A number of cars and concepts turned heads at the at the Detroit motor show, but it was a claim by General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra (above) that swung the spotlight on to a showpiece of another sort: lithium-ion battery technology.
Barra said that GM and its 2017 Chevrolet Volt car had “cracked the code” of combining long range with an affordable price. Improved lithium-ion batteries, she said, gives the updated Volt a range of 320km on a full charge, twice that of the current Volt and rivals like the Nissan Leaf.
Okay, but who in America, Barra was asked, is going to fork out US$30,000 – after US$7500 in US Government incentives – on a Volt EV when the price of petrol is getting cheaper by the day. “Anyone who wants to save time, money, and the environment in a car that is truly fun to drive,” she said.
The world’s battery companies are rushing to pack more high-density energy storage into the lithium-ion packs, and carmakers are hanging off every development in the race to make greener vehicles.
So what is lithium (1), where does it come from (2), and who among the carmakers (3) is investing big in the battery technology?
- It is a naturally occurring element – the Earth has plenty of it in salts and rocks. But extracting and processing it can be costly. Once processed it is a whiteish metal, the lightest of all metals. As a salt it is used in the medical treatment of bi-polar disorder.
- Chile has 20 per cent of known resources in the form of lithium salts washed from the Andes mountains millions of years ago. Boliva has bigger deposits but isn’t producing yet. State-controlled Chinese company CITIC is said to be making a play for control of Chile’s biggest lithium resource. China has an insatiable appetite for raw material. American mining giant Albermarle – the world’s biggest lithium producer – and its Chinese partner Tianqi is getting lithium from spodumene rock in Australia. Chinese battery makers take most of it for the country’s carmakers. The top eight lithium producing countries are: Chile, Australia, China, Agentina, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Brazil, and the US.
3. Every carmaker in the world is investing in lithium technology as tougher emissions standards boost the need for more battery power. Toyota is partners with Australian mine company Orocobre in a lithium-brine project in Argentina. US electric carmaker Tesla has reportedly signed a deal with Bacanora, a Canadian firm, to supply Tesla with lithium from a mine in Mexico. Tesla is promising to start mass production of lithium-ion batteries this year in a ‘gigifactory’ in the US state of Nevada. It hopes to supply lithium-ion batteries for 500,000 cars a year within five years. Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes the 1000km range is within reach by next year.
The main battery makers are Samsung and LG of South Korea, Panasonic and Sony of Japan, and ATL of Hong Kong. Lithium is used only in small quantities in each battery cell. There have been problems with it overheating but the makers say technology is overcoming those instances. Lithium is now one of the world’s hot commodities. Investment bank Goldman Sachs calls lithium “the new gasoline”.
But lithium itself is not a big business, says the Economist magazine. Worldwide sales of lithium salts are only about US$1 billion a year. But the element is a vital component of batteries that power everything from cars to smartphones, laptops and power tools.
As the Economist notes, ‘Increasingly, lithium is becoming to batteries what silicon is to semiconductors—prevalent, even among worthy alternatives. In one form or another, the lithium-ion battery is the technology of our time.’