Albemarle on Lithium Innovations to Fuel Electrification

By Kyle Proffitt

April 11, 2024 | Job Rijssenbeek, Vice President of R&D, Energy Storage, Albemarle, closed out the keynote session at last month’s International Battery Seminar by discussing how Albemarle functions within the lithium-ion battery ecosystem and what the company is doing to be a team player. Rijssenbeek’s plenary presentation joined others from Jeff Dahn of Dalhousie University, Steve He from Tesla, and Shoichiro Watanabe of Panasonic Energy.

Albemarle, based in Charlotte, NC, is the top producer of lithium worldwide with a 14 billion dollar market cap and approximately 70% of sales attributable to its energy storage division. Rijssenbeek made some forward-looking statements—with a disclaimer that he of course may be wrong—including anticipating 3-fold growth in EV adoption to reach 50% penetration levels by the end of the decade. He acknowledged continuing consumer concerns such as cost, range anxiety, and fast-charging ability and access, and he urged that “innovations all along the supply chain are necessary to overcome some of these challenges.” With regard to Albemarle’s role, he said, “lithium innovations will also be part of the solution.”

“Given the fantastic resources that are entrusted to us, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re using them efficiently to create the highest value forms of lithium for every atom that we pull out of the ground,” Rijssenbeek said. Albemarle has dedicated resource teams to identify the best sources of lithium, extraction teams to maximize recovery and develop new technologies including direct lithium extraction, process technology teams to focus on efficiently converting lithium into useful battery materials for customers, and data science teams to ingest these different parameters and incorporate factors such as demand and different technology evolution scenarios to quickly drive company investment and decisions.

Sources and Supply Chain

Rijssenbeek showed a resource-tracking diagram of where we get the raw materials (brine, spodumene, lepidolite, and recycled material) and how these resources flow geographically in their conversion to lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. The major sources are in China, Australia, and Chile, but China really takes the lion’s share for lithium conversion. Nearly all of the lithium mined in Australia is shipped to China for conversion. “This is also where 80% of today’s cathode manufacturing is happening, and where the bulk of EV growth is,” Rijssenbeek added. The diagram also showed Albemarle’s footprint in the process, with sourcing almost entirely from Australia and Chile. There was one more very thin line for Albemarle. “We have the only actively operating lithium resource in the United States today,” Rijssenbeek said, referring to this line.

Addressing the dominance of other countries in his diagram, he cautioned that “the relative sizes of the various bars show that we can’t wait to build out a US-based supply chain.” He spoke of expansion efforts in line with incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act, including continued mining in Silver Peak, Nevada, working to reopen a mine in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and advancing a Richburg conversion facility in South Carolina. “However, given current pricing we must pace these investments to align with market realities; right now the investment economics are probably just not there.”

Technology Trends

Speaking about new lithium technologies, Rijssenbeek showed a chart of different cathode/anode battery combinations plotted according to their cost/kWh as a function of energy density. This shows that LFP/graphite batteries fall on the same desirable frontier line as NMC811/graphite batteries. Though the LFP battery’s energy density is much lower, its cost/kWh decreases proportionally. Working from this view, Rijssenbeek predicted that “silicon is likely to remain a niche technology until it can be effectively pre-lithiated or the costs can come down.” On the other hand, “Lithium metal anodes, offer such large performance gains that they can tolerate increased prices and still offer significant value,” Rijssenbeek said. He gave a vision for the future specifically made possible with lithium metal anodes: “Increases in battery energy density will deliver greater range; they’ll electrify new classes of vehicles and enable entirely new modes of transportation.”

With lithium as an obviously key component of every lithium-ion battery, Rijssenbeek says that the characteristics of this lithium deeply impact the cathode manufacturing process and the resulting cathode performance. He ran through some of the treatment steps necessary to convert raw lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide into cathode material, highlighting a calcination step as a bottleneck. “We are developing new forms of lithium that can enable higher saggar [or kiln] loading and significantly reduced calcination times… these benefits translate to potentially doubling the throughput of a cathode kiln,” he said. This of course would translate to significant energy savings in the process.

Perhaps surprisingly for a raw lithium producer, Albemarle has facilities to produce cathode materials in-house at kilogram scale, and they are working on additional innovations such as using different alloys or altering the surfaces to which lithium is applied. Rijssenbeek seemed most excited by some data he showed where adding different coatings to the lithium metal surface protected it from atmospheric reaction and maintained battery longevity, whereas uncoated air-exposed lithium metal quickly lost capacity. “That’s very exciting. That could potentially change the manufacturing cost of lithium metal anode batteries by removing the humidity constraints,” Rijssenbeek said. He also showed an example of the kind of technology that is still coming on line: lithium metal anodes that he says are thinner than a red blood cell. “That will lead to not just new levels of battery performance but also new applications for those batteries.”

Rijssenbeek told the audience that Albemarle is working in every step of the ecosystem, with an awareness that today’s supply chain for lithium metal is changing. “We’re investing at each and every one of these stages to make sure this is not just ready for niche applications but for the mass market potential of the future.”