Closing the lithium supply gap – pv magazine International

Excerpt from pv magazine 08/2022

Global lithium demand is testing the limits of the metal’s availability. Production of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries is booming, alongside demand for more and higher capacity batteries to stabilize power grids as more renewables are connected . A simultaneous bottleneck in lithium supply chains — pandemic-induced shipping and handling slowdowns and manufacturing challenges — is raising awareness of a battery alternative that is quietly bubbling behind the scenes.

Vincent Algar is managing director of Australian Vanadium Limited (AVL), which is set to gain approval for a vanadium mine in Western Australia and a vanadium electrolyte processing plant near Geraldton on the state coast. He readily admits his personal interest in promoting the benefits of vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFB) as a transformative technology for stationary storage applications.

Self-interest or not, his arguments make sense: “When we have a fixed amount of Li-ion, its best application is in the vehicle fleet, where each unit eliminates diesel or unleaded fuel,” says Algar. “A fully electric car is 100% green, whereas if that same 1 MWh of storage is stored on the grid, it will do nothing meaningful to decarbonize that system.” VRFBs, he says, are best suited to form the cornerstone of large-scale network-attached storage, providing myriad benefits in the network scenario.

Redox redux

Over a lifetime of 20 to 25 years, VRFBs can be charged and fully or partially discharged hundreds of thousands of times without degradation; and the electrolyte remains unchanged – it can be recycled into another battery or used in other applications when the first installation reaches its end of life. This makes the levelized cost of VRFBs, with a capacity of over 2MW, lower than that of the same size Li-ion batteries, which degrade with constant charging and recharging, and have high disposal costs in end of life.

VRFBs are also non-flammable and upgradable; the largest VRFB to date was recently completed in China at 200MW/800MWh. There’s no limit to the capacity of VRFBs, says the technology’s inventor, Maria Skyllas-Kazacos – “you can just keep adding more”.

Now a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Skyllas-Kazacos was a chemical engineer at the university in the 1980s when she and her team invented and proved the utility of VRFBs in a time when other institutes, including NASA, had abandoned vanadium research as a potential means of energy storage.

“At the time, there was a lot of interest in power systems in remote areas, with a need for renewable energy storage technologies,” she told pv magazine. Focusing on an approach to develop a liquid energy storage solution based on vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid, and using a scraped carbon electrode, the redox reactions of vanadium are freely reversible. The technology was patented in 1988, but she says it fell flat with battery manufacturers of the time. “They weren’t interested in creating a competitor for their lead and nickel-cadmium products.”

In the early 1990s, Mitsubishi Chemicals acquired a license to use the technology, eventually making Japan the most powerful early commercial developer of VRFB. Today, almost every VRFB manufacturer in the world uses technology based on Skyllas-Kazacos’ invention. She and her team at UNSW continue to work to reduce the cost of manufacturing batteries. “The big goal is to make these systems here in Australia,” she says.

Argue over costs

A June 2022 white paper “Vanadium Redox Flow Batteries – Identifying Market Opportunities and Drivers,” by Guidehouse Insights and commissioned by global vanadium organization Vanitec, concluded that it “expects deployments VRFB’s global annuals reach approximately 32.8 GWh in 2031, with Asia-Pacific leading in deployments.

Barriers to adoption, however, are identified as the high capital cost of VRFB systems; the fact that the cost of vanadium represents a “significantly higher percentage of the overall system cost” compared to metals in other batteries; and that the vanadium supply chain is currently less developed than that of other metals.

Enter AVL, which is expected to commission its mine and processing facility in late 2024-early 2025 and believes it may be the cheapest producer of vanadium pentoxide – the key electrolyte ingredient. AVL postulates competitive advantages, including a high-grade ore deposit in an established and stable mining nation, and that it has developed and patented more efficient systems for mining and processing ore.

In December 2021, the Australian Federal Government awarded AVL a AUD 49 million ($34 million) Manufacturing Collaboration Grant to create an Australian vanadium industry powered by green energy. Algar says AVL’s vanadium refining methods already reduce its dependence on fossil gas by 30% compared to other current methods, and the company has struck a deal with energy supplier ATCO to introduce green hydrogen. in its gas pipeline.

The country full of resources

According to the US Geological Survey and Geoscience, despite the absence of active vanadium mines, Australia holds 18% of the world’s vanadium resources, after China with 42% and Russia with 23%. AVL is one of at least three mining companies with vanadium (sic) ions in the nation’s fire.

Today, the majority of vanadium is deployed in the production of high-strength lightweight steel alloys, and AVL intends to meet local and global demand from the steel industry while developing the market for vanadium electrolyte. AVL has worked with partners to set up demonstration projects for VRFBs, including a pilot PV-coupled system to power a borehole pump at the Nova Nickel mine in Western Australia.

“It has a 65 kW power unit and a storage capacity of 300 kWh, and the photovoltaic generator is around 16 MW”, explains Vincent Algar. “So it can be fully charged with four hours of sunlight, which means you can then stream it overnight. We try to run it almost 24/7. That kind of combination, says- it, will bridge the gap for companies looking to get to net zero without having to resort to carbon offsets.” They can get to 60% renewables, they can probably get to 70%…but that last 100% hurdle is very difficult to achieve. VRFBs can fill that last 30%, which can be for four hours of the day.”

The State of the Solar Game

Invinity Energy Systems is working independently on the Yadlamalka Energy project funded in part by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency or ARENA in South Australia, to provide one of the largest solar-powered VRFBs in the world. The project will combine a 6 MW solar panel with a 2 MW/8 MWh Invinity VRFB, to produce approximately 10 GWh of dispatchable solar per year. A key feature will be to demonstrate how utility-scale PV can store solar energy during the day, when peak solar supply results in low or negative prices for generated energy, and release energy at peak times. subsequent peak demand to maximize project returns.

The Invinity team was formed in March 2020 by the merger of the British company RedT energy and the Canadian company Avalon Battery. Matt Harper, co-founder of Avalon and now co-founder and chief commercial officer of Invinity, told pv magazine that at Avalon, which was formed in 2013, the goal was to transform the typically highly personalized VRFB technology – projects that “all looked like small chemical plants with big pumps and pipes…” – into “turnkey products that come out of the factory with excellent quality control, fully functional and ready for delivery in the field alongside solar projects and have them installed and operational within hours.” Avalon has achieved this goal and Invinity products are now 100% turnkey.

Smooth out the creases

Avalon and RedT have also pioneered smart financing solutions for the variable cost of vanadium electrolyte, which capitalize on the permanence of the storage medium. It can be rented or leased for the duration of any drum project, qualify for tax deductions in jurisdictions such as Australia during that period, and be returned to the owner/producer when the drum mechanisms expire.

The storage medium can also be decoupled from the battery mechanism when assembling a VRFB. Large volumes of vanadium electrolyte, as required by higher capacity batteries, are heavy and therefore expensive to ship. Until Australia has developed its own VRFB manufacturing capability, AVL intends to work with overseas partners to ship batteries to the Port of Geraldton, fill them with electrolyte from its factory, and then deploy them. across the country from this location.

Li-ion deployments have demonstrated just how valuable batteries can be to the power grid, AVL and Invinity executives say, but, according to Harper, “the length of time batteries are now asked to provide grid electricity has come to an end. where our technology makes a lot of sense.

The goal is for VRFB technology to succeed in the three-, six-, and 12-hour gap between fast-start, short-duration storage, like Li-ion batteries, and seasonal storage, like high-speed pumped hydro. ladder. Harper says, “We have to make sure that we’re not going to have the same supply chain and material constraints that the lithium people are experiencing now. Having a reliable, inexpensive source of vanadium… that’s what we need to make sure we can build as many of these batteries as the world will need.

By Natalie Filatoff

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