Can aluminium replace the lithium in EV batteries?
An Australian company has figured out how to make viable aluminium-ion batteries with some spectacular superconducting qualities!
Evolution vs Revolution
The current batch of companies who are producing lithium batteries have been trying their best to evolve them as much as possible, to make the electric car a viable alternative to fossil fuel power. And in fact the energy densities have been rising steadily over the last 10 years, to reach levels, times better than the first commercial examples back in the early 90s. But the way a lithium-ion battery works haven't evolved in any direction whatsoever. With that in mind, an Australian company called Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG) had a breakthrough that looks really promising.
Credit: RedShark News
Based on studies, conducted by the University of Queensland, the battery cells pioneered by GMG can charge 70 times faster than any lithium battery, while being immensely cleaner to produce, much more reliable and capable of significantly higher output! Their rate of charge and discharge can actually be so rapid, they may as well be positioned as superconductors and not as batteries. The production technology replace the expensive (~$13 000 per tonne) lithium with the cheap (~$2000 per tonne) aluminium and while the price is going down - the energy density marks a significant boost!
Rare-earth vs man-made
Thanks to a relatively simple, albeit nano-technological process aluminium atoms are embedded in graphene perforations in roughly the same way lithium goes in cobalt/manganese/nickel alloys. And I know what you're gonna say - graphene is hyper expensive. You would be partly correct - it costs $200 000 per tonne, but the same scientists found a cheap way to produce it from literally any carbon-based trash and garbage. It works fast too - a viable 2D piece is produced in just 10 milliseconds! What's more spectacular is the internal working mechanism of those batteries, which allows aluminium atoms to exchange three electrons per atom, compared to lithium's measly one.
The technology does not include any copper for cathodes and it requires only trace-amounts of rare-earth materials. The main components are aluminium foil, aluminium chloride (precursor to aluminium) and urea (ingredient of plant fertilisers). The main takeaway here is that all the metal used in those batteries is easily recyclable. As for the problem with overheating, the Aussies got that covered as well, since aluminium and graphene are great at conducting heat fast. Even with the much higher charge/discharge rates, the batteries remain heat/chemically stable.
This technological breakthrough is in no small part thanks to the creation of a cheap, simple graphene structure with perforations to contain the aluminium. The work of the University of Queensland is unprecedented and outshines brightly every single other attempt out there. Their surface-perforated three-layer graphene with mesopores, just 2.3 nanometers in size had demonstrated electrochemical abilities beyond belief!
Market vs monopoly
Due to the need of financing, the first step of the company is production of coin-sized cells for basic customer needs, but GMG is working on electric vehicle pouch battery cells with a scope of starting a mass production around 2024-2025. The main challenge ahead is that car companies have already signed long-term contracts with lithium battery suppliers. With that said, the cheap plasma-based production process and the high density of the aluminium embedding with next to no material wasted might tempt some manufacturers to start making those batteries on their own.
Credit: Springer Nature
China may have a tight grip on the lithium-ion battery chain, having a sizeable lithium production and processing, but aluminium is highly abundant and within reach for basically any nation in the world. So this technology can have a major geopolitical impact by allowing countries to break the Chinese lithium monopoly in favour of investing, and building their own aluminium battery factories, and even work end-to-end, because the existing technologies for recycling would work just as well with spent aluminium-ion cells with no improvements required.
The human body is made of roughly 12% carbon, so when you're done with your earthly journey, GMG can produce battery-grade graphene out of those 12% of you in just 10 milliseconds, so you can power somebody else's EV!