Lithium-ion batteries spark up our business case

7 Apr 2016

 

We’re closely watching the development of a fast-emerging market for high purity alumina (HPA) in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles– and we like what we see.
 
HPA is used in lithium-ion battery separators, which separate the cathode and the anode, and act as catalyst to promote the movement of ions (from cathode to anode when charging, and vice-versa on discharge).
 
Using HPA in large-format lithium-ion batteries such as those in electric vehicles and utility storage applications improves the thermal and mechanical stability of the separators. HPA makes separators twice as conductive as the conventional polypropylene and polyethylene separators. Using HPA also boosts discharge rates, reduces flammability and lengthens the lifespan of the battery.
 
Given the global push for electric vehicles and energy storage, lithium-ion batteries are expected to be increasingly significant.
 
At the moment most HPA is used in LED (light-emitting diode) lighting, a semiconductor device that converts electricity into light. It’s also used in other kinds of semiconductors, plasma displays in TVs and computer screens as well as other high-performance applications.
But there are two developments within the market that make us confident that worldwide demand for HPA is poised to grow well beyond these uses.
 
The first – which could potentially be enough to justify our project on its own – is the use of HPA in sapphire glass, a transparent material made from artificial sapphire. Sapphire glass is emerging as a scratch-resistant, fracture-proof and shatter-proof material for smartphone screens: it is superior in these respects to the material currently used, the thin, super-tough, light and damage-resistant Gorilla Glass, made by US glass giant Corning.
 
Sapphire glass is much tougher than Gorilla Glass – almost four times tougher in terms of fracture toughness. It’s also harder, denser, more elastic, and heavier. Wider use of sapphire glass could boost demand for HPA massively.
 
But the growing use of HPA in lithium-ion batteries could be even bigger. We predict that HPA use in lithium-ion battery separators could be almost 4,000 tonnes a year by 2020 in China alone. That could potentially absorb all of our production from our proposed Malaysian plant.
And don’t forget Tesla’s US$5 billion Gigafactory – the Nevada-based lithium-ion battery factory being built primarily for the electric automotive industry. It will open in 2017 and once fully operational, the Gigafactory will make as many lithium-ion batteries a year as were made in the entire world in 2013.
 
We have not factored the Gigafactory into our market projections but Tesla plans to be building 500,000 electric cars a year by 2020.
 
We’re quietly confident that there is a big opportunity for HPA in the scale-up of the lithium-ion battery industry.