A material threat to energy storage?

After last week's Bolivia lithium mining deal, how important are rare earth batteries in energy storage? The Uyuni salt lake, location of most Bolivian lithium reserves.
After last week's Bolivia lithium mining deal, how important are rare earth batteries in energy storage? Photo credit: Luca Galuzzi. The Uyuni salt lake, location of most Bolivian lithium reserves.
The Bolivia lithium mining deal highlights the importance of rare earth batteries in energy storage. Most lithium in Bolivia is in the Uyuni salt lake.

The Bolivia lithium mining deal highlights the importance of rare earth batteries in energy storage. Most lithium in Bolivia is in the Uyuni salt lake. Photo credit: Luca Galuzzi

French moves to secure a deal on Bolivian lithium supplies last week again underscored the importance of raw materials in the commercialisation of energy storage.

An agreement on lithium production was one of four letters of intent signed between the Bolivian government and the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives, or CEA).

The four signings, which also include a cooperation agreement on nuclear power, were announced last Wednesday, just as news was emerging of troubles at the French state-owned reactor maker Areva.

The lithium agreement, signed off by Bolivia’s Minister of Mining and Metallurgy, César Navarro, and Florence Lambert of the CEA, is the latest development in years of French efforts to gain rights over Bolivian lithium reserves, the largest in the world.

Back in 2009, Reuters reported that the French conglomerate Bollore Group was vying with LG Group of South Korea and Mitsubishi Motors of Japan to mine in Uyuni, a massive salt lake that harbours most of Bolivia’s lithium deposits.

However, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who in October was elected for a third term against a virtually non-existent opposition, has steadfastly refused to let foreigners plunder his country’s mineral riches, preferring to create a full battery industry instead.

Cooperation agreement

The detail of last week’s deal, which builds on a cooperation agreement dating back to 1966, indicates Morales may finally be getting his way.

“The document establishes that both parties ‘will identify areas of common interest in the processing of lithium through the development of programmes across the value chain, from lithium carbonate to battery systems’,” said the Bolivian government.

The move clearly highlights an increasing awareness of the value of materials used for growth industries such as energy storage and renewables.

In February this year, the World Wide Fund for Nature called for action to safeguard supplies of lithium and cobalt needed for electric vehicle batteries.

A few months later, China Daily warned tax changes could drive up the price of rare earth metals used in some battery technologies.

As of last week, China was still rumoured to be mulling a levy of up to 35% on the price of heavy rare-earth materials, even though the World Trade Organization has previously berated the country for imposing export duties and quotas on the minerals.

Affecting energy storage

It is far from clear how price increases in such materials such as lithium or rare earth metals would affect the energy storage market, however.

Lithium is important not just for lithium-ion batteries but for a number of other applications, although studies to date indicate known reserves of the element are probably more than enough for battery production in the foreseeable future.

The more hyped rare earth metals, meanwhile, are used much more sparingly in energy storage applications.

Furthermore, many energy storage technology developers are keenly aware of the need to use commonly available materials in order to reduce production costs.

“For grid scale, at the end of the day it has to be lead or zinc,” observes Incoteco principal Hugh Sharman.

Dispensing with rare materials

As a consequence, some energy storage companies are looking to make a virtue of dispensing with rare materials altogether.

For example, says Ron Van Dell, chief executive of ViZn Energy: “Besides its excellent safety profile and simple design, one of ViZn’s flow battery’s main selling points is its zinc-iron chemistry, which uses two inexpensive and abundant materials.

“Both are mined and available in nearly every region in the world, for even greater availability and lower price. ViZn’s products would not be affected by export restrictions or pricing disputes in the rare earth metals market.”

Other energy storage companies might be wise to follow suit, he suggests. “Materials have long been an issue for the flow battery industry: some are rare, some are expensive and others are highly toxic,” he comments.

“While flow batteries do share common features, they are not equal in terms of efficiency or materials. Cadmium, vanadium, bromine and lithium each have their own associated drawbacks and risks.”

Written by Jason Deign

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