The use of Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries has significantly grown with the advent and wide-scale adoption of smartphones. Along with this, a significant reduction in the cost has also been achieved since the past decade with continuous efforts on the R&D on the production techniques and energy densities. The collective efforts by various major economies to migrate towards electric mobility to reduce the carbon footprint is set to put a strain on the supply of Lithium metal to cater to the burgeoning demand of the Li-ion batteries.
Apart from electric mobility, Li-ion batteries are also a key energy storage medium for large scale application such as the Energy Storage Systems (ESS), which are being widely used in Distributed Energy Systems (DES). The various applications of battery storage systems in the power sector include energy arbitrage, non-spin reserve, frequency regulation, voltage support, black start, resource adequacy, transmission congestion relief, transmission deferral, distribution deferral, backup power, and so on. Li-ion batteries despite its high cost as compared to lead-acid storage, are becoming the prime choice for use in the power sector due to its high annual fuel savings and round-trip efficiency. The growing demand for lithium from the battery suppliers for electric vehicle and ESS is set to create a bottleneck in the supply of lithium in the future.
Gap between lithium demand and supply
Apart from batteries, lithium is used in manufacturing glass, lubricants, refrigerants, polymers, medical products, and so on. However, the major share of around 40% is attributed to the production of the batteries. Some of the major lithium supply sources include China, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and Bolivia. Lithium is majorly extracted from brine water followed by hard rock. The use of lithium raw material channeling into the production of batteries is less than 1% of the battery cost.
Currently, the gap between the demand and supply exists due to government restrictions on the production of lithium raw material per year in countries, such as Chile. The Chilean government had to impose the same, to limit the water use for lithium and copper extraction. The supply gap is analyzed to increase significantly if the supply continues to increase with the growing demand for electric vehicles and ESS, which require higher number of lithium cells.
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Alternate battery chemistries can possibly offset the stress concentration on lithium supply in the future
To overcome the supply-demand challenges of lithium raw material, the best alternative could be the use of chemistries, which offer superior energy densities with lower lithium use such as Lithium-ion phosphate, nickel manganese cobalt, and so on. Non-lithium chemistries such as those based on sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, aluminum and so on are being explored to shift the dependency to non-lithium raw material as well. Recently, Honda developed advanced Fluoride ion batteries featuring energy densities ranging up to 10 times the lithium-ion batteries without the risk of overheating and do not require rare earth metals such as lithium, cobalt, and so on.
Apart from exploring the various battery chemistries, the emphasis on hybrid drivetrains in the mobility sector can also ease the strain as these vehicles work in a combination of an internal combustion engine and require a comparatively smaller battery pack than the pure electric breeds. In the power sector, advanced lead-acid batteries or compressed air or hydrogen energy storage systems can also be used, which is like battery storage green technologies.
Development of lithium recycling technology, a new unexplored frontier
The recycling of lithium from batteries is currently at the niche stage due to the unavailability of high throughput technology. Owing to this, the demand for raw lithium material is still significant. However, R&D projects are underway to boost recycling throughput. Li-Cycles Corp has developed Li-Cycle Technology, which is a low-cost recycling solution and is commercially scalable. Another significant initiative is the CoLaBATS project funded by the European countries to develop economically friendly methods for nickel metal hydride and Li-ion batteries. The project also aims to recover valuable rare earth metals as well at large scale. Significant investments towards the development of recyclable, environment-friendly, safe, and high throughput recycling technologies for lithium-ion batteries can create a significant impact on the lithium-ion battery market as well.
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