The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for their work in developing lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. The sharing of the prestigious prize among the three scientists has also reignited the market’s interest in Li-ion batteries, an energy storage technology that is now indispensable in people’s everyday lives.
Capable of achieving high energy density while remaining compact in size, Li-ion batteries have become the mainstream power source for consumer electronics as well as other emerging applications such as electric vehicles. The 71-year-old Yoshino has been recognized by this year’s Nobel Committee for his role in creating the first commercially viable Li-ion batteries in 1985, when he was working at Asahi Kasei. According to his recollection, there was practically no demand for this technology for the first three years following its market release. Yoshino felt some frustration during that time because substantial efforts had already been poured into R&D.
At a press conference held at Asahi Kasei’s headquarter in Tokyo on October 9, Yoshino said that the Nobel Prize rarely gives recognition to achievements in device-related research. Nevertheless, he has always believed that the work his team did on Li-ion batteries will one day receive this level of accolade. Yoshino also mentioned that although Li-ion batteries as a versatile power source are providing the vital support to the advancement of information technologies, Japan’s battery industry is no longer the leader in this kind of products. Other countries are rapidly catching up in terms of establishing production capacity and R&D. With exception of separator films and cathode materials, Japanese battery manufacturers and upstream suppliers are losing their competitiveness in most areas of the supply chain.
Yoshino pointed out that the challenges faced by Japan’s battery industry mainly have to do with changes on the demand side. Since the supply chains of smartphones and notebook computers are now mostly situated in China, the necessity of manufacturing batteries in Japan has declined as well. However, Yoshino also stressed that the rise of electric vehicles is bringing about new trends in the market. Japanese battery makers could gain advantages in this application segment if they collaborate and share information with domestic material suppliers, automotive enterprises, and research institutions.
Cross-industry alliances will also help all parties grasp the latest product trends. For instance, technological foundations have been laid for solid-state batteries that are potentially safer than the current generation of Li-ion batteries. The next key step would be to turn prototypes of solid-state batteries into commercial products that are ready to enter mass production. Hence, Japan could re-establish its dominance in the global battery market by winning the race to develop solid-state batteries.
Yoshino’s press conference attracted considerable media attention. According to a related report by Nikkei, reserves of lithium and cobalt are concentrated in only a few countries around the world, such as Australia, Chile, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the global demand for Li-ion batteries continues to grow, the competition to secure the supply of key materials will intensify not only in the mid-stream and downstream sections of the supply chain but also in the upstream. With material procurement becoming an important part of operation for all industry participants, the position of battery metals in international commodity trade will rise as well.
Many industrial conglomerates and technology enterprises have been aggressively acquiring rights to lithium mines in recent years. In 2018, the Softbank Group, which is known for investing in emerging technologies, spent nearly 8 billion yen to obtain a 9.9% stake in Nemaska, a Canadian lithium producer. This deal was Softbank’s first foray into the mining sector. Another example is the strategic alliance between Toyota Tsusho and the Australian mining company Orocobre. Toyota Tsusho has provided additional capital to expand Orocobre’s Olaroz Lithium Facility (a lithium brine mine) in Argentina. Furthermore, the two parties have set up a joint-venture plant in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture to supply lithium hydroxide to Japanese battery makers. The construction of the plant formally commenced this summer. Besides the boom in lithium mining, the market for the recycling and recovery of battery metals is also expected to take off in the near future.
(This article is an English translation of news content provided by EnergyTrend’s media partner TechNews. Photo credit: Pixbay.)