Powering ahead: battery minerals face a robust future

By Siobhan Lismore-Scott
Published: Monday, 25 November 2013

The modern world is powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries in their many guises. It’s hard to imagine life without handheld powertools, rechargeable vacuum cleaners, electric vehicles and personal electronic devices – yet five years ago this space was still burgeoning. But what does the future hold?

The personal electronic device market is growing at an incredible rate and electric vehicles powered by li-ion batteries are creating waves – be it in eBike sales, plug in motors or aeroplanes. It’s hard to imagine life without handheld powertools, rechargeable vacuum cleaners, electric vehicles and personal electronic devices – yet five years ago this space was still burgeoning. What then, Siobhan Lismore-Scott, Editor, asks, does the future hold?

Tesla Motors

US car manufacturer Tesla Motors hit the headlines in November when its Q3 2013 results revealed that it was experiencing a battery shortage, which would last until a new deal with Panasonic starts next year.

Limited supplies of the battery components have restricted Tesla’s ability to enlarge its global reach, to the extent that it has had to temper deliveries of its flagship Model S car in North America over the last year in order to supply European customers who have been on a waiting list for the vehicles.

“We plan to continue to increase production over the next several quarters in order to keep up with the growth in demand,” Elon Musk, CEO said.

“Our suppliers are also ramping up their capacity to meet our production targets,” he added.

Tesla revealed that along these lines, it has expanded its 2011 supplier agreement with Japanese battery manufacturer, Panasonic. Under this new agreement, Panasonic will increase its production capacity of automotive-grade li-ion battery cells to supply Tesla with a minimum of 1.8bn cells over four years, more than three times its previous agreement.

“This number should be viewed as more of a floor than a ceiling,” Musk said in a statement.

Following the company’s Q3 results, Musk then went further still to say that it was considering building a Li-ion battery factory, which could be the biggest in the world.

“This will be a giant facility. We are talking about something that is comparable to all of the li-ion battery production in the world - in one factory,” Musk said.

So where will the new supply come from? Tesla uses a lithium-nickel-cobalt battery and will no doubt need graphite, lithium and cobalt sources to power supply.

The battery market

As the infographic overleaf suggests, the battery market is expected to grow significantly over the next five years, boosted by sales of personal electronics, electric vehicles and cordless power tools.

However, while these industries are evolving - it doesn’t mean that the batteries are.

“Consider the evolution of Apple’s iPhone: between its first generation in 2007 and today’s iPhone 5c, processing speed increased from 0.4 GHz to 1.3GHz, random-access memory (RAM) jumped from 128 MB to 1,024 MB, and screen resolution multiplied from about 150,000 pixels to 730,000 pixels. One performance metric, however, remained almost static Ñ the iPhone’s Li-ion battery capacity was 5.2 Wh in 2007, and is 5.5 Wh today, limiting device runtime, particularly when features like Bluetooth, 4G,or streaming video are used,” a note from Lux Research in June set out.

Lux Research however believes that in 2013 consumer electronics will have contributed 65% to the mobile energy revenue share. E-bikes 20% and plug in vehicles 8%. Hybrid vehicles are expected to contribute 6%. Of these applications li-ion batteries bring in 65% of the revenue share, lead-acid batteries 15%, supercapacitators and NiMH batteries 1%.

Apples and pears

It’s worth remembering also, that a single Tesla Model S EV can pack 85 KWh, equivalent to more than 15,000 iPhone batteries. During the first quarter of 2013 Tesla delivered 4,900 cars, containing about 400 MWh worth of batteries in total, while Apple’s record iPhone sales during the same period of 48m units amounted to only 270 MWh.

Source: Lux Research

Sources for infographic include: Lux Research; Northern Graphite; Molycorp; Focus graphite; American Vanadium; Energizer Resources

See the IM infographic on battery minerals: