Powerful and rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries have become a staple of modern life. Used in electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops, lithium batteries are also being harnessed to power larger equipment such as cars, trucks, and possibly even planes.
However, for the Internet of Things (IoT) digital evolution to become truly all-encompassing (and viable), lithium-ion batteries must increase their charge capacity and longevity.
The challenge has been set for metallurgists and chemists the world over: to concoct a more efficient combination of various metals and chemicals to boost lithium-ion battery energy density.
One significant possibility, as explained by the enigmatic Tesla chief Elon Musk, is to use silicon as an anode additive to boost battery performance.
Several manufacturers have followed Tesla’s lead and are now actively transitioning to a greater reliance on silicon, especially for its ability to increase charge sizes as well as the number of cycles batteries can sustain.
A particular compound that could determine the entire future of the lithium-ion battery industry is Altech Chemicals’ (ASX: ATC) synthesised and patented product called Silumina Anodes.
Altech unveiled it had launched the name Silumina Anodes for its high purity alumina (HPA) coated composite silicon and graphite lithium-ion battery anode material.
According to its developers, Silumina Anodes serve as a mini-breakthrough in “alumina coating” technology – a method of successfully incorporating silicon and graphite directly into the graphite anodes of lithium-ion batteries.
The name denotes siliconised alumina and the product has been made using Altech’s closely guarded patented process and technology.
According to the developers of Silumina Anodes, the specialised process coats graphite particles with a 2-nanometer layer of pure alumina thereby improving how lithium ions bond to graphite and reducing depletion.
From a commercial perspective, the process avoids the financially and environmentally costly use of aluminium metal – thereby making Silumina Anodes a potential battery-market game changer.
Ultimately, as a silicon graphite anode product, the Silumina Anodes could potentially bridge the first-cycle-loss problem and pave the way for a next generation of anode technology that increases battery energy density and durability simultaneously. It could also mean a quicker route to the world’s first battery-powered jumbo jets and cruise liners.
There are, however, a couple of significant obstacles.
Silicon can expand by 300% during battery operation thereby causing swelling, fracturing and battery failure. Another problem is that silicon deactivates almost half of all the lithium-ions in a battery.
With consumers chomping at the bit to purchase electronic devices and electric cars, the multibillion-dollar gauntlet has been set for the entire battery manufacturing sector: a solution to what is known as the “first-cycle-loss” problem and “cracking the silicon code”, according to the original developer of the Silumina Anodes, Dr Jingyuan Liu and his team including Luke Atkins, Mark Griffiths, Summer Qi and Iggy Tan.
“Since the all-encompassing shift towards lithium-ion batteries, the industry has been in a race to find an ideal chemical combination in both anodes and cathodes. With silicon clearly offering a host of viable applications, both in cathodes and anodes, focusing on developing a flawless HPA product is crucial. My team and I have proved Silumina Anodes capable of improving battery energy capacity by around 30% – that’s a genuine code-cracker,” Dr Liu said.
According to Dr Liu, HPA is on track to become a great enabler for the entire battery sector.
Statistics show that global HPA demand is projected to grow from the current 19,000 tonnes per year to around 272,000t in 2028 – a 30% growth rate that is set to add HPA to the cavalcade of other raw materials that sustained rushes in the digital age such as lithium, cobalt, zinc and graphite.
From fossils to future
Market analysts predict an even greater surge into battery power over the next decade. Citing government curbs enforcing environmental sustainability in the EU, analysts are suggesting that the end of the fossil fuel era is already on the horizon.
With many European countries planning to ban the sale of petrol-powered cars in less than eight years, car manufacturers have been given all the impetus they need to develop EVs that suit the next generation of consumers.
As a result, demand for materials that will ultimately create the billions of batteries required is expected to raise raw material demand and alumina prices.
“We are already collaborating with a leading silicon manufacturer and battery supplier Ferroglobe, to directly improve how they coat their graphite particles with silicon. Not only that, but we’ve got a commercially viable and CICERO-approved manufacturing facility being built in Germany to supply the European EV car market in the coming years,” said Dr Liu.
According to feasibility study publications and regulatory filings, over a dozen battery manufacturing facilities are being built across Europe to supply a forecasted 500GWh of annual cell production capacity including global powerhouse names such as LG Chem with its 15GWh factory in Wroclaw, and CATL, with a €240 million plant in Erfurt, Germany, capable of outputting 60GWh by 2026.
Meanwhile, Silumina Anodes will be developed at a 14-hectare industrial site in the “new automotive nucleus” of Germany within the Schwarze Pumpe Industrial Park in Saxony.
The site, already under feasibility evaluation, will eventually operate a 10,000tpa high purity alumina battery materials coating plant, following a formal preliminary feasibility study carried out by Altech’s German subsidiary.
“On the quest to enable the IoT revolution, we’ve proven up some interesting project economics that could put a serious dent in the cost of battery production, especially at larger scale. To validate that everything we’ve done is commercially viable, we have secured an exclusive 10-year offtake deal with Mitsubishi who’ve agreed to buy everything we produce. Our product is second to none and I’m confident our project economics will substantiate all our hard work in getting Silumina Anodes to market,” said Dr Liu.