The vast majority of the current boom in portable electronics equipment relies on advancements in the lithium battery technology that provides the power. If these batteries are important to us now, in the near future, the introduction of more and more electric vehicles will drive demand to unprecedented levels. However, we may be facing a supply shortage of lithium that could become evident by as soon as next year. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (BMI) predicts an acute shortage from 2022 that could last until the end of the decade. Extraction companies around the globe are trying to open up new sources of lithium, but until those come fully online, then we have to make do with our current supply.
Those problems with supply get worse if you consider that up to 60% of the world’s lithium reserves can be found in China. For consumer applications, that could be a benefit, as the majority of our devices are manufactured there, and the nearby supply chain keeps down prices. For other areas of industry, especially automotive manufacturing, this could be problematic if trade wars get worse, or China decides it needs to safeguard its supply for its own manufacturers. Automotive manufacturers have already announced plans for gigafactories producing batteries in many countries, including Nissan in the UK and Volkswagen in Germany and Sweden. Having guaranteed access to raw materials is essential for the operation of these plants and the jobs they will create and sustain.
A second problem with lithium batteries is disposal at the end of life. Up until recently, a process called co-precipitation was the only viable method of recycling lithium batteries. It is a long and complex process with a large number of steps, a lot of waste, some of which is extremely toxic, and it is very energy intensive. This process is also most commonly practised in China, giving the country a larger hold on the lithium supply chain.
However, that situation may have changed as Massachusetts-based 6K has developed a method of producing advanced materials using plasma heated to 6000 degrees, hence the company name. While other companies also use plasma in the production of materials, 6K’s technique employs microwave technology to produce uniform thermal conditions across the plasma, giving a more predictable and precise output. The process can be used to generate a large number of different materials with uses including semiconductors, lighting and additive manufacturing. These materials are made from a variety of raw materials, including waste and scrap products. 6K claims the process offers a saving of up to 10x on water usage, uses 100x less waste water, offers a 3x reduction in power usage and a generates a third of the carbon dioxide of traditional production methods in a fraction of the time. There is also no hazardous waste generated during the process.
One of the most promising areas for the technology is the recycling of lithium batteries into materials suitable for the production of new batteries. The company has recently partnered with Heritage Battery Recycling to jointly produce new cathode material. Heritage will collect, store, and process end-of-life batteries, while 6K will manufacture the cathode-grade battery materials. Cheaper than traditional production, 6K estimates that direct cathode recycling could reduce costs by up to 70%. The cathode materials produced have been tested by both EV manufacturers and materials partners, who have found it has the same properties and performance as the original material. The process can be easily transferred to future battery chemical compositions, to keep up with continuously advancing technology. To assist in future development, 6K is investing $25M in a battery centre of excellence that will provide customer-sponsored units. The centre should be opened by the end of this year. As part of the expansion of the company, it will look to set up its process near customers and use local waste if possible to further reduce costs and save on waste.
We often talk about the circular economy on this page, and this is an excellent example of end-of-life material being reclaimed in whole to be used in new products. The fact that the material is lithium based and taken from batteries is a bonus for manufacturers and even governments who wish to shore up their supply chains.