Industries, global battery demand is now forecast to grow at 34% per annum to 2030, increasing 18-fold on 2020 levels, compared to the previous forecast of a nine to 10-fold increase.
“The revised demand projection can be attributed to increased adoption of electric vehicles and stationary storage, and a global acceleration in the energy transition,” the organisation said in its Charging Ahead report.
When it comes to batteries, most people think of the mineral lithium, and there’s a good reason why. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2022 lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) remained the dominant battery chemistry with a market share of 60%.
Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) had just under 30%, while nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA) had a share of ~8%.
The IEA said lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cathode chemistries have reached their highest share in the past decade, driven by the preferences of Chinese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
Now for a quick chemistry 101. According to the IEA, LFP batteries differ from other chemistries by using iron and phosphorus instead of nickel, manganese, and cobalt found in NCA and NMC batteries.
However, they have a lower energy density compared to NMC batteries. The IEA said another drawback of LFP batteries is their phosphorus content, which is used in food production.
If all batteries were LFP, they would account for nearly 1% of current agricultural phosphorus, which the agency said could potentially lead to conflicting demands for phosphorus as battery demand grows.
However, the world’s biggest electric car maker Tesla is a proponent of LFP batteries with its CEO Elon Musk saying earlier this year “the vast majority of the heavy lifting for electrification will be iron-based cells”.
The mineral vanadium, commonly known as a steel additive, has also emerged as another battery material. Vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs) employ liquid tanks containing charged vanadium electrolytes to generate and store energy.
Among benefits, flow batteries do not deteriorate with each use, enabling them to provide energy over an extended duration, are non-flammable and do not pose the risk of explosions.
Alternative battery options like sodium-ion (Na-ion) are also emerging. Na-ion batteries offer cost advantages due to lower-cost materials and eliminate the need for critical minerals like lithium.
However, the IEA said Na-ion batteries have lower energy density (75 to 160 Wh/kg) compared to Li-ion counterparts (120 to 260 Wh/kg).
Metal-air batteries are also attracting attention of researchers because of their potential for high theoretical energy densities, eco-friendliness, cost-effectiveness, and safety.
Research is focusing on several potential anode candidates for metal-air batteries, including zinc, aluminium, iron, and silicon.
At Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany, researchers have developed and successfully lab-tested a novel titanium-air battery in co-operation with researchers at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
And Bill Gates has invested big bucks in US-based Ambri, which has developed a liquid metal battery using a calcium alloy anode, a molten salt electrolyte, and a cathode consisting of solid antimony particles.
According to Ambri the antimony-based battery boasts a lifetime double that of lithium batteries, demonstrate minimal capacity loss over a 20-year operational period and offer a grid-scale storage system for solar and wind energy.
So on the ASX which companies are looking at the future of battery technology and what are they doing?
ATC’s CERENERGY technology utilises common table salt and ceramic solid-state technology to create batteries, resulting in cost reductions of up to 50% compared to regular lithium-ion batteries.
The CERENERGY sodium-alumina solid-state battery project is tailored for the grid energy storage market, which is expected to increase in value from US$4.4 billion last year to US$15.1 billion by 2027.
The advantages of these batteries include being fire and explosion-proof, the ability to function in a wide range of temperatures, and having a lifespan of over 15 years.
ATC is collaborating with the applied research organisation Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft on a joint venture to commercialise the 100-megawatt hour production facility at the Schwarze Pumpe Industrial Park in Saxony, Germany. The land for this facility is owned by Altech.
Fraunhofer has already conducted tests on the world’s largest CERENERGY batteries in terms of capacity in stationary battery modules.
AVL is making strides in developing its flagship Australian vanadium project in WA, while also capitalising on downstream opportunities in the vanadium market.
Particularly, AVL is focusing on vanadium electrolyte manufacturing and exploring prospects in the VRFB market for long duration energy storage through its subsidiary, VSUN Energy.
VSUN has been installing VRFB systems across large scale commercial projects including at the IGO (ASX:IGO) Nova nickel operation.
It is actively working on creating a residential version of the VRFB as an alternative option to lithium-ion batteries for homeowners seeking different energy storage solutions.
LIT has gone from being a mining explorer to a battery technology business focused on delivering critical materials to a circular battery industry.
CEO Simon Linge told Stockhead LIT is sitting at the heart of an explosion in battery demand and diversifying supply chains away from China.
Its novel technology LieNA is still at the development stage and coming into a pilot program.
Linge said at a lithium hard-rock spodumene mine about 60% is commercial grade and 40% is either not mined because it’s not commercial grade or goes to waste because its particles are too small to be used by the chemical converters.
“This technology takes that 60% up to 90% so is really quite meaningful in terms of waste and how many lithium units can be put into the market,” he said.
“We will look to a licensing model for that technology because its real advantage is if you own and operate a lithium mine.”
LIT’s Brisbane-based subsidiary VSPC (Very Small Particle Company) is 20 years in the making and involves developing the battery cathode active material lithium ferro phosphate (LFP), which in only recent years has come into in favour after the Chinese market switched across because it’s cheaper and safer.
“China dominates the global stage on battery production, powders and cells, so it has started to shift the market,” Linge said.
“We brought VSPC in 2017 and looked at the process and thought it’s good but needs to be more commercial in terms of the economics, so we re-engineered the process and know are commercially competitive.”
He said LIT is operating a pilot plant for LFP and its associate chemistry lithium manganese ferro phosphate (LMFP) and over the next 12 months will progress to a demonstration facility to start producing at scale and get qualified for Tier 1 cell makers and battery makers for energy storage and potentially the EV market.
LIT’s Envirostream subsidiary provides sustainable services by collecting, sorting and processing spent batteries of all types to capture the critical metals.
“We’re the only actual recycler of batteries in Australia,” he said.
“Others who will collect batteries and ship them offshore.
“We’re the only active recycler where we shred and work to extract the various value streams from that end of life battery.
“We want to secure our position in Australia with Envirostream and then look to partner overseas, probably through a licensing model.”
MNS’s M3NY battery plant in New York state operates as a joint venture with C4V, their technology partner, with a distribution of 61% and 39% respectively.
The advanced facility is specifically designed to produce 1.8 gigawatts of lithium-iron phosphate batteries annually and is actively increasing its production capacity to fulfil the demands of its offtake customers.
The key milestone for the plant is obtaining the UN38.3 certification for its batteries, which will allow them to be transported both within the US and internationally.
The iM3NY plant also has exclusive rights in the US to produce lithium-ion cells using C4V’s proprietary cathode technology, which enables it to benefit from the US Inflation Reduction Act.
The US Environment Protection Agency describes the act as “the most significant climate legislation in US history offering funding, programs, and incentives to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy”.
MNS has ambitious plans to expand the total plant capacity significantly, aiming for 38 gigawatts by the end of this decade.
RFX’s batteries zinc-bromine flow batteries are purpose-built for long-term energy storage with high cycle-rates, and can seamlessly scale from small commercial setups to large grid-scale installations.
The company’s self-protecting batteries provide a host of exclusive benefits, such as secure remote management, the ability to achieve a 100% daily depth of discharge, capacity to withstand high ambient temperatures, a straightforward recycling process, complete immunity to thermal runaway, and unwavering energy delivery throughout their entire operational lifespan.
Managing director and CEO Tim Harris said the company designs one of the smallest flow batteries in the world but they are very modular and ideal for storing excess renewable power to discharge when needed.
He said the company is seeing increased demand for larger systems. RFX recently announced it will supply a 20MWh battery system in California as part of a large-scale solar and storage project to be funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC).
The project will provide power for the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, a US federally recognised sovereign Native American nation located in Northern California.
On successful commissioning, the approved 20MWh system will be one of the largest zinc-based battery projects in the world and will represent RFX’s largest single sale and deployment of batteries globally to date.
IG6 is making significant strides to become the pioneer graphite producer with complete mine-to-market operations in WA and was recently awarded $4.7 million by the Australian Government under the national Critical Minerals Development Program.
IG6 said the funds will be used to accelerate feasibility studies for their proposed graphite mine in Springdale and establish an advanced battery anode material (BAM) manufacturing plant in Collie. Additionally, the company plans to construct a graphite micronising facility in Collie.
A scoping study in April confirmed that the proposed BAM facility would produce high grade battery anode materials for the lithium-ion batteries and generate outstanding financial returns.
The plant will be designed with the capacity to process up to 40,000 tonnes annually of graphite concentrate and produce a full-range of downstream graphite products including micronised, spheroidised, and non-HF chemical purified graphite (USPG), along with carbon coating (CSPG) to create highly conductive battery anode material specifically for lithium-ion batteries.
Among the different options considered, the most lucrative one involves producing up to 18,600 tonnes per annum of coated, spheroidised, purified graphite (CSPG) and 17,000 tonnes per annum of micronised by-products which is forecast to generate an average annual revenue of US$172 million, with an estimated EBITDA of US$100 million.
At Stockhead, we tell it like it is. While Altech Batteries and Magnis Energy Technologies are Stockhead advertisers, they did not sponsor this article.