Commodity Focus

Battery Metals

British Lithium is today focused on battery group metal projects with the potential to become world-class deposits, positioned in the lowest cost quartile and able to be developed ethically and sustainably. With nearly every forecast predicting higher battery use in the years ahead, especially lithium-ion batteries, to power new and existing technologies largely in the automotive and consumer goods markets, demand for battery metals are set to soar. These include lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, bromine, zinc and vanadium.

The move to electric mobility is essential to reduce the world’s carbon emissions and to reduce pollution in major cities. Energy storage in lithium batteries is also an essential “enabling” technology for growing use of sustainable, but intermittent, renewable energy, such as wind and solar.

At twice the energy density of nickel-metal-hydride, six times that of nickel-cadmium, and five times the energy density of lead batteries, lithium ion batteries are already the battery of choice in mobile phones, laptops and every new electric vehicle. The main growth driver up to now has been consumer goods but what will take demand to the next level is road transport, followed by mass energy storage.

Unlike burning fossil fuels, batteries do not make energy but are the “enabling” technology required for renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and tidal, which of their nature deliver power intermittently. We believe that increasing efficiency and decreasing costs of lithium ion batteries combined with the declining cost of renewable power will see their market share grow exponentially.

Strategic Supply

Battery metals are likely in time to replace hydrocarbons as the most strategic of minerals. The strategic importance of battery metal supply will grow as widespread adoption continues, inevitably leading to concerns of Government policymakers and commercial users as to security of supply.  Europe currently has no production of either the lithium or the cobalt required to support government’s ambitious policies to replace internal combustion cars with electric ones.

Whilst a large number of junior companies are exploring for battery metals and proposing mine developments, the production of high purity battery metals such as lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide is metallurgically very complex and is likely beyond the ability of most juniors. British Lithium’s experience in complex metallurgical processing and strategic alliances with technology partners enhances its ability to see successful exploration through to development and production.

Alternative Battery Technologies

With the accelerated adoption of storage technologies, interest in broadening the application of renewables through storage, supply restrictions and inevitable increasing price of battery metals, $ billions are being invested around the world, on research into alternative battery technologies.

A question that must occur to any investor in battery metals, including British Lithium, is whether a new battery type may replace demand for lithium and cobalt. British Lithium is confident based on first-principals, that lithium-ion batteries will remain the principal energy storage technology. Whilst developments such as solid state Li-ion will increase the energy density and lower cost of lithium batteries, they are unlikely to be replaced by an alternative that does not use lithium. Research is successfully leading to a lower requirement for cobalt, but not lower lithium.

Lithium is the lightest metal, the lightest element after helium and hydrogen, and has one of the highest electrical potentials of any element (3.04V). There is nowhere else in the periodic table to go. Helium is inert so has no promise for energy storage. Whilst hydrogen gas has far greater energy density than lithium batteries, its storage requires heavy pressure vessels, and large-scale production and distribution facilities do not exist. Gradual roll-out of charging points for electric vehicles using the existing electricity grid appears far more feasible.

The energy density of hydrogen at 142MJ/kg is higher than diesel fuel at 48 MJ/kg and much higher than lithium-ion batteries. However, production of hydrogen (by reforming hydrocarbons) is expensive and produces more CO2 and less net energy than would be produced by simply burning the hydrocarbons! Producing hydrogen by electrolysis is even more expensive than reforming, and is not energy efficient. Compressing the gas for storage and transport consumes additional energy. Given that government support for the rollout of electric vehicles is driven by environmental concerns, hydrogen fuel cells are, in British Lithium’s view, unlikely to overtake lithium-ion batteries as an energy storage/transfer technology.

Recently, vanadium redox flow batteries have received favourable press. Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos at the University of Sydney invented this technology in 1986, and we negotiate global licences for its use back in 1999. Having built and operated a vanadium mine, and spent years financing and working on the vanadium battery, we have concluded that the technical complexity of vanadium electrolyte production, and the complexity of the vanadium redox battery itself is prohibitive for successful implementation by junior companies. In addition, a vanadium battery is twenty times the weight of a lithium-ion battery of the same capacity, so is unlikely to find application outside of fixed installations.