Japan pins hope on all-solid-state lithium batteries (ASSLB) as it falls behind in battery race

Japan was where the world’s first lithium-ion battery and hybrid vehicle were made, but the country is aware that its position in the production of both battery materials and battery cells is falling behind its Asian peers, Fastmarkets heard on Tuesday, January 31

The top producers of cathode, anode, electrolyte and separators were mostly Chinese and South Korean corporates, with an exception being Japan’s Sumitomo, which is the market leader in lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminium oxide used to make cylindrical batteries.

The Japanese government is now putting its faith in an all-solid-state lithium battery (ASSLB). This is a type of battery that has higher energy density, and thus a vehicle driving range twice longer than can be achieved using lithium-ion batteries and liquid electrolyte, Nobutaka Takeo of the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry (METI) said at a battery industry summit in Tokyo.

Announcing a battery strategy budget of 332 billion yen ($2.55 billion) for research, the country is now aiming to catch up in the race toward commercial production of ASSLBs by 2030, the director of METI’s battery industry office said.

ASSLBs were being marketed as the next-generation battery to solve the safety and performance issues of existing lithium-ion batteries, which use liquid electrolyte to allow lithium ions to move between anode and cathode.

Current issues

The liquid electrolytes in such lithium-ion batteries are flammable, making storage, transport, shipping and insurance both risky and costly.

Across the world, lithium battery recycling projects and the set-up of new plants are always met with fire concerns.

On January 25 this year, a major fire broke out in the warehouse of a recycling firm with lithium-ion batteries in Konohana-ku, in Japan’s Osaka City, delegates to the battery summit heard. There was no information on the cause of the fire.

“The staff [of the Japanese recycling company affected] were supposed to attend the summit, but they are dealing with the aftermath of the fire,” one participant at the summit said. “Some Japanese shipping companies are refusing shipments of battery scrap for fear of lithium batteries catching fire. It is making trade [in lithium battery scrap] difficult.”

And in July 2022, there was an explosion in major recycler SungEel’s lithium battery treatment plant in Europe.

In terms of its consistency, the liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries could freeze in cold conditions, and discharging could be unstable when temperatures are high.

In comparsion, the ASSLB developed by Japanese consumer electronics producer Maxell, using a solid sulfide electrolyte, could discharge in a more stable manner in extreme weather, across a range from -20 to +105°C.

Hefty investment in both present, future batteries

“ASSLBs may well be the future and may well be a means for Japan to catch up, but many companies around the world are looking at ASSLBs and have been for many years,” the head of base metals and battery research at Fastmarkets, William Adams, said. “Their governments have also been providing grants and incentives [such as the US Inflation Reduction Act].”

Major Japanese carmakers Toyota, Nissan and Honda all expect to start production of ASSLBs next year, with their installation in electric vehicles expected in the late 2020s. A similar timeline has been announced by Volkswagen’s partner QuantumScape to mass produce its own ASSLB.

But cautioun should be used when considering whether these near-term targets can be achieved. As long ago as 2008, Toyota had already approached battery material developers to replace lithium-ion batteries with ASSLBs.

“New battery technologies take many years to be developed and even more to be commercialized,” Adams said. “Japan will need to invest in both today’s technology and today’s supply chains, and produce EVs with non-ASSLB batteries, while at the same time investing in the next technology [ASSLBs]. But that might not be commercially available before the end of the decade.”

Other than boosting research and development into ASSLBs, within six years, Japan also hoped to expand its domestic production capacity of non-ASSLB units in EVs and energy storage systems to 150GWh, from around 20GWh now, according to a plan announced last year.

The precondition to this was that the country needed to secure a supply of battery metals in the first place.

“The country only imports around only 40,000 tonnes per year of lithium in the form of carbonate and hydroxide,” according to one of the world’s biggest lithium producers, which sells products to Japan. “Growth is not obvious. We are clearly lagging behind.”

The island country would need each year 100,000 tonnes of lithium, 90,000 tonnes of nickel, 20,000 tonnes of cobalt, 150,000 tonnes of graphite, and 20,000 tonnes of manganese to achieve this target capacity.

The Japanese government has agreed to provide 216 billion yen to secure a stable supply of mineral resources, mainly through supporting private companies engaged in mining developments and the smelting of battery metals and rare earths.

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