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Battery breakthrough: Doubling performance with lithium metal that doesn’t catch fire

A rechargeable battery technology developed at the University of Michigan could double the output of today’s lithium ion cells—drastically extending electric vehicle ranges and time between cell phone charges—without taking up any added space.

By using a ceramic, solid-state electrolyte, engineers can harness the power of lithium metal batteries without the historic issues of poor durability and short-circuiting. The result is a roadmap to what could be the next generation of rechargeable batteries.

“This could be a game-changer—a paradigm shift in how a battery operates,” said Jeff Sakamoto, a U-M associate professor of mechanical engineering who leads the work.

In the 1980s, rechargeable lithium metal batteries that used liquid electrolytes were considered the next big thing, penetrating the market in early portable phones. But their propensity to combust when charged led engineers in different directions. The lithium atoms that shuttle between the electrodes tended to build tree-like filaments called dendrites on the electrode surfaces, eventually shorting the battery and igniting the flammable electrolyte.

The lithium ion battery—a more stable, but less energy-dense technology—was introduced in 1991 and quickly became the new standard. These batteries replaced lithium metal with graphite anodes, which absorb the lithium and prevent dendrites from forming, but also come with performance costs:

  • Graphite can hold only one lithium ion for every six carbon atoms, giving it a specific capacity of approximately 350 milliampere hours per gram (mAh/g.) The lithium metal in a solid state battery has a specific capacity of 3,800 mAh/g.
    Current lithium ion batteries max out with a total energy density around 600 watt-hours per liter (Wh/L) at the cell level. In principal, solid-state batteries can reach 1,200 Wh/L.
  • To solve lithium metal’s combustion problem, U-M engineers created a ceramic layer that stabilizes the surface—keeping dendrites from forming and preventing fires. It allows batteries to harness the benefits of lithium metal—energy density and high-conductivity—without the dangers of fires or degradation over time.

“What we’ve come up with is a different approach—physically stabilizing the lithium metal surface with a ceramic,” Sakamoto said. “It’s not combustible. We make it at over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in air. And there’s no liquid, which is what typically fuels the battery fires you see.

“You get rid of that fuel, you get rid of the combustion.”

In earlier solid state electrolyte tests, lithium metal grew through the ceramic electrolyte at low charging rates, causing a short circuit, much like that in liquid cells. U-M researchers solved this problem with chemical and mechanical treatments that provide a pristine surface for lithium to plate evenly, effectively suppressing the formation of dendrites or filaments. Not only does this improve safety, it enables a dramatic improvement in charging rates, Sakamoto said.

“Up until now, the rates at which you could plate lithium would mean you’d have to charge a lithium metal car battery over 20 to 50 hours (for full power),” Sakamoto said. “With this breakthrough, we demonstrated we can charge the battery in 3 hours or less.

“We’re talking a factor of 10 increase in charging speed compared to previous reports for solid state lithium metal batteries. We’re now on par with lithium ion cells in terms of charging rates, but with additional benefits. ”

That charge/recharge process is what inevitably leads to the eventual death of a lithium ion battery. Repeatedly exchanging ions between the cathode and anode produces visible degradation right out of the box.

In testing the ceramic electrolyte, however, no visible degradation is observed after long term cycling, said Nathan Taylor, a U-M post-doctoral fellow in mechanical engineering.

“We did the same test for 22 days,” he said. “The battery was just the same at the start as it was at the end. We didn’t see any degradation. We aren’t aware of any other bulk solid state electrolyte performing this well for this long.”

Bulk solid state electrolytes enable cells that are a drop-in replacement for current lithium ion batteries and could leverage existing battery manufacturing technology. With the material performance verified, the research group has begun producing thin solid electrolyte layers required to meet solid state capacity targets.

The group’s findings are published in the Aug. 31 issue of the Journal of Power Sources.

The research is funded by the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy and the Department of Energy.


Feds call for even more marijuana research after hosting cannabis workshop

Federally funded research into marijuana seems to be escalating, with one government agency recently posting a roundup of current “cannabinoid-related funding opportunities” for studies investigating the plant’s therapeutic potential.

On Saturday, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) shared a list of four research grant opportunities for studies on “natural products” like cannabis. One would examine how cannabinoids other than THC affect pain, and three others call for more broad clinical trials of natural products involving human participants.

The list appears to have been prepared as part of an NCCIH-hosted workshop last week that explored “how to conduct research within the current regulatory framework,” an event that was explicitly not about “challenging or changing current federal laws, policies, or regulations.”

NCCIH “supports rigorous scientific investigation of natural products such as the cannabis plant and its components (e.g., cannabinoids and terpenes),” the agency wrote.

The goals of the proposed research projects range from identifying the “biological signature” of natural products, which means discovering a replicable biological effect, to determining the best dose and optimal formulation of these products. Researchers interested in taking on the investigations have to submit applications with comprehensive plans for the trials and also obtain clearance from federal agencies charged with regulating controlled substances such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Interestingly, three out of four of the studies highlighted by NCCIH don’t explicitly mention marijuana or cannabinoids. Rather, they more broadly cover natural products, which seems to suggest that the agency aims to increase cannabis research through pre-existing funding channels.

While the federal government has historically funded limited studies into marijuana and its components, researchers have struggled to overcome barriers to research that exist for federally banned substances. As more states have legalized cannabis, though, agencies like the NCCIH have started ramping up their calls for research.

At the same time, the DEA has said that it’s streamlining applications for federally-sanctioned marijuana cultivators in order to meet the growing demand for research-grade cannabis products. It authorized 5,400 pounds of cannabis to be grown in 2019 — more than five times the amount authorized for this year. The reason for the scaling up is “based solely on increased usage projections for federally approved research projects,” the agency clarified in a Federal Register notice on Monday.


Medical Cannabis is Coming to Greece, And With it, Huge Opportunities

Greece issues its first private company licenses to grow medical marijuana. This is a massive boost to the Greek economy, worth billions of euros. Already, international companies are interested in Greece’s product, which is expected to hit the market in a little over a year, when a total of 14 companies are expected to be operational.

It was back in June 2017, that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that medical cannabis was now legal with a doctor’s prescription. At that time, Tsipras commented, “From now on, the country is turning its page, as Greece is now included in countries where the delivery of medical cannabis to patients in need is legal.”

It was in March of this year that Parliament took the next step, and approved a law authorising the cultivation and production of medical cannabis in Greece. This means that cannabis will be downgraded from a Table A to a Table B substance, and will now be accepted as a drug used to treat certain conditions, such as chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and nausea, caused by chemotherapy and some eating disorders. However, use of the product will not be subsidised by state health plans.

Greece joins several countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, and Denmark, that allow prescriptions for medicinal cannabis. In June, Canada became the second country in the world to fully legalise cannabis, ending a 90-year ban. Uruguay was the first country to do so.

In the Prohibition Partners’ European Cannabis Report, which stated that “the impact that medical cannabis could have on Greece’s struggling economy could be substantial.” It added that “if Greece were to benefit from medical cannabis to the same extent as other countries that have introduced medical cannabis, it could inject up to 2 billion euros into the economy.”

International companies are set to bring over 1 billion Euros into Greece’s nascent medical cannabis sector.

In late November, Greece awarded its first marijuana grow licenses to two privately owned companies; officially opening the door to both cultivation of the plant, as well as related opportunities for international and domestic sales and exports. Greece has still not unveiled the framework for how patients and hospitals will obtain access to medical cannabis, but plans are already in motion to take advantage of the new import-export opportunities. The product is expected to hit the market in 12-18 months.

This market is worth billions of euros. While the business is projected to grow all over the world, it is especially likely to boom in Europe. Currently, Europe mostly relies on international imports, but there is a growing push for European cultivation – and Greece got in on the ground floor, just after Denmark. International companies are set to bring over 1 billion Euros into Greece’s nascent medical cannabis sector.  There is expected to be increased European demand for the product. Deputy Economy Minister Stergios Pitsiorlas, said there is notable interest from companies in Israel and Canada specifically, including Leamington and Aphria.

Currently, Greece’s legal framework allows for exports, so long as the receiving country has the necessary import license. This opens up massive export opportunities for Greece.

“The impact that medical cannabis could have on Greece’s struggling economy could be substantial,” said the Deputy Economy Minister Stergios Pitsiorlas, in a Reuters interview.

The first licensed cannabis hothouses will be in Larisa in central Greece, and in Corinth in the Peloponnese. One of the initially licensed companies, Bioprocann S.A., has an eye on growing for export.  They are unveiling a state-of-the-art setup, utilising a 21,500 square foot indoor cultivation area, complete with 64,500 square feet of greenhouse space. Nikolas Onoufriadis, a principal at Bioprocann, told Marijuana Business Daily that “Exporting is definitely part of our current vision and our strategic approach.”

Another 12 licenses will be issued by the end of this year, bringing the total up to 14 by January. This is expected to create over-all more than 750 jobs, and represents about 185 million euros in investment.

“Our message is that the country is open for investments,” said Vassilis Kokkalis, Deputy Minister of Agriculture.


Chinese battery firm halts purchases of cobalt from Glencore

Chinese battery firm GEM has stopped buying cobalt from Glencore as the price of the battery material crashed below that agreed in a three-year deal between the two companies, sources close to the matter said.

GEM said in a March 14 regulatory filing that it would buy 52,800 tonnes of cobalt from mining and trading giant Glencore between 2018 and 2020, without revealing the price.

Cobalt prices CBD0 on the London Metal Exchange have nearly halved to around $55,000 a tonne since late March, when they hit record highs on expected demand growth. Cobalt is crucial for the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries used to power electric vehicles, a growing sector of the auto industry.

Global prices tumbled due to a surplus of cobalt in China, the world’s largest manufacturer of cobalt chemicals and electric vehicle batteries. The market is expected to struggle for some years to come due to expected oversupply.

“The price went down so much,” one source said, adding that GEM had no alternative supplier but was using its inventories of cobalt and that the Chinese firm had not attempted to renegotiate the contract recently.

According to the filing, GEM and its subsidiaries were to purchase 13,800 tonnes of cobalt from Glencore in 2018, 18,000 tonnes in 2019 and 21,000 tonnes in 2020.

“GEM didn’t buy because of what happened to the price. They didn’t open the letters of credit and said to Glencore, sorry, but we can’t take it at the agreed price,” another source said.

(For a graphic on ‘Cobalt price collapse overwhelms industry’ click tmsnrt.rs/2QMsfF0)

One source said GEM had tried to renegotiate the price, but that was much earlier in the year when cobalt was nearer $70,000 a tonne. Another source said there had been some moves recently to try to renegotiate.

The sources said they did not know whether Glencore would try to sue GEM, but one said Chinese law meant “the odds are stacked against foreign firms” wanting compensation when contracts had broken down.

GEM, which did not respond to a request by Reuters for a comment, on Friday said in response to a question on an investor platform provided by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange that it had not stopped purchasing cobalt raw materials from Glencore.

The company continues to source nickel and cobalt raw materials through a dual strategy of “urban mining,” or the recycling of scrap and spent batteries, and cooperation with major international players, it added.

Glencore declined to comment.

Letters of credit are issued by banks to guarantee payments made to specific companies or people so long as requirements such as the delivery of goods are met.

Sources say GEM wasn’t alone in stopping purchases, as some other Chinese firms making cobalt chemicals or lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles had also halted their buying.

Glencore in an investor update on Dec. 3 said some customers had reneged on contracts for cobalt.

“All the material they haven’t sold is sitting in warehouses in Johannesburg,” a cobalt industry source said.

While the industry typically talks about cobalt metal, the surplus is in cobalt hydroxide, used to make sulphates for the cathode part of lithium-ion batteries.

Hydroxide is a byproduct of copper in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which houses the world’s largest reserves of cobalt. The DRC is expected to produce nearly 90,000 tonnes this year in a market estimated at 135,000 tonnes.

Prices for cobalt hydroxide, a percentage of the metal price also known as payables, hit levels above 90 percent last year and have since slipped to around 65 percent.

“Payables are still around the 65 percent level, despite the Katanga news,” the cobalt industry source said.

Glencore in November said its subsidiary Katanga Mining had halted cobalt exports from the Kamoto Project in the DRC while it builds a facility to remove uranium.

Guidance for cobalt production from Katanga was 11,000 tonnes this year and 34,000 tonnes in 2019. Guidance for 2019 was revised down to around 26,000 tonnes after the export halt.


China is temporarily slashing tariffs on US auto imports

China said Friday it will temporarily reduce tariffs on imports of American-made cars as it tries to negotiate a trade deal with the United States.

Citing the meeting earlier this month between US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Chinese Finance Ministry said in a statement that it will remove the additional 25% tariffs on car imports from the United States for three months starting January 1. That will bringChina’s tariffs on American-made cars to 15%, in line with those for cars made in other countries.

China also said it would suspend its 5% tariff on 67 other auto parts.

China imposed the additional tariffs on US cars in July and on some auto parts in September as part of its retaliation in the trade war between the two countries.

At their meeting in Argentina, Trump and Xi agreed to a temporary truce while they try to negotiate a broad trade deal over the next 90 days.

In its statement Friday, the Finance Ministry described the decision to remove the tariffs as a “concrete action” aimed at helping to bring about a “mutually beneficial new Sino-US trade order.”

Xi pledged in April that China would cut tariffs on imported cars this year. His government delivered on that promise in July, reducing import taxes from 25% to 15%.

But just days later, China imposed new additional tariffs of 25% on American-made passenger vehicles as the trade war with the United States escalated.

The tariffs hurt profits of major automakers that ship cars to China from the United States. Germany’s BMW and Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz, have been hit particularly hard. Shares of BMW and Daimler both trimmed early Friday losses on the news.

The stocks had spiked last week after Trump tweeted that China was going to cut auto tariffs.

General Motors and some other automakers already have a large presence in China through partnerships with local manufacturers. It has become the largest and most important market for the American auto industry. Because their plants are in the country, they weren’t subject to big import taxes.

Yet China’s tariffs have hurt exports from US auto plants. The value of US passenger car exports to China has fallen by $2.4 billion, or 30%, over the course of the first nine months of the year.

Part of that could be because of slowing Chinese auto sales. Yet overall sales of American cars in China -— including those made in China — are down only about 1% so far this year.