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China and Europe are winning the “global battery arms race,” seen as a key factor in determining which economies will dominate in a decarbonized future, a parliamentary committee heard Monday.

The House of Commons natural resources committee has embarked on a study of “critical minerals” in Canada — a term referring to the raw materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, aluminum and copper that go into making lithium-ion batteries, the standard workhorse of the electric vehicle (EV) and energy-storage world.

Canada has a large domestic supply of these minerals, witnesses told the committee. But they aren't being mined in large amounts, they said. There is little ability in Canada to process the raw material into the components that ultimately go into producing batteries.

“Relative to the European Union and Asia, Canadian battery metals supply chains are currently in their infancy,” said Liz Lappin, president of the Battery Metals Association of Canada.

“However, with surging demand for battery metals to serve the expanding EV supply chain, the market opportunity for Canada is growing.”

In January, the European Commission approved a $4.4-billion package by 12 member states for a project to boost Europe's "battery value chain."

This month, Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt said it would build Europe’s largest energy-storage factory in Poland.

Meanwhile, China controls four-fifths of the world's refining capacity for lithium-ion battery minerals, as well as over three-quarters of battery cell manufacturing capacity and almost two-thirds of component manufacturing, according to BloombergNEF.

A House of Commons committee has embarked on a study of “critical minerals” in Canada — a term referring to the raw materials that go into making lithium-ion batteries, the standard workhorse of the #EV and #energy-storage world. #cdnpoli

Simon Moores, the London, U.K.-based managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said there has been a global rush to build up battery manufacturing capacity, illustrated by almost 200 specialized factories — what EV-maker Tesla calls “gigafactories” — popping up around the world that produce lithium-ion battery cells at scale and at low cost.

“We are in the midst of a global battery arms race," said Moores. “These super-sized battery plants are becoming physical embodiments of a country’s industrial and technological ambition."

A quarter of the cost of an EV is the lithium-ion battery, while four-fifths of the cost of the battery itself is the minerals, metals and chemicals that go into it, he said.

Benchmark estimates that by 2030, China will hold 67 per cent of battery capacity and Europe will hold 18 per cent, while North America will hold 12 per cent.

“While the world’s governments and automakers focus on building EVs and battery plants, a true leader is yet to emerge in building the supply chains to feed them,” said Moores.

The federal government has touted EV manufacturing as a “critical” component of Canada’s climate plan. Automakers like GM and Ford have announced plans to build or retool large-scale EV manufacturing plants in Canada. The government has also talked up “critical minerals,” promoting a joint plan on the issue with the United States in summer 2020.

Industry representatives say what's missing is more of a managed, coherent strategy to tie together all the different components of a battery supply chain.

“There has to be effort to put in to just co-ordinating everything and making it one sensible, strategic package for developing this industry,” Jamie Deith, chef executive officer of Eagle Graphite Corporation, told the committee.

“In other words — we should be doing this with intent and deliberately ... because that is what’s going to attract investors and what’s going to impress the end users, such as the automakers.”

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, has also tied a billion-dollar commitment from GM to build an all-electric delivery van in Ontario to the assumption that Canada is heading towards a fully domestic battery producing industry.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan announced Monday that a new "federal-provincial-territorial task team" is developing an inventory of Canadian “critical minerals” that would help build an "integrated, all-Canadian critical minerals and battery value chain.”

Canada is the world’s third-largest aluminum producer, fourth-largest cobalt producer and fifth-largest nickel producer, according to Natural Resources Canada’s “Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan,” released in 2019.

The plan says the country is also “primed” to meet demand for graphite and lithium.

Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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I agree that Canada should have an inventory of precious metals and save enough for our domestic use. However, I worry about the negative environmental impacts of increased mining. As Joanna Macy says, we have to stop viewing Mother Earth as a "supply house and sewer" for human needs.

I agree re mining concerns. The processing of minerals to make mine output any use to industry is , potentially, even dirtier. Here’s the problem as I see it. We are all aware of our exposure to global supply chains. We are vulnerable when we rely on friends and not so friendly countries to keep the goods coming to Canada especially if they have competing needs or want to stress or damage Canadian interests in areas of food, healthcare products, drug supplies , manufacturing raw materials etc.
Currently one country holds most of the cards in supply of inputs to many manufacturing materials - China. This is not a healthy situation !
The world, and Canada, needs to bite the bullet and regain our ability to mine AND process to manufacturing usefulness ,our own minerals. Without that rebuilt capacity we are at the mercy of foreign, competing interests. And don’t think those levers aren’t pulled regularly . You cannot prosper in the manf. of batteries when you are competing against the country that exports, or not, the processed materials they also use to build their batteries. It doesn’t matter when push comes to shove if the materials were originally mined in Canada. Supply chains are disrupted, intentionally !

This is great news. But it would be helpful to provide information on the latest battery developments.

One is that Tesla, Toyota, GM and others are conducting serious R&D into cobalt-free or cobalt-lite batteries in the lithium ion series. Many battery researchers also have tonnes of government and private sector investment money to develop batteries with greater energy density and with a lighter weight. Forgive the sports analogy, but in electrified mobility punch and weight are everything.

Another area that holds much promise is in large-scale stationary storage batteries that would be a perfect match for levelling the peaks and valleys of intermittent-output renewables, like wind and solar power. Lithium exists at the rare and expensive end of the periodic table. The metal is more common at present in troubled nations with poor human rights records, notably in mining. They are solid state and susceptible to heat build-up sometimes ending in fires, and being solid state, they are subject to a fair rate of deterioration. These issues may make L-ion a questionable technology for city-wide and industrial scale stationary storage using large quantities of expensive metals, but its utility in mobility and smaller scale remote storage is indeed positive and getting better as huge gobs of money and effort are put into it.

The alternative to the higher cost and operating challenges of L-ion for very large-scale storage is liquid metal batteries (LMB), which use common everyday materials like calcium, antimony and salts. Zinc and magnesium are also candidates as common metals. LMBs run at 500 degrees celsius and are therein challenged to contain the heat (ceramics are key). But the research is addressing this, and they are now ready for primetime with their costs expected to fall dramatically with mass production.

Dr. Donald Sadoway, a Canadian scientist working at MIT, has developed this technology over the years and Ambri, the company MIT formed with Sadoway and his students, received their first commission by a data storage company that is building their own independent renewable power grid in the sunny southwest US. The requirement for concentrated, stable base load power with technology with longevity from intermittent renewables was key, and that led the data farm to choose Ambri over Tesla's L-ion technology.

Here's a Real Engineering video on LMB battery technology (December 2020), with an historical perspective:

Sadoway also developed zero carbon steel-making technology using electrolysis in place of burning coal to make coke for steel mills (19th Century technology). He and his students formed another company called Boston Metal and will be ready for commercialization likely in less than five years.

Why can't the Canadian government underwrite Ambri and Boston Metal production to develop Canadian advancements in zero emission energy storage and materials like steel? Both Germany and China did so with feed-in tariffs, and both economies have reaped the benefits. These are investments witjh definable returns, not subsidies on sunset industries like oil pipelines.

Filmed just after the video posted above was made, here is a link to a longer presentation on battery storage and energy given by Dr. Donald Sadoway in Texas in late December 2020.