Comment By Tanmay Sarkar: The Indian government’s Department of Heavy Industry has announced an ambitious goal of deploying six-seven million electric vehicles (EVs) across the country by 2020. This will create a huge demand for lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries and an enormous market potential can be foreseen.
The consumption of li-ion batteries in India is already quite high in the area of portable electronics and is expected to increase in the EV sector as well. But the production of li-ion batteries is insignificant in India because it does not have a manufacturing base. Hence, it primarily imports from China and the US. Going forward, how can India supply li-ion batteries to the growing EV sector?
Advanced li-ion battery technology underwent significant development in early 2000, which led to a drastic increase in the consumption of lithium-based compounds in the energy storage sector. Its consumption by the energy sector surpassed conventional uses like high temperature lubricants and a component in the ceramics industry. Today, lithium compounds also play a major role in the medical sciences; lithium carbonate acts as a mood stabilizer for patients with bipolar disorder.
A geological survey titled ‘Mineral Commodity Summaries’, conducted in the US in January 2012, assessed the end-use market of lithium compounds. The findings of the survey show that the major share of global market – 29 percent – was attributed to ceramics followed by batteries at 27 percent and lubricating grease at 12 percent.
With rapidly growing energy demands, there is an urgent need for alternative energy sources, especially for automotive industries. Renewable energy like wind and solar energy can be alternative sources of energy over conventional fossils fuels. In the automobile industry, this intermittent renewable energy needs to be stored in a storage device having high power density, like a li-ion battery, for continuous supply of energy.
According to the ‘Lithium Market Outlook 2017’ produced by the Roskill Information Services, the small battery market for portable devices will maintain high growth levels (10 percent per annum) and the large battery market for electric bicycles, hybrid and all EVs is expected to grow significantly (up to 28 percent per annum) by 2020.
The li-ion battery has some challenges that need to be addressed so that its potential can truly be realised. Safety is one of the key aspects in the context of EVs when they run in various climatic zones. The expected battery life of EVs is 8-10 years, which require structurally stable electrode materials with capacity-retention ability.
Further, the battery cost is the main drawback for EVs. With advanced technology and rigorous research, costs could reduce in the future.
Globally, various governments are supporting EVs for reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emission. As a result, significant amount of research has been conducted by countries like Germany and the US in developing li-ion battery technology and then scaling up their respective manufacturing industries.
Under the Make in India programme, a similar effort can be made by setting up R&D and technology development centres for indigenous li-ion battery manufacturing plants which will help realise India’s ambitions of achieving energy security. The development of this industry will generate employment as well as skill development opportunities. The total estimated support from the government needs to be in the range of Rs.250 crore (nearly $37 million) for the first five years.
For manufacturing li-ion batteries, India needs to secure a supply chain of raw materials and explore alternative resources like spodumene and other hard rock deposits apart from sea brine. Recycling old li-ion batteries is another solution that should be considered. Due to growing demand, the availability of lithium faces the possible risk of being influenced by geopolitical forces since the supply lines are more easily threatened when the sources are located in a small number of countries – Argentina Bolivia, Chile and China. This issue can be overcome by bilateral agreements with lithium-rich countries like Argentina and Bolivia. This will ensure the lithium ecosystem’s long-term sustainability.
The immediate need for boosting this industry is for the government to provide support to promote indigenous technology and R&D centres for manufacturing li-ion batteries. Until that time, India will have to rely on imports to achieve its EV target and meet current demand.