The future of battery power

July 21, 2020

Peak-proof renewable energy, advanced manufacturing growth and a long-lasting phone charge have one thing in common: innovation in battery power. The CRC for Future Battery Industries (FBICRC) and the CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries are charging up to take Australia’s homegrown industry to the next level.

Nadine Cranenburgh investigates the next-gen of stored-energy technology.

Peak-proof renewable energy, advanced manufacturing growth and a long-lasting phone charge have one thing in common: battery innovation. The CRC for Future Battery Industries (FBICRC) and the CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries are charging up to take Australia’s homegrown industry to the next level.

Investment bank UBS predicts the worldwide market for batteries will grow to $US134-$US426 billion ($AU199-$AU636 billion) by 2030 — driven by increased demand for renewable energy storage, government-mandated uptake of electric vehicles and consumer electronics sales. Another key factor is the decreasing cost of lithium-ion batteries, which has plummeted by 85 per cent during the past decade.

Australia exports battery minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. But according to the CEO of FBICRC, Stedman Ellis, the nation has the opportunity to capitalise on our mineral wealth, homegrown research and technical expertise to establish local R&D, manufacturing and recycling facilities.

“We have the minerals the world needs to support demand over the next 10-20 years,”says Ellis. “The challenge, and opportunity, is to move downstream and become a price-maker and not a price-taker.”

The FBICRC, based at Curtin University in Western Australia, received $25 million in Federal Government funding in April 2019. Additionally, 58 partners from industry, academia and government have pledged $110 million of support during the FBICRC’s six-year lifespan.

Finding a niche

Market researcher Mordor Intelligence predicts North America and the Asia-Pacific region will be hotspots for the global battery market over the next five years, with the United States, India and China playing important roles.

Ellis says that while it will be difficult for Australia to compete in the bulk production market, local manufacturers could find a niche in specialised industries such as defence. There is also an opportunity to establish recycling and re-use facilities to meet domestic needs and those of the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia could also find a competitive edge in the safe, environmentally responsible production of high-quality materials. For example, a high proportion of the cobalt used in battery production is mined in the Congo, Africa, where workers are poorly protected from safety hazards.

FBICRC estimates battery industries will deliver a $2.5 billion benefit to the Australian economy during the next 15 years. To quantify the employment, economic and investment outcomes, FBICRC has commissioned a project led by the Perth USAsia Centre and the University of Western Australia to determine how we can best leverage the regional requirements and opportunities through international partnerships, business development and government policy design.

The CSIRO will also map the current skills and capabilities of Australia’s battery industries as a baseline to measure future growth.

Linking the value chain

The goal of the FBICRC is to tackle industry-identified gaps in the battery value chain, from mining and processing through to battery manufacturing and recycling. Progress has already been made on the next step after mining, with the first fully automated lithium hydroxide manufacturing facility outside China launching operations in Kwinana, an outer suburb of Perth. Wesfarmers-owned Kidman Resources plans to build a second plant in the same industrial area, but has delayed its final investment decision until early 2021.

Two of FBICRC’s flagship projects address gaps further down the value chain: bedding-down the precursors for local manufacture of cathodes and a national battery-testing facility to verify the operation of Australian-made and imported cells.

Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia’s battery minerals could be processed locally to make the precursors for battery manufacture [cathodes, anodes and electrolytes] rather than being exported.

“Australia has had a strong cohort of battery scientists for many years, but they have had to work overseas because we didn’t have that industry [locally],” he says.

To demonstrate our domestic capability for battery manufacture, Talbot established a demonstration facility at Banyo Pilot Plant at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) — the first in Australia to take raw materials and process them into finished, commercial batteries.

“It’s not just about showing it’s possible, it’s about helping industry get up to speed,” says Talbot.

The National Battery Testing Facility will be designed to test the real-life operation of a wide range of battery cells, from familiar cylindrical lithium-ion cells through to grid-scale vanadium redox flow batteries. It will be co-located with QUT’s hydrogen pilot plant and store solar energy in a microgrid to avoid destabilising the wider electricity network. The energy stored in the batteries being tested will be used to power an electrolyser, which produces green hydrogen.

Hybrid approach

While lithium-ion batteries dominate the current market, they have limitations. The $3 million CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries is working to modify the properties of batteries to reduce cost and increase efficiency and capacity. It is led by manufacturing company Calix Global, in collaboration with Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) and BAT-TRI Hub research centre, as well as chemical manufacturer Boron Molecular.

IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr says hybrid lithium-ion batteries replace the graphite anode in conventional lithium-ion cells with higher-powered lithium titanate (LTO) with various cathode materials. 

“It still operates under very similar principles, but you can achieve higher power density.”

Calix will experimentally produce nano-active cathode materials for hybrid batteries at its BATMn flash calcination reactor in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which can produce up to 250kg per hour. The company is currently prototyping a lithium manganese oxide cathode which has potential applications in electric vehicles, energy storage and portable electronics.

Calix is also working with the FBICRC to investigate more efficient extraction of lithium from spodumene ore.

“Calix will investigate whether flash calcination technology could be exploited to improve recovery rates and economics of lithium beneficiation and processing,” says Dr Matt Boot-Handford, R&D Manager for Batteries and Catalysts at Calix.

Beyond lithium batteries 

Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia has identified alternative options to lithium-ion batteries. For example, WA-based Australian Vanadium recently supplied a 320kWh vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) to store solar energy on a dairy farm in Meredith, Victoria. The battery was manufactured in the US with vanadium ore mined in Australia and locally processed into an electrolyte solution.

VRFBs, developed by chemists at the University of New South Wales, use large tanks of liquid electrolyte to store energy. They are a safer and more recyclable alternative to lithium-ion batteries for renewable energy storage, particularly in remote or regional areas where space is not an issue.

Lithium-sulfur batteries, sodium-ion and sodium-air batteries could also be future alternatives, particularly in high temperature or hazardous environments.

“Materials in sodium batteries are abundant, cheap and benign,” says IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr.

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