An interview with – Lukasz Bednarski, author of Lithium: The Global Race for Battery Dominance and the New Energy Revolution
Lukasz is a battery raw materials analyst and author of the recent book Lithium: The Global Race for Battery Dominance and the New Energy Revolution.
Prior to this, he was a lecturer at the Commodities Academy, editor in chief of Lithium Today and a commodities trader for several trading companies.
Lukasz has a degree in Economics & Business Administration and looks at the impact of geopolitical disruptions on the supply chains under the PhD programme at University of Sussex.
Following on from our interview on vertical farming with Mathew, we talked to Lukasz about lithium and its role in energy, EV’s and politics.
Q) How did you get into the world of lithium and battery metals?
I was trading minor metals and rare earths, when I realised that lithium has a chance to become the oil of the 21st century. For a young man there was also less competition in this space, unlike in other important commodities.
Q) So before we jump into this topic, what is Lithium and where does it come from?
Lithium can be traded in mineral or chemical form, most lithium comes from open pit, hard rock mines in Australia and brine mines in South America. Chemical processing of the materials from the mine takes place almost exclusively in China.
Q) Within these countries, how is it mined? Is this a conflict mineral?
It is mined either from hard rock open pit mines or from brines situated under the salt flats. In the case of open-pit mining, lithium is separated from the ore and in the case of brine mining, the brine is pumped out into a series of ponds, where lithium is separated with help of solar energy and reagents. There are ESG issues around lithium mining, but no, lithium is not and never was a conflict mineral.
Q) Will the supply of Lithium dry up? Is there an alternative that could or may replace lithium?
I don’t think so, based on resources available and projects in the pipeline, but there might be short term mismatches between supply and demand that will drive up prices, and make the market volatile. Researchers and companies look at the use of sodium and sulphur-based batteries, mostly because these materials are cheaper, but batteries based on these materials are very far from displacing lithium-ion technology.
Q) We have talked about lithium, but what other minerals play a key role in this sector?
Copper is a key commodity for the energy transition, and substantial part of its demand will come from the renewable energy industry and EVs. Graphite can be found in every lithium-ion battery anode (negative electrode), while cobalt is used in high performance batteries.
Q) How and where is lithium processed? How energy intensive is it? Who are the big players in the field?
It is processed in China, sulfuric acid is used in processing, and yes since it involves calcination it generates CO2 emissions. The Argonne National Laboratory study determined that 2.5 t of CO2 is produced per ton of lithium compound. The biggest companies in the space are Chinese Tianqi Lithium and Ganfeng Lithium, Chilean SQM and US-headquartered Albemarle.
Q) You touched on the lithium triangle; Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Lithium in these countries is found largely in salars. What are these and how is lithium extracted from them?
Salars are salt flats, sometimes containing valuable lithium deposits. You pump up lithium containing brine and process it in a series of evaporation ponds. The process to a large extent depends on solar energy, so it’s very sustainable in that sense.
Q) How water intensive are these? Are there large amounts of CO2 emissions associated with this type of mining?
Depends on what we consider as water. Brine is extremely salty water that can’t be used by plants or animals. The question is if pumping brine water for lithium mining affects the reservoirs of potable water. Here more research is needed to answer conclusively. Unfortunately, at the moment there are no publicly available, reliable studies that would help us to definitely answer this question.
Q) Lithium forms a large part of battery materials, where in the supply chain does lithium come in?
It is used in production of cathode materials. Simply speaking, the battery is made of anode, cathode and electrolyte. It is a closed system where all these components are responsible for battery performance.
Q) As we have seen from 2021, it’s a race for countries to produce their own batteries. How is the UK performing in the battery race compared to other countries?
On one hand the UK failed to attract experienced battery producers from Asia to open factories or R&D centres here. On the other hand, it has promising start-ups in this field and a very good institutional ecosystem for support.
Q) How can we value batteries compared to oil?
In my book I argue that it makes sense to recycle batteries, for valuable metals inside, especially with battery metals prices increasing. Throwing it away to landfill, I compared to throwing away barrels of oil. The Chinese state heavily supported the development of the battery recycling industry, making it mandatory for OEMs to take responsibility for end-of-life batteries. The EU is also preparing legislation to better track and more responsibly dispose of used EV batteries.
Q) In your book, you mention the role of EV’s in aviation and how the industry is currently running test flights. Are we close to electric planes?
We are still far away from flying electric on typical passenger routes, but with rapid development of battery technology also beyond lithium-ion and big number of electric flights start-ups it remains a tantalising prospect.
Q) We’ve looked at cars and planes. How are batteries playing a role in shipping?
Electric shipping is already a reality on shorter routes. By this, I mean electric propelled barges carrying bulk commodities and containers or passenger ferries. We still need to push the technology forward to have electric ocean-going vessels serving intercontinental trade between Europe and Asia and other long-distance routes.
Q) Before we finish, will China continue to play a leading role in this industry despite the world’s determination to play catch up?
I think yes, at least for the next 5 years. They have a tremendous advantage now, which will be hard to overcome.
Q)Finally, what minerals, beyond the ones discussed here, do you see playing a crucial role in the future of the world’s economy?
Fossil fuels will remain tremendously important, which I think today’s oil, gas and coal prices reflect. Transition into a more sustainable world won’t happen overnight. Even if we one day exclude oil from transportation, it will still be needed in production of many chemicals that our civilization depends on.