Building Australia’s lithium battery value chain

lithium

From powering our mobile devices, electric vehicles and homes to providing grid-scale energy storage, lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised the way we live in the world. As lithium-ion battery costs fall – down 97 per cent since 1991 – and the world pursues a lower emissions energy future, batteries are an enabling technology that will support an even greater penetration of these technologies. The demand for lithium-ion batteries is growing, and the global market is projected to be worth $242 billion by 2026.

With 100 per cent of Australia’s lithium-ion batteries currently imported from overseas, an opportunity exists for Australia to build the whole battery value chain from mining of battery minerals to processing, battery active materials and eventually cell manufacture. This opportunity could contribute $7.4 billion annually to Australia’s economy, according to the 2021 Future Charge: Building Australia’s Battery Industries report out of the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBICRC), and support 34,700 jobs by 2030.

In 2020, researchers at Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, worked with the FBICRC to develop the State of Play: Australia’s Battery Industries report. The report highlighted Australia’s potential to capitalise on the value add from moving further along the battery value chain. FBICRC’s CEO at the time, Stedman Ellis, said the landmark study provided an important foundation for wider policy framework and identified priority areas which could turbo charge job creation – resources technology and critical minerals processing, recycling and low emissions energy, and defence.

CSIRO is actively developing enabling technologies for a minerals to manufacturing approach for Australia, leading to jobs and growth for Australian high-tech manufacturing. The organisation has world leading expertise in the discovery, mining, beneficiation, production of battery materials, manufacturing, deployment, use and recycling of lithium batteries.

Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO, Dr Adam Best, said the organisation is working with industry partners to grow the lithium battery industry and create wealth through new knowledge for Australia.

“By value adding Australia’s mineral resources, we can grow the material value of our exports and create high value, high technology jobs, which will lead to economic growth for Australian manufacturers,” Dr Best said.

CSIRO’S research works towards a minerals to manufacturing approach for Australia.

An example is Australia’s burgeoning graphite industry. Today’s lithium-ion batteries utilise artificial graphite as the anode (negative electrode), which is produced from petroleum coke, and has a tremendous energy and CO2 footprint during manufacture. The mining of natural graphite followed by comunition and beneficiation produces a flake graphite, but is not suitable for direct use in batteries. By spheroidising the graphite flakes, we are able to produce a “potato-shaped” particle that has high tap density and volumetric energy suitable for use in battery anodes. A final purification step is also needed, and we are developing cleaner and greener methods to achieve this. These are key steps that we are building capability to support an Australian battery anode industry. CSIRO is working with a number of local companies, and the FBICRC, to achieve this.

Australia also has significant reserves of Nickel, Manganese, Copper, Aluminium and Cobalt, all elements that are critical to the manufacture of lithium batteries. In 2018, Australia became the largest supplier of lithium to the world. Together with the Australian minerals resources sector, CSIRO has the skills and capacity to deliver innovation and technical solutions to companies interested to enter this space. The downstream processing of these materials to cathode materials, such as the eponymous Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP), is critical to creating further value from our mineral wealth. CSIRO is working with Queensland nanotechnology company, VSPC Ltd., on the development and characterisation of an Australian developed version of this material.

CSIRO also worked with BHP to build a pilot plant at their Waterford site in Perth to test BHP’s process for producing quality battery grade nickel sulphate for their customers in the battery market. BHP has since produced its first batch of nickel sulphate crystals from its nickel sulphate plant in Kwinana, WA.

To further bring innovation to the Australian lithium industry, CSIRO is working with NSW battery manufacturer, Energy Renaissance. Operating in Tomago, Energy Renaissance is set to be Australia’s first lithium battery technology gigafactory with its new manufacturing facility due for completion in May 2022. Called ‘Renaissance One’, the battery gigafactory is a 4,500m square metre facility with a capacity capable of producing up to 1GWh of batteries per year.

The Renaissance superStorageTM batteries that are designed and made in Tomago, have been developed in collaboration with CSIRO for use in stationary and transport applications.

Renaissance Two, a 5GWh advanced manufacturing prismatic cell facility is currently being planned to supply Renaissance One and this will allow Energy Renaissance to close the loop on their end-to-end model to transform Australian minerals to locally manufactured lithium battery cells. In the near future, this will improve the sovereignty of Australia’s battery supply and reduce the cost of lithium battery technologies for customers.

As the energy industry becomes increasingly digitised, the ability to secure energy generation and storage assets is a significant challenge the industry is working collaboratively to overcome.

A Battery Management System (BMS) controls the charging protocols of a battery and manages its operation in real-time, determining the state-of-charge at any given time and providing information on the state-of-health of a battery until the end of its life. As more batteries are deployed on the grid, in businesses and homes, a BMS addresses both cybersecurity and operational risks.

The collaboration between the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, CSIRO and Energy Renaissance to develop a BMS that can work across Energy Renaissance’s suite of superStorageTM products is an example of how the BMS technology provides robust and secure communication with batteries for real-time monitoring and optimising performance for Australian conditions.

Brian Craighead, Founder and Development Director, Energy Renaissance, said the company’s commitment to manufacture and deliver the world’s safest, hot-climate batteries is supported by best-of-breed research partnerships to deliver sovereign, heat-optimised batteries to the Australian and SE Asian markets.

“The collaboration Energy Renaissance has with CSIRO and IMCRC shows how we can create an innovative Battery Management System that gives Australian batteries a global competitive edge in a global industry which has up till now been focused on price rather than innovation,” Mr Craighead said.

Working with other industry partners, CSIRO has developed battery packs and electric drive solutions for hybrid vehicles, including with Holden in Australia, General Motors in the US and BusTech electric buses in Australia. Collaborating with the Australian Government’s Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre and the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), they’ve even made tram power lines disappear, thanks to the development of powerful new lithium-ion batteries and associated technologies to enable caternary-free trams.

And now the team is working on batteries for Space. Space exploration and utilisation is a growth area for the Australian space industry. Exploring the next frontier requires power and energy in the form of long-life, high-energy and light-weight devices to ensure the appropriate longevity in space applications.

CSIRO battery specialist, Dr Marzi Barghamadi, said there is a continual need for higher energy batteries with lower mass and volume.

“Batteries provide energy for satellites when solar panels are not receiving sunlight,” Dr Barghamadi explained.

“Lithium-ion batteries, compared to other types of batteries originally used in space application such as nickel-hydrogen, offer higher specific energy and energy efficiency,” she said.

“Because space conditions are very different from our day-to-day life environment, space batteries must undergo extensive testing to ensure they fit the target mission, such as working in extreme low temperature or operating under vacuum and solar radiation.”

Closer to home, commercial enterprises and energy intensive businesses in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors see battery storage as a strategic investment to help reduce their overall energy bills, back up security when the grid fails and to optimise their investment in rooftop solar. Many state government agencies already offer grants or loans to businesses to help them tap into energy storage to reduce their energy costs, be more cost competitive or to manufacture products with a lower carbon footprint that is highly sought after for export.

As technology advances, our energy storage requirements will also need to evolve. At the grid level, new management systems are required to incorporate more renewable energy into an electricity network designed for predominantly fossil fuel technologies. Disruptive change is crucial if we are to move towards meeting our future energy needs reliably, sustainably and at lowest cost.

To that end, CSIRO has recently launched its Revolutionary Energy Storage Systems Future Science Platform to work on the science challenges that will take us well beyond the limitations of today’s energy storage options and systems.

Dr Best said the FSP has been set up to solve those critical science and technology challenges that will bring about the energy storage revolution that we need to have.

“Unlocking the secret to efficient, clean and safe energy storage could see us charge electric vehicles as easily as we now fill our petrol tanks or keep our portable devices charged for many days without the need for a top up,” Dr Best said.

“On a larger scale, it could even be mimicking pumped hydro through new technology and making it more responsive to the needs of the grid.”

This June, over one thousand of the world’s lithium battery experts will meet in Sydney to attend the 21st International Meeting on Lithium Batteries (www.imlb2022.org). It’s the first time this premier research meeting on lithium-ion and next-generation batteries will take place in Australia. The event will provide Australia with a platform to show off our battery community’s homegrown capabilities in the lithium battery field and demonstrate our importance in the global lithium value chain.