Batteries, whether in vehicles or on the grid, will be a technology that defines the 21st Century, but the scale of that expected demand means a fundamental rethink of the supply chain is required, writes Greg Pitt, VP of battery materials at Worley.
Although demand trajectories vary, experts agree that the energy transition will be hindered by a structural shortage of critical minerals – particularly lithium, graphite, nickel, copper and cobalt – as early as 2025.
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Further, as countries accelerate their efforts to achieve net zero, that shortage will only deepen as a result of the increased mineral inputs required by fossil fuel alternatives such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels.
A typical electric car, for example, requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and demand for battery electric vehicles is set to grow with the UK and European governments phasing out the sale of new diesel and petrol engine vehicles in the next decade.
While theoretically there are sufficient mineral quantities in the ground to meet the requirements of the energy transition, a structural deficit exists along the entire battery supply chain.
From mining and extraction from brines, through materials processing to cathode and anode manufacture, the region´s limited domestic industry simply does not have the resources, financial nor human capital, to ramp up supply in time to meet demand. Indeed, the almost collapse of the would-be car battery manufacturer Britishvolt as a result of cashflow issues shows just how difficult it is to develop the supply chain.
While researchers are rapidly innovating new technologies that reduce our dependence on certain minerals, it will be several years before these innovations filter through to product lines.
As such, to keep the energy transition on track, we must seek to address the battery supply chain’s structural deficit by expanding production in new and creative ways.
We don’t have time for bespoke design
There are several challenges to increasing mineral supply, but the most pressing is how to condense typical project timelines to bring new mining, processing and manufacturing capacity online more quickly.
Historically, we’ve been hooked on bespoke infrastructure design which can take a decade or more to deliver. For context, according to the IEA, between 2010 and 2019 it took an average of 16.5 years to take a mining project from discovery through to first production, with construction taking up to five years!
Similar constraints are evident at all stages in the battery supply chain with each production or processing facility requiring complex engineering, investment in the region of half a billion to a billion pounds, and several years to build.
Given the very short runway the industry has to increase supply chain throughput to support the region’s transition to net zero, we need to rethink the traditional bespoke approach to infrastructure delivery.
Design one, build many
Worley’s response to this is to innovate modular designs from which we can build many plants. Much like the trusty Lego block, while each modular block will be different, they will all share common interconnection points.
This has the combined benefit of being quicker to construct but flexible enough so that new technologies and upgrades can be readily assimilated into the plant as they become available in the future. It will also reduce the barriers for the industry when adopting new technologies to help address future market changes such as the declining quality of ore, increases in the use of recycled materials and heightened sustainability standards.
Ultimately, with far fewer bespoke requirements, modular designs are much easier to scale, replicate and disseminate around the world, ultimately fast tracking the industry’s response for more battery supply chain throughout.
This is not entirely new territory as it takes inspiration from the manufacturing mindset embodied by the likes of the automotive, telecommunications and aviation industries as well as our own. Boeing’s move towards standardisation within its design and production, for example, illustrate what is possible even in the face of complex engineering.
While each aircraft can be customised and modified by the end customer to suit certain requirements, much of the core engineering remains the same – the frame, the windows, the wiring looms, etc. This has allowed Boeing to make production more predictable, repeatable, and cost efficient while still being able to manufacture an aircraft from start to finish in nine days.
To make a similar approach feasible for the battery supply chain we need to reimagine the design approach to focus on utility, adaptability of standard designs and speed of delivery.
Partnerships and collaboration are critical to supply chain vision
A large part of the success of this new design philosophy relies on collaboration from the battery supply chain who will ultimately deliver it; dozens of critical vendors for 4,000+ pieces of equipment.
With the right information supported by a collaborative environment, vendors can support this vision of modularity and standardisation in their own products. By leveraging vendor’s expertise, we can streamline equipment supply by adapting designs to accommodate largely ‘off the shelf’ equipment which eliminate the time spent designing and manufacturing custom pieces.
To bring it all together there is then the need for an experienced ‘system integrator’ – an organisation that takes accountability for the overall operating performance and process design, and crafts the participation by various vendors and other parties to align and maximise the contribution by each within their specific areas of expertise.
A simple example of this are the materials handling facilities needed at the receiving and dispatch ends of many such facilities. There are particular requirements for battery materials processing relating to containment of toxic substances and protection from moisture ingress that, with close collaboration from typical vendors of this equipment, can be readily adapted and standardised for this industry – ultimately reducing the need for bespoke design efforts and shortening delivery lead times. More complex examples exist deeper into the plant process – along the same lines and with the same outcomes.
The final piece in this reimagination is to build long-term partnerships with battery material miners, processors and manufacturers to successfully bring this new concept to the UK and Europe.
This is something that must happen quickly if these markets are to successfully establish a domestic battery supply chain that will not only keep pace with short-term demand but also support the region’s medium-term ambition of phasing out new diesel and petrol engine car sales post 2030.
While we are in the midst of the sixth industrial revolution, it is increasingly clear that traditional methods of construction for chemical and mineral processing will not get us there in time. The battery industry must blaze its own trail if it is to contribute at the scale needed to meet the region’s goal of achieving net zero by 2050 and lessen the impact of climate change, at pace.
Driving innovation and leading the charge comes with risk, but with the right blend of creativity and expertise, there is always a way to solve even the most complex engineering problems.
About the Author
Greg Pitt is vice president of the battery materials growth team at Worley, a worldwide team of consultants, engineers, construction workers and data scientists working in the energy, chemicals and resources sectors. Pitt’s duties include identifying key growth areas and technology advancements within the battery materials market.