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Lithium demand rises with E-car use, but will it last?

Paris (France): Lithium has transformed batteries - its high energy density and slow self discharge is propelling forward the growth of electric cars in the UK.

Lithium in E-car

In Britain alone as many as one million electric vehicles are expected on the roads by 2022. So what do we know about the metal which is helping transform the environment?

It's unlikely you'll be seeing this model on the road soon. This is a concept, here designers are allowed to let their imaginations run away with the car, unfettered by cost, regulation and physics.

People used to look at electric cars in the same way and it wasn't that many years ago.

Now global concern about the impact of air pollution on our health and the natural world is prompting greater regulation of emissions. And that in turn is nudging greater numbers of car manufacturers to go electric.

This is creating demand for the main components of the new batteries of which lithium is key.

Although the price of lithium has risen, there has been disagreement in the industry over whether it will continue to do so.

According to ResearchAndMarkets.com's report "Lithium-ion Battery Market" released earlier this month the "global Lithium-ion battery market reached a value of around US$ 25 Billion in 2017."

The report says it's projected to reach a value of US$ 47 Billion by 2023, that would be a compound annual growth rate of around 11 per cent.

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Jim Holder the editorial director of Autocar says car makers are under pressure to build more batteries faster.

"I think already you can see with the most popular electric cars that one of the things holding up the production of them is the rate at which the batteries can be produced. So there is definitely pressure on the battery makers to respond."

Look under the hood of a Tesla and this is what you'll find, thousands of cells which make a whole battery.

Here at the University of Warwick scientists have spent years studying how to create smaller, more energy efficient batteries and how to speed up the recharging process.

To show us how it works, research electrochemical engineer Dr. Mel Loveridge breaks down one of the cells.

Unfurled the battery cell has four layers.

One is the cathode positive electrode, it's a aluminium foil coated with a ceramic containing lithium manganese oxide.

Another layer is the negative electrode historically based on graphite with conductive ingredients to help it transport electrons to the copper metal foil.

In between these layers to stop the anode and cathode short circuiting, there is a porous polymer film. The microscopic holes allow the lithium ions to transfer through, but not the electrons.

Between them is the transport medium known as electrolytes, this allows the ions to travel freely between the layers.

The electrical current reaches each cell via the conductive copper and aluminium surfaces.

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Holding another cell Loveridge explains: "The layers of materials you can see before me are taken from one of these batteries. So this is a cylindrical format lithium ion battery called an 18-650 because of its dimensions and it's this type of battery configuration that you would find within, for example, a Tesla battery in a car."

When a battery is charged the positively charged lithium ions pass from the cathode, through the separator, into the graphite covered anode.

The energy is stored in the anode until the battery is needed to discharge its energy. Then the lithium ions travel out of the anode through the separator to the cathode supplying the vehicle with electrical energy.

Loveridge explains that lithium is sought after for batteries because it transports energy efficiently: "Lithium ions can interact with materials in three ways. It can move between layers, we call this an intercalation process, it can alloy with materials, meaning it will disrupt the crystal structure of a material to accomodate itself and then to come back out again when it needs to, or it can get engaged in a chemical reaction."

She says: "Current lithium ion batteries involve lithium moving in and out of layers, because of its size it can do this more quickly. This is why a battery can be charged more quickly based on lithium ion technology."

It's also why, at the moment, lithium technology is essential to the car industry.

Battery shapes may change, many manufacturers like Nissan are using flat cell packs like these. But the key ingredients remain the same.

You can see the reactive properties of lithium when you put a small disc of the silver grey metal in a flask of water.

The metal reacts intensely forming lithium hydroxide and highly flammable hydrogen which propels it forward.

Lithium is the lightest of metals, it has the greatest electrochemical potential and provides the largest energy density for weight

These are vital to manufacturers who want a lightweight battery, which recharges and is able to discharge enough energy to take a car over a hundred miles, which is the range of several lithium ion batteries now.

Industry analysts widely expect the amount of lithium being mined to increase as a constant supply is essential to stablilise prices.

However many believe lithium is not the panacea the industry is looking for long term.

As manufacturers start to envision a fully electric future, they are looking for a source of energy without lithium's drawbacks.

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Lithium batteries don't age well, they're limited to the number of charge and discharge cycles they've made.

There is a very mild risk of short circuiting. This happens when the insulating separator fails and lets the anode and cathode touch.

This allows the battery to overheat.

Because of this some high end manufacturers such as Tesla and Aston Martin are already researching how to make solid state batteries.

These would be a game changer. They don't use liquid electrolytes to move energy around. Instead, the cells are made of solid conductive material.

Holder says: "It's also unclear whether lithium ion batteries will be the future and how long they'll be the future for. We know car makers are working on alternative strategies, we know battery makers are working on alternative strategies. So it might be that lithium ion batteries are a phase and it may not even be a very long lived phase. So it's a really fluid situation at the moment and no-one is absolutely certain how long the technologies that are being developed today, will be used."

According to Holder advances in battery manufacture might not be as far away as some might imagine.

He says: "What we're seeing are a lot of the car makers talking about is the step change when we get to the mid 2020s, around 2025 maybe a little bit before, when they can introduce solid state batteries to mass production and that really can increase the range of the batteries, provide lower costs, lower the weight of those batteries as well, which of course in a car make a significant difference. And I think if we're looking for a step change when a battery powered car can be priced at the same as an engined one is today, I think that's going to be the point. It's probably not possible with today's battery technology, but give it three, four, maybe five, or six years and a step change in technology can change all of that."

The prospect of such tantalising alternatives not too far it the future, may mean the manufacturers stop regarding lithium as the precious, go-to metal it is today.



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