Australia is the leading nation of raw resources for lithium-ion batteries, boasting 95 per cent of those raw materials – there just aren’t manufacturers to produce them. Right now, all LiFePO4 manufacturing in Australia is proposed, but nothing as yet is underway. As our world becomes increasingly electrified, and that electricity becomes increasingly clean and backed by batteries, ensuring our own sovereignty will mean having a domestic supply of the literal batteries that run our country. Accenture’s Head of Utilities, Charlie Richardson, believes we should be pouring stimulus into this industry, to create the shot in the arm that the country’s manufacturing industry desperately needs.
Energy caught up with Charlie to hear more about his thoughts on developing an Australian lithium-ion battery manufacturing industry.
Energy: With so many changes in electricity generation, use and storage, what role do you think lithium-ion batteries will play in our energy future, and why are they so important?
Charlie Richardson: Compared with traditional battery technology, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, last longer and have a higher power density equating to more battery life in a lighter and smaller package. These attributes solve a lot of modern societal challenges and have quickly led lithium-ion batteries to become a dominant technology that is essentially important for devices we can’t do without – the likes of mobile phones and laptops.
Australia’s energy future is widely accepted to be renewable, it’s just the journey and timeframes to that destination that are unclear. Lithium-ion technology proves its worth here in its application to wind and solar power, as well as crucial energy storage, all of which facilitate our departure away from carbon and towards energy sustainability.
Beyond these immediate benefits, the future of lithium-ion batteries is strong as the preferred option in the emergence of electric vehicles (EVs), and as our newly established technology hub in South Australia can attest to, are growing in popularity for military and aerospace applications. Put simply, lithium-ion batteries are so important because they represent mature technology, with rapidly dropping prices, a closing (but not completely closed) lifecycle, and an ability to power almost all elements of our lives.
E: In your opinion, what makes Australia a viable country to mine the resources for lithium-ion batteries?
CR: We have all the raw ingredients. Australia boasts around 95 per cent of the materials for lithium-ion batteries, complimented by a firmly-established and increasingly sophisticated mining industry. Australia also benefits from a sophisticated economy suited to high-tech industries supported by leading scientific and education institutions. What we are lacking is the manufacturing infrastructure. Given the government’s $1.5 billion investment to revive Australian manufacturing, this is a huge opportunity that should have stimulus poured into it. We’ve got the ingredients, know-how, and demand. Now all that is missing is the requisite support.
E: Why do you think Australia has toed the line in the uptake of lithium-ion batteries and producing the resources for them?
CR: Australia requires the equipment, processes and technology to convert its raw materials into usable lithium-ion batteries. Despite some progress by Australian companies in developing relevant technologies and small-scale lithium-ion battery capabilities, Australia needs to attract investment and technology transfer, and/or patents from existing lithium-ion battery manufacturers to develop the required level of capability. Given our distance from other markets which will limit exports initially, we need to be creative in how we support a domestic market for batteries and incentivise companies to establish manufacturing here.
E: What would you say are the main benefits that investment into this area can provide for industry, government and the wider Australian community?
CR: As everything becomes increasingly electrified, the overriding benefit is ensuring our own sovereignty, which means having a domestic supply of the literal batteries that run our country. An overreliance on imports puts our industries, government and general consumers in a concerning position, whereby the supplying market can apply subtle pressure by limiting access, which would significantly impact Australian industry and society.
A dedicated investment would increase Australia’s position across the development of crucial and emerging technologies, and the latter is perhaps best reflected in the accelerated rollout of EVs. It is an industry that year-on-year estimations consistently under-predict, with the latest estimating its worth at $30b by 2030. As tech advances reduce battery charge times and lowering electricity prices (per kilowatt hour) put cost on parity, Australia finds itself in a unique position to lead on embedding EVs as the standard.
E: After a tumultuous year, how can the development of a lithium-ion battery resources manufacturing industry assist in a post-pandemic recovery?
Domestic sovereignty is again a key element of the opportunity Australia has to maximise its abundance of natural resources. Reducing our reliance on imports from international markets and becoming a producer of essential tech paves a significant route into post-pandemic recovery, and beyond. It’s not solely the immediate opportunity in itself, but the shot in the arm a domestic supply of lithium-ion batteries gives to associated industries such as renewable energy, and in the near future, EVs. Again, this is a natural fit for Australia. We have the natural resources, abundant renewables, and a more-than-capable workforce.
E: In your opinion, what kind of stimulus would we need to see to help develop this new manufacturing industry (from the Federal and State Government level, the wider energy industry, and at a local level)?
CR: We’ve reached a point where supportive infrastructure investment, and funding programmes have become critical to developing lithium-ion batteries as a globally competitive industry for Australia. A significant government commitment to establishing a battery manufacturing sector in Australia, maximising our abundance of raw materials like copper, nickel and lithium, could in turn stimulate further private sector investment, as well as generating new jobs to combat record unemployment. The wider energy industry should now be intensifying its focus on batteries to build on its strong start and at a local level consumption is only likely to increase as business benefits are realised. Beyond manufacturing, stimulus needs to flow into supporting a nascent marketplace for domestic products. Be they EV, home, grid-scale, or device batteries.
E: How can manufacturers ensure environmental safety and minimise the environmental impact while mining resources for lithium-ion, so that Australia can avoid a situation like the polluting of the Liqi River in Tibet?
CR: As the industries the world over push to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable the transformation is a critical risk to manage. In Australia, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods than those deployed in other markets, but it still requires careful use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. The process is also water intensive, so smart water management strategies are essential to responsible manufacturing. It’s about creating a process that gets lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground than is necessary.
Australia has robust mining oversight and an engaged populace. They will serve to ensure we maintain our environment and quality of life. Most importantly though, Australia needs to support the development of a transparent and viable battery recycling program. Batteries have incredibly long lives and can serve a multitude of purposes before being returned to their raw components. As we’ve seen with our traditional waste recycling, we cannot ‘offshore’ this problem and need to plan and address it within our borders.
E: With the uptake of more sustainable and renewable energy generation, how do lithium-ion batteries help to keep the grid stable and reliable?
CR: Lithium-ion batteries are scalable and can be located at or near where their energy is consumed, avoiding the need for extensive electrical grid upgrades. Lithium-ion batteries can charge and discharge faster than other storage alternatives, can be manufactured and deployed faster, require less maintenance and can be mass produced leveraging existing technology. Increased investment in these batteries creates ample storage to better deploy energy management strategies like demand response, stabilising the grid by moving power on and off as the market demands. While other electrical storage solutions exist commercially, none of the alternatives have the versatility of lithium-ion batteries.