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The New Energy Era: The Lithium-Ion Supply Chain

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The world is rapidly shifting to renewable energy technologies.

Battery minerals are set to become the new oil, with lithium-ion battery supply chains becoming the new pipelines.

China is currently leading this lithium-ion battery revolution—leaving the U.S. dependent on its economic rival. However, the harsh lessons of the 1970-80s oil crises have increased pressure on the U.S. to develop its own domestic energy supply chain and gain access to key battery metals.

Introducing the New Energy Era

Today’s infographic from Standard Lithium explores the current energy landscape and America’s position in the new energy era.

lithium ion supply chain us china

An Energy Dependence Problem

Energy dependence is the degree of a nation’s reliance on imported energy, resulting from an insufficient domestic supply. Oil crises in the 1970-80s revealed America’s reliance on foreign produced oil, especially from the Middle East.

The U.S. economy ground to a halt when gas prices soared during the 1973 oil crisis—altering consumer behavior and energy policy for generations. In the aftermath of the crisis, the government imposed national speed limits to conserve oil, and also demanded cheaper, smaller, and more fuel-efficient cars.

U.S. administrations set an objective to wean America off foreign oil through “energy independence”—the ability to meet the country’s fuel needs using domestic resources.

Lessons Learned?

Spurred by technological breakthroughs such as hydraulic fracking, the U.S. now has the capacity to respond to high oil prices by ramping up domestic production.

By the end of 2019, total U.S. oil production could rise to 17.4 million barrels a day. At that level, American net imports of petroleum could fall in December 2019 to 320,000 barrels a day, the lowest since 1949.

In fact, the successful development of America’s shale fields is a key reason why the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has lost the majority of its influence over the supply and price of oil.

A Renewable Future: Turning the Ship

The increasing scarcity of economic oil and gas fields, combined with the negative environmental impacts of oil and the declining costs of renewable power, are creating a new energy supply and demand dynamic.

Oil demand could drop by 16.5 million barrels per day. Oil producers could face significant losses, with $380 billion of above-ground investments becoming worthless if the oil industry and oil-rich nations are not prepared for a surge in green energy by 2030.

Energy companies are hedging their risk with increased investment in renewables. The world’s top 24 publicly-listed oil companies spent on average 1.3% of their total budgets on low carbon technology in 2018, amounting to $260 billion. That is double the 0.68% the same group had invested on average through the period of 2010 and 2017.

The New Geopolitics of Energy: Battery Minerals

Low carbon technologies for the new energy era are also creating a demand for specific materials and new supply chains that can procure them.

Renewable and low carbon technology will be mineral intensive, requiring many metals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel. These are key raw materials, and demand will only grow.

Material201820282018-2028 % Growth
Graphite anode in Batteries170,000 tonnes2.05M tonnes1,106%
Lithium in batteries150,000 tonnes1.89M tonnes1,160%
Nickel in batteries82,000 tonnes1.09M tonnes1,229%
Cobalt in batteries58,000 tonnes320,000 tonnes452%
(Source: Benchmark Minerals)

The cost of these materials is the largest factor in battery technology, and will determine whether battery supply chains succeed or fail.

China currently dominates the lithium-ion battery supply chain, and could continue to do so. This leaves the U.S. dependent on China as we venture into this new era.

Could history repeat itself?

The Battery Metals Race

There are five stages in a lithium-ion battery supply chain—and the U.S. holds a smaller percentage of the global supply chain than China at nearly every stage.

Lithium-Ion Supply Chain

China’s dominance of the global battery supply chain creates a competitive advantage that the U.S. has no choice but to rely on.

However, this can still be prevented if the United States moves fast. From natural resources, human capital and the technology, the U.S. can build its own domestic supply.

Building the U.S. Battery Supply Chain

The U.S. relies heavily on imports of several keys materials necessary for a lithium-ion battery supply chain.

U.S. Net Import Dependence
Lithum50%
Cobalt72%
Graphite100%
(Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management)

But the U.S. is making strides to secure its place in the new energy era. The American Minerals Security Act seeks to identify the resources necessary to secure America’s mineral independence.

The government has also released a list of 35 minerals it deems critical to the national interest.

Declaring U.S. Battery Independence

A supply chain starts with raw materials, and the U.S. has the resources necessary to build its own battery supply chain. This would help the country avoid supply disruptions like those seen during the oil crises in the 1970s.

Battery metals are becoming the new oil and supply chains the new pipelines. It is still early in this new energy era, and the victors are yet to be determined in the battery arms race.

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Automotive

6 Ways Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Can Help Transition to Clean Energy

Here are six reasons why hydrogen and fuel cells can be a fit for helping with the transition to a lower-emission energy mix.

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Hydrogen and fuel cells

While fossil fuels offer an easily transportable, affordable, and energy-dense fuel for everyday use, the burning of this fuel creates pollutants, which can concentrate in city centers degrading the quality of air and life for residents.

The world is looking for alternative ways to ensure the mobility of people and goods with different power sources, and electric vehicles have high potential to fill this need.

But did you know that not all electric vehicles produce their electricity in the same way?

Hydrogen: An Alternative Vision for the EV

The world obsesses over battery technology and manufacturers such as Tesla, but there is an alternative fuel that powers rocket ships and is road-ready. Hydrogen is set to become an important fuel in the clean energy mix of the future.

Today’s infographic comes from the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA) and it outlines the case for hydrogen.

6 Ways Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Can Help Transition to Clean Energy

Hydrogen Supply and Demand

Some scientists have made the argument that it was not hydrogen that caused the infamous Hindenburg to burst into flames. Instead, the powdered aluminum coating of the zeppelin, which provided its silver look, was the culprit. Essentially, the chemical compound coating the dirigibles was a crude form of rocket fuel.

Industry and business have safely used, stored, and transported hydrogen for 50 years, while hydrogen-powered electric vehicles have a proven safety record with over 10 million miles of operation. In fact, hydrogen has several properties that make it safer than fossil fuels:

  • 14 times lighter than air and disperses quickly
  • Flames have low radiant heat
  • Less combustible
  • Non-toxic

Since hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe, it can be produced almost anywhere with a variety of methods, including from fuels such as natural gas, oil, or coal, and through electrolysis. Fossil fuels can be treated with extreme temperatures to break their hydrocarbon bonds, releasing hydrogen as a byproduct. The latter method uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Both methods produce hydrogen for storage, and later consumption in an electric fuel cell.

Fuel Cell or Battery?

Battery and hydrogen-powered vehicles have the same goal: to reduce the environmental impact from oil consumption. There are two ways to measure the environmental impact of vehicles, from “Well to Wheels” and from “Cradle to Grave”.

Well to wheels refers to the total emissions from the production of fuel to its use in everyday life. Meanwhile, cradle to grave includes the vehicle’s production, operation, and eventual destruction.

According to one study, both of these measurements show that hydrogen-powered fuel cells significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. For every kilometer a hydrogen-powered vehicle drives it produces only 2.7 grams per kilometer (g/km) of carbon dioxide while a battery electric vehicle produces 20 g/km.

During everyday use, both options offer zero emissions, high efficiency, an electric drive, and low noise, but hydrogen offers weight-saving advantages that battery-powered vehicles do not.

In one comparison, Toyota’s Mirai had a maximum driving range of 312 miles, 41% further than Tesla’s Model 3 220-mile range. The Mirai can refuel in minutes, while the Model 3 has to recharge in 8.5 hours for only a 45% charge at a specially configured quick charge station not widely available.

However, the world still lacks the significant infrastructure to make this hydrogen-fueled future possible.

Hydrogen Infrastructure

Large scale production delivers economic amounts of hydrogen. In order to achieve this scale, an extensive infrastructure of pipelines and fueling stations are required. However to build this, the world needs global coordination and action.

Countries around the world are laying the foundations for a hydrogen future. In 2017, CEOs from around the word formed the Hydrogen Council with the mission to accelerate the investment in hydrogen.

Globally, countries have announced plans to build 2,800 hydrogen refueling stations by 2025. German pipeline operators presented a plan to create a 1,200-kilometer grid by 2030 to transport hydrogen across the country, which would be the world’s largest in planning.

Fuel cell technology is road-ready with hydrogen infrastructure rapidly catching up. Hydrogen can deliver the power for a new clear energy era.

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China

The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been all-consuming, these satellite images show its unintended environmental impacts on NO₂ emissions.

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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns

There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.

While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.

The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions

Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.

As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.

These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.

NO₂ Emissions Across Italy

In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.

Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.

This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.

NO₂ Emissions Across China

The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.

no2 emissions wuhan china
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.

What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.

China Coal Use FInal

Back to the Status Quo?

In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.

This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.

Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia

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