A generational energy transition is currently underway on a global scale, promising to be the dawn of a new industrial age.
Worldwide investment in clean energy and energy efficiency in 2021 reached about 750 billion USD 1, and the average deal size has nearly quadrupled since 2020. Current projections foresee a global market opportunity for key mass-manufactured clean energy technologies worth around USD 650 billion a year by 2030 – over three times today's level. 2
Such tremendous global trend can only be sustained by large scale provision of reliable energy storage technologies, with batteries leading the charge in that technological space. By 2030, the demand for rechargeable batteries is expected to reach a 30% annual growth, with the battery value chain expected to have reached a tenfold increase since 2020. 3 In 2022 alone, the global battery market generated about USD 125 billion, a value that is projected to balloon to about USD 406 billion by 2030. 4
However, the Australian federal government has estimated the nation is only realising 0.5-1% of global product value, missing out on vital opportunities in refining and further downstream in the value chain. To address that, the federal government has opened industry consultations seeking to inform the country's first national battery strategy with the goal of developing a globally competitive domestic battery manufacturing ecosystem. 5
It is imperative that Australian companies and research institutions secure an early spot in this irreversible global trend.
Battery Technology – Current Landscape
Batteries can be broadly categorised by application as automotive batteries (HEV, PHEV, EV), portable batteries (Consumer Electronics, etc.), or industrial batteries (SLI Batteries, motive and stationary, e.g. Telecom, UPS, Energy Storage Systems, etc.). In terms of production volume, automotive batteries are set to represent the leading as well as dominating market product in coming years.
From the underlying technology standpoint, the current market is overwhelmingly dominated by the highly dependable lead-acid batteries and the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries. Notable alternatives include flow batteries and sodium nickel chloride batteries.
However, enormous research efforts are being spent worldwide to develop new battery formulations and architectures in the continuous quest for higher capacity, improved safety, faster recharge, and more environmentally-sustainable lifecycle of battery materials. Almost certainly, a new generation of batteries will soon emerge on the commercial horizon. Notable mentions include solid state lithium-ion batteries, sodium-ion batteries, and lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. Of those, LFP batteries are predicted to command up to 40% percent of the global battery market by 2030, 6 with companies like Tesla presently spearheading implementation of LFP batteries in their vehicles.
Battery Manufacture – Main Global Players
Globally, prominent players in today's battery market include GS Yuasa International Ltd, BYD Company Ltd, A123 Systems LLC, Hitachi Chemical Co Ltd, Duracell, Johnson Controls, NEC Corporation, Panasonic Corporation, Samsung SDI Co. Ltd., Toshiba Corporation, LG Chem Ltd., Saft, Robert Bosch GmbH, Sony Corporation, Eveready Industries, and Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd (CATL).
When it comes to batteries for the automotive battery market specifically, China, Korea and Japan have established themselves as today's main drivers in battery manufacture for electric vehicles (EVs). Chinese companies alone make up almost 56% of the EV battery market, South Korean companies making up a further 26%, and the rest being Japanese companies.
Presently, the global EV battery market is dominated by a handful of major players, namely Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL, China, 37% market share), BYD (China, 13.6% market share), LG Energy Solution (South Korea, 12.3% market share), Panasonic Holdings Corporation (Japan, 7.7% market share), SK Innovation (South Korea, 5.9% market share), and Samsung SDI (South Korea, 5% market share) 7.
Remarkably, the top three companies make up more than 60% of the EV battery manufacturing market.
As western countries boost their research and commercial efforts, new players are certainly expected to rise. A host of next-generation battery technologies are already being developed by U.S. companies, including Ionic Materials, QuantumScape, Sila Nanotechnologies, Sion Power, and Sionic Energy.
Current Challenges & Opportunities
The impressive growth rate of global demand in the battery market poses a number of technological challenges which demand prompt attention.
From the logistics front, larger production volumes will require the expansion of existing gigafactories, as well as the building of new ones. Supply of raw materials will also need to be faster. This will ensure demand growth does not outstrip capital investment in new supply, which was the leading cause for the recent electronic micro-chip shortage. Companies will also need to carefully assess and manage bottlenecks created by increasingly complex environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors.
While today's circumstances are certainly complex and novel, they also present growth opportunities for those who choose to address those issues and accelerate their move into the battery market. Three kind of players will be rewarded: current battery manufacturers wishing to expand operations, automotive manufacturers entering the EV space, and smaller new entities proposing disruptive battery technologies.
Considering supply chain issues and environmental challenges alone, an entirely new technological space is also rapidly expanding: battery recycling. In principle, around 95% of battery lithium and at least 99% of other battery metals (cobalt, manganese, and nickel) can be recovered from spent batteries and reused to manufacture new ones. The development of efficient recycling could therefore minimise current supply-related bottlenecks and effectively "close the loop" on the lifecycle of battery materials. Doing so will dramatically reduce production costs, minimise environmental impacts, and help to bypass geopolitical bottlenecks.
Australia is uniquely placed to reap the most benefit from a thriving battery market. However, its full potential has yet to be unlocked. Being naturally gifted with enormous mineral wealth, Australia has one of the largest world reserves of critical battery metals such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Yet, there are some glaring paradoxes.
Australia has the second largest cobalt reserves globally, but only accounts for a few units' % of the metal's global production, most of which comes from DR Congo.
Considering lithium, Australia is the largest producer of lithium in the world, fulfilling around half the lithium global demand. 8 Yet, the almost totality of lithium-ion unit cells existing in Australia is imported from overseas.
In that scenario, opportunities abound in Australia across the entire battery value chain, from mining and processing base metals to cell manufacture and recycling of spent batteries. If we further consider that national demand for modern batteries is exploding, with sale volume of electric vehicles alone doubling every year since 2020, Australia is uniquely placed to reap enormous benefits from creating and implementing or licensing new battery technologies.
Today's Australian battery manufacture market is fragmented and gravitates mostly around manufacture of SLI (lead-acid), flow batteries, and storage systems that implement imported lithium-ion unit cells. Major local players in that space include Century Yuasa Batteries Pty Ltd, Enersys Australia Pty Ltd, Robert Bosch (Australia) Pty Ltd, and Exide Technologies.
Looking at lithium specifically, there are only a handful of established Australian manufacturers of lithium-ion cells. Of those, Energy Renaissance manufactures lithium-ion unit cells and assembles battery units for stationary and transport applications, PowerPlus Energy designs and manufactures energy storage solutions based on lithium-ion cells for applications ranging from domestic right through to large scale utilities, and Lithium Batteries Australia designs and manufactures customised and professional grade LFP batteries.
In the recycling front, Neometals has been working in a joint venture with Primobius GmbH and SMS group to develop a recycling plant for black-mass solvent extraction, targeting the recovery of over 90% of all battery materials from spent lithium-ion batteries. Li-cycle proposes a hydrometallurgical circuit to deal with lead-mass from spent lithium-ion batteries, to produce individual metal sulphate and carbonate battery-grade products with the purity levels required to be used in cathode and precursor production.
There is therefore plenty of fertile ground in Australia for new manufacturing ventures in the world of modern batteries.
The Australian government recognises those unique circumstances and opportunities, and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources has recently opened industry consultations calling for "views on how governments, industry and researchers can work together to create and support a sustainable, thriving end-to-end battery supply chain". 9 One can only expect the government will fully support the establishment of new business ventures and R&D proposals along the entire battery value chain.
Local start-up accelerators are already answering the call. For instance, start-up accelerators (Energy) Lab and New Energy Nexus have launched Supercharge Australia, an initiative to "develop an ecosystem to support lithium battery innovation and capture more value from the lithium battery supply chain". 10 Notably, a first cohort 11 battery start-ups has recently been announced for the Supercharge Australia Innovation Challenge. 11
By the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020, manufacturers, importers and distributors are required to take greater responsibility for used batteries. To assist, the government is backing B-cycle 12, a battery recycling scheme run by the Battery Stewardship Council (BSC), authorised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and accredited as a Federal Government Product Stewardship Scheme. B-cycle is an accreditation system to which recycling companies, as well as importers and retailers, can sign up to gain formal accreditation, traceability and verification of recycled components to create a circular economy for battery materials in Australia.
Looking at the broad landscape, while Australia has a distance to go there are clear and distinct synergies connecting markets that can provide a much-required boost in the entire national battery sector.
Protecting Battery-related Intellectual Property
In today's battery market landscape, innovators at all levels of battery design and manufacture will thrive. The market is eager for implementation of new provision routes for raw materials, novel battery assembly procedures, design of new battery architectures, more efficient battery systems for device integration, as well as new and more efficient recycling procedures and plants.
Such a complex a varied technological landscape offers a multitude of areas for which protection of intellectual property can be sought.
Looking at the basic battery components, patent protection may be sought for novel battery materials, for example electrolyte compositions or specific cathode/anode formulations. Novel combination of battery materials or components can also be the subject of a patent claim, for example in the provision of a novel battery architecture. Claims may also be directed to either details of the individual components as raw materials for battery manufacture, or as a feature of the final battery assembly.
From an industrial process standpoint, innovators can seek protection of any novel procedure involving aspects around the extraction, purification and supply of raw materials, manufacture of new battery materials and components, assembly of battery architectures, as well as novel and more efficient battery recycling and recovery procedures.
Drafting patent specifications for battery-related technologies presents some unique challenges.
For instance, original battery materials and components used in battery manufacture can undergo complex and irreversible changes as the battery is used in the real world. Spontaneous formation of a solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) at the electrode/electrolyte interface during a first charge/discharge cycle, for example, can alter the composition of the electrode itself in a manner that is difficult to trace. Formation and dynamic growth of the SEI as well as prolonged battery used may also alter the composition of the electrolyte itself. Those physical and chemical changes could present significant challenges in evidence-based proceedings, such as patent oppositions and infringement disputes.
In the high-profile case of BASF v. Umicore in 2016, BASF claimed that Umicore's importation of materials to the U.S. infringed on its patent covering nickel-manganese-cobalt cathode materials. To prove infringement, BASF had to rely on sophisticated characterisation methodologies (including Transmission Electron Microscopy, Inductively Coupled Plasma analysis, and Synchrotron X-Ray Diffraction) 13. It is therefore imperative that specifications to any battery-related invention be drafted to pre-empt any ambiguity as to the scope of protection being sought.
To that effect, for example, it will be advisable to incorporate in the specification practical guidance as to how to test assembled battery systems to facilitate a comparison with the subject matter being claimed. Reference may be made to methods of separating components of interest, preferred analytical techniques for comparative testing, and strategies to predict and address irreversible processes.
9 National Battery Strategy – Issues Paper, February 2023
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