Biggest lithium maker ups game in race to power electric cars

01 July 2021 - 16:30 By bloomberg.com and Yvonne Yue Li
The Albemarle Corporation is fast-tracking advanced forms of lithium that could result in better batteries for electric vehicles.
The Albemarle Corporation is fast-tracking advanced forms of lithium that could result in better batteries for electric vehicles.
Image: Brendon Thorne/Getty Image

Albemarle Corp, the world’s biggest producer of lithium, is fast-tracking advanced forms of the metal that could result in better batteries for electric vehicles.

A new lab in North Carolina will develop lithium products two to three times faster than previously, chief technology officer Glen Merfeld said on Wednesday. In particular, they will use cellphone-size custom samples to test how well a lithium concoction will work with, for example, new car models. That’s a process that currently takes months and happens off-site at manufacturers.

The lab will be an accelerator for what was “an incredibly slow process and was really arms-length,” Merfeld said.

The challenge is that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all with lithium. Electric vehicle batteries are highly engineered, and to achieve the right performance everything from the purity of the lithium to crystal structures and particle sizes are scrutinised by battery and automobile makers.

Automakers are rushing to secure supplies to ramp up electric vehicle output as they set up green vehicle targets amid a global transition away from fossil fuels.

The lab is also creating a razor-thin form of lithium that will make batteries cheaper and more powerful. The foil measures just 20 microns, or about a fifth of a human hair. Albemarle said it may achieve thicknesses of three to five microns in the future. The technology could reduce costs by 50%, said Merfeld.

Lithium foils could replace graphite, an expensive part of batteries currently used in electric vehicles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in September last year the key to the company’s promised $25,000 (roughly R358,455) car is to bring down power costs by reducing graphite and cobalt.

Albemarle’s innovation centre is expected to be fully operational in July.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


subscribe