World EV Day: India’s Dependence on Lithium-ion. Is there a solution?

Updated: Sep 8


India's tryst with electric vehicles has been somewhat mixed. As the country moves forward, it is adapting to the EV ecosystem rapidly. In order to fulfil its goals of EV adoption in the coming years, there are certain boxes that are yet to be checked.


While Government initiatives like the FAME 2, are a welcome move, there are things that are yet to be figured out.


And, one major component of the EV industry is the batteries powering it.


With a rising demand and adoption measures for EVs across the country, there lies a pressing need to look into the right lithium resources across the world and tap into them for a smoother supply chain and mass adoption.


So, while India steps forward to an electrifying future, does it need to rely on lithium-ion? Or are there ways to secure the country’s requirements without depending on the metal? This EV Day we look into lithium-ion batteries as the source behind powering our EVs.


The Backstory: What’s up with Lithium?

A BluSmart EV car
A BluSmart EV car

Lithium is one of the most important components for EV manufacturing. With an increasing focus on EV manufacturing, the demand for lithium-ion batteries used in EVs has risen too.


This rise in demand can be attributed to technological improvements, as well as cost reductions due to large-scale production. While back in India, the country currently lacks the technology to manufacture Lithium-ion batteries on a commercial scale.


While there are a few manufacturers looking into the production of lithium-ion batteries in the country, it's just the assembly that takes place here, with most of the components being imported from other countries.


Here are some of the issues that Lithium-ion batteries are facing currently:

  1. The Cost: One of the major reasons why manufacturers are trying to find an alternative for Lithium-ion batteries is the element of cost attached to it. Lithium being a limited natural resource is in limited supply to cater to the rising demand. Many manufacturers have mentioned how Lithium-ion batteries make up the 40-50% of the cost of an EV. A single EV consists of about 10 kilograms of lithium in its batteries and attributes to up to 40% cost of an EV. With the rising demand, a country like India, with a lower amount of lithium reserves needs to satiate it by importing the resource from Lithium-rich countries, which further adds to the final cost of an EV.

  2. Availability: Lithium as a resource is in limited supply. So, what comes up as a solution? Mainly importing, and further intensifying the research and exploration for the metal. While the latter is a fairly expensive method, most EVs rely on imported lithium components in their batteries. Although, a major concern rising is the fact that lithium resources are depleting across the world, and aren’t able to fill the current demand-supply gap. According to a report by CEEW The Council and Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, about 58% of the world’s lithium reserves are in Chile and 43% of rare earth mineral reserves are in China. This leads to India importing a major chunk of its lithium requirements.

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So, Why is Lithium Still Being Used in Your EVs?

As the world brings EVs into the mainstream, there’s a lot to be considered. While Lithium-ion batteries have their own set of challenges, let us understand why it actually considered by many manufacturers as the go-to choice for EV manufacturing.

  1. High-energy density: Lithium-ion batteries tend to have a higher energy density. This means that Li-ion batteries have a larger capacity to last between two charges while maintaining a high current output. It’s for this very reason that these are used for mobile phones and other devices too.

  2. Lower rate of self-discharge: Another major advantage of lithium-ion batteries is the fact that they have low self-discharge capabilities. This is true when they are in use and even when they aren’t. This makes them safer and more efficient.

  3. Easy to maintain: Lithium-ion batteries are easier to maintain. While their procurement costs might be higher, they are way easier to maintain.

Are There Alternatives to Lithium-Ion Batteries?

solid state batteries
Are solid-state batteries the right alternative? | Credits: C&EN

The major question that many have is- ‘If not Lithium, then what?’


With the EV manufacturing industry picking up pace, and a few questions arising around lithium-ion batteries, there are concerns about finding an alternate source of energy to power the EVs.


So, are there any other alternatives for EVs to function properly?


Major players in EV manufacturing and other auxiliary industries are finding ways to power EVs. Here are some of the major alternatives to lithium-ion batteries:


Solid-State Batteries

Solid-state batteries are developed by replacing the liquid electrolyte component with a thin solid electrolyte. Furthermore, the energy density of the battery can be improved by replacing the electrode of a lithium-ion battery with lithium metal. Solid state batteries are being touted as a safer option than the existing LIBs too. Although, efforts are still being made to ensure that SSBs are made efficient for mass manufacturing and availability.


Sodium-ion Batteries

Sodium-ion batteries have undergone several steps of development since the 1980s. Sodium has been a major choice for many developers as the primary component due to its mass availability. With sodium-ion batteries, the developers are looking at making cheaper, safer and higher-energy-dense batteries without extracting any rare earth minerals. There are some major advantages to the final development of sodium-ion batteries. Sodium-ion cells are estimated to be cheaper by up to 30-40% than lithium-ion cells, making it a more feasible option, economically.


The manufacturing of SIBs has been commercialized for electric mobility. While there are concerns over their long-term energy density, they still fare better than LIBs on many fronts.


Flow Battery

Another competitor in the EV battery space is flow batteries. They are coming up as an exciting option when it comes to getting a viable alternative for long-term energy storage needs. Flow batteries are rather more dynamic than the rest, considering the power and energy can be scaled independently of one another.


This allows the developers to determine the duration of energy storage feasibly by scaling up the electrolyte tanks without making modifications to the battery’s structure.


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Au Revoir, Lithium?

Urban mining turns out to be a feasible solution | mobile phone batteries | urban mining
Urban mining turns out to be a feasible solution | Credits: Pexels

Well, not too soon.


India is finally looking up and exploring methods for reducing its dependence on imported lithium and putting the spotlight on the development of the domestic EV industry.


Many state-run organisations are collaborating with authorities of countries like Chile, Argentina and Bolivia to acquire lithium and cobalt mines overseas. Apart from this, not far away, initiatives looking towards urban mining, where recycled articles remain in circulation and important metals are extracted effectively from them are being undertaken.


Moreover, other private players and Indian OEMs require impetus from the Indian government to expedite their lithium manufacturing efforts. Domestic manufacturing of lithium cells wouldn’t just make the supply chain more effective but might as well bring the prices of EVs to par with ICE cars, if not lesser than those.


Alternatively, one interesting insight here is that the number of imports may as well drop down eventually, considering that lithium-ion batteries can be recycled to a large extent.


Conclusion

Lithium-ion batteries have been powering EVs since a very nascent stage. Although, with newer developments taking place, stronger contenders are bound to disrupt the EV battery market, however that doesn't seem like something that might happen in at least the next few years. As an alternative to disrupting a market, the existing solutions need to be tested and analysed completely, i.e. in this case lithium.


For instance, recent research by IIT Madras led to the development of zinc-air batteries for two and three-wheeler EVs. They are touted to be more economical and have a longer shelf-life. Developments like these bring up yet another important scenario- the rise of alternative battery components along with lithium.


As newer developments start taking place, and domestic production measures finally come into the picture, the overall dynamics of the EV industry are bound to change. Hence, the question isn’t whether India can move on from Lithium-ion batteries, it’s whether can we optimise the overall EV battery industry.

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