Goldman Sachs has famously referred to it as "the new gasoline"—lithium, the metal that, together with graphite, forms the heart of lithium-ion battery (LIB) technology. As the transition to cleaner transportation accelerates, and the need for grid-scale storage increases to accommodate intermittent production from renewables, demand for these two mined elements is expected to grow steadily in the years and decades ahead.
Emerging market opportunities for Canadian lithium and graphite miners
For Canada—rich in high quality deposits of lithium and graphite; expert in all aspects of mining; a stable investment climate; and a strong commitment to building a prosperous, low-carbon economy—this is an opportunity.
While LIB demand in Canada is still small in absolute numbers, the emerging domestic value chain is looking at opportunities to enter this growing market with materials such as graphite and lithium salt, expertise in battery pack design, and battery and thermal management systems.
Although just a small fraction of total consumption, some 136,000 tonnes of graphite went into batteries in 2016. China dominates the market for natural and synthetic graphite, and as a manufacturer of anodes for LIBs. Synthetic graphite costs almost five times as much as natural graphite, but battery makers are willing to pay a premium for the consistent quality it provides. Natural graphite can be competitive, but developing a cost-effective way to deliver the consistently high purity needed for LIBs—99.98 percent or better—is a challenge.
LIBs accounted for nearly 40 percent of total lithium consumption in 2015—more than 10 times the amount used for batteries in 2000. Lithium is most often found in brine deposits, which can be developed faster and at lower cost than the kind of hard rock deposits found in Canada. At the same time, higher prices would make mining more economic. Lithium for LIBs is in the form of either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. Again, processing to the required level of purity is a significant challenge—depending on the application, purity level exceeding 99.99 percent might be required.
For LIB technology itself, there is an ongoing challenge—and opportunity—to improve performance and lower cost.
Overcoming market and technology challenges
NRC has been investing in the development of LIB technology for several years at its laboratories in Boucherville, Ottawa and Vancouver, and possesses expertise that is unique in Canada. NRC capacity to work with stakeholders throughout the value chain will be further advanced in the months ahead, as it expands its infrastructure to include a new Battery Test Facility in Ottawa in 2017, and its Battery Manufacturing Line in Boucherville and London in early 2018.
While growing its LIB technology expertise, NRC has engaged regularly with stakeholders from junior mining companies to battery producers, leading to a number of one-off projects to address specific technical challenges and gaps. "These discussions also highlighted the potential and need for precompetitive and collaborative R&D activities to align, develop, accelerate, integrate and/or industrialise LIB-related technologies and supplies in Canada for various end-uses", says Adam Tuck, program leader, Energy Storage. "They have also helped us make the contacts we need to bring that kind of collaboration together."
Recognizing the potential benefits of a broader and more integrated collaboration, NRC is launching a multiparty industrial precompetitive R&D initiative, comprising a group of industrial receptors from the Canadian LIB supply chain. Members will include end-users such as OEMs and battery producers, and other major value-chain players, primarily graphite, graphene, silicon and lithium producers and suppliers.
Phase One: the anode
The project will launch with a focus on the anode: development and analysis of product specifications and characteristics for anode components; benchmarking anode materials from members and competitors from the laboratory characterization; LIB cell production and testing; and maintaining a technology watch related to graphite materials and LIB trends.
"We will also be pursuing the development of graphite-silicon composite anode to increase battery capacity," says Jean-Yves Huot, team leader, Vehicle Propulsion Technologies. "This is challenging, but exciting—even a very small amount of silicon in the anode could significantly increase its capacity." The approved Development of Li-ion Battery Anode Formulations with High Canadian Content to Extend the Range of Electric Vehicles project, with major funding from Natural Resources Canada and six industrial partners, will be expanded and incorporated into Phase One.
Phase Two: the cathode
The second phase will launch approximately six months after the start of Phase One. It will pursue similar activities, such as a technology watch of lithium materials and related fabrication processes. There will be a particular focus on characteristics and specifications of precursor materials, including lithium hydroxide and carbonate. Other activities will include benchmarking materials and LIB cell manufacturing and testing, with feedback on the impurity tolerance to the LIB cathode material, and improving cathode material through revised structure and composition.
"There is certainly opportunity for improvement," says Christina Bock, project technical leader, Energy Storage program. "It's true that you can only get so many electrons out of the active material—but there's nothing that says we can't design a battery that improves the utilization rate."