Mining the green economy (Part 2): LiBTec

Figure 1: Li-ion battery raw materials in Canada

Long description of the Li-ion battery raw materials in Canada

This map of Canada shows some of the raw materials used in lithium-ion cells that can be found in Canada. These include: lithium, graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt, aluminium and silicon.

It is commonly recognized that the lithium-ion battery industry is poised to grow exponentially over the next decade and with it the need for advanced materials with qualities specific to this technology. At this time last year, the National Research Council Canada (NRC) discussed the need for precompetitive and collaborative R&D activities in Canada in the feature article titled Mining the green economy: Working with lithium and graphite miners to strengthen Canada's energy storage opportunity.

In response to this need, in the summer of 2017, the NRC proudly launched the Lithium Ion Battery Technology Industrial Research and Development group: LiBTec. This multiparty research group aims at developing the Canadian supply chain in graphite and lithium materials for lithium-ion battery applications at a critical time in the evolution of the technology. Not surprisingly, Canada is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in this market.

Most of the raw materials used in lithium-ion cells can be found in large quantities and mined economically across the country. In addition, Canada’s mining sector has the depth and breadth of experience to tackle the challenge of developing and delivering advanced materials to the exacting standards that the battery industry demands.

Since the launch of LiBTec, the NRC has made significant progress in laying the foundation for research activities that will be the initial focus of this group. Outreach to numerous external stakeholders, ranging from industry groups to local governments and individual industrial partners, has led to an initial core member group consisting of Canadian pioneers: Mason Graphite and Nouveau Monde Graphite, producers and processors of graphite; and NanoXplore, producer of graphene. This core group of members has been instrumental in helping form the direction of the collaborative R&D group and the NRC has used members’ valuable feedback to ensure that the appropriate resources and capabilities are available to grow this critical supply chain.

In fact, interest across many groups in industry, government and academia has been strong. In a recent speaker’s session at the 2017 Quebec Mines conference hosted by Dr. Jean Yves Huot and Dr. Christina Bock from the NRC, topic matter experts from 3M, Tahuti Global and the University of Sherbrooke shared their insights on the important relationship between mining and lithium-ion battery development.

Through LiBTec, the NRC is tackling materials-related challenges in both the anode and cathode of the lithium-ion battery.

The anode

Figure 2: Working mechanism of Li-ion batteries.

Long description of the Working mechanism of Li-ion batteries

The diagram illustrates the relationship between the cathode, the electrolyte and the anode of a Lithium-ion battery, with electrons flowing from the anode to the cathode.

Courtesy of Marcin Molenda, Michał Świętosławski and Roman Dziembaj, “Composites and Their Properties”, InTech 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/48319

It is well known that existing anode chemistries have performance limitations and require increased capacity to create a lithium-ion cell that can deliver more energy. In 2016, the NRC began groundbreaking work to develop the next generation of silicon–carbon (SiC) anode, with the goal of creating a SiC composite that will maximize anode performance. LiBTec will directly leverage this work through the following 3 core activities:

  • transformation of flake graphite to battery-grade coated spherical graphite
  • testing of the resulting graphite anode
  • expertise in high-silicon anodes

In fact, progress has already been made. To date, the research team has selected the raw materials to be converted into composites and tested prior methods. Roughly 20 composites have been benchmarked with promising results and a database is in the process of being built. Moreover, new binders and electrolyte additives have been tested with a few Si-graphite composites to reduce irreversible capacity loss and maximize life cycle.

These first phases of this project consist of a technology watch to identify new composites and manufacturing approaches. Other ongoing activities include selection and characterization of raw materials, transformation of raw materials into composites and development and evaluation of button cells of advanced anode formulations containing new binders and additives. The raw materials that have been processed in these early phases are commercially available and LiBTec members will be contributing their materials for conversion into composites, namely battery-grade graphene, graphite and silicon.

The cathode

Fun Fact: Did you know that the only Glow Discharge Mass Spectrometer in Canada is located at the NRC?

This equipment is capable of performing a non-destructive analysis of solid samples, eliminating the need to dissolve solid materials. It can generate a more accurate measure of purity while meeting the standards expected of a world class ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory.

GDMS research officer validating a technical report.

Currently, cathode materials such as lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel make up roughly 25% of the cost of a lithium-ion battery. Due to the increasing demand for lithium and relative abundance of the critical metal in Canada, research activities in this area are focused on improving lithium purity, performance and processing. The NRC is also applying its expertise to Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) cathodes, Lithium Manganese Rich (LMR) cathodes and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) cathodes.

It is commonly understood that the largest near-term demand driver for lithium-ion batteries will be automotive applications and that continual cost reduction will be essential to driving industry acceptance and growing the size of the market. NMC-type cathodes are commonly used in auto batteries but the cobalt component has been identified as a cost driver; hence, much research is devoted to higher nickel-content NMC and LMR cathode materials. Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) cathodes do not demonstrate the same energy densities as those found in lithium-ion batteries but do demonstrate superior safety and as a result, are preferred by certain industries such as the underground mining sector.

Over the past decade, the NRC has synthesized and benchmarked over 200 NMC, LMR and LFP materials using its own in-house manufactured lithium-ion coin cells and building on decades of expertise in lithium-ion battery components and materials. Results from this work are now being compiled into a database to be made available to LiBTec members and serve other purposes such as benchmarking industry samples and advancing the next-generation battery materials.

What’s next?

Canada has a valuable opportunity to become a world leader in the development and supply of advanced materials for lithium-ion batteries and LiBTec could be a great way for your organization to connect, collaborate and stay plugged into the latest developments in scientific research. Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

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