Union Cabinet recently approved Production Linked Incentive Schemes for 10 sectors to enhance India’s manufacturing capabilities. One of the key sectors covered under this scheme is Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) Battery that has been approved for a financial outlay of INR 18,100 crores over a 5 year period to support 50 GWh of domestic ACC manufacturing. Currently, the scheme’s RFP documents are in stakeholder consultation phase.
As of today, India is completely dependent on imports for Li-ion cells. C.S.Ramanathan – a seasoned Battery Consultant has released a book on “Manufacture of Lithium-Ion Battery (LiFePO4 based) – An introduction for MSMEs” to provide guidance for MSMEs presently making Lead-acid batteries to add a pilot scale production plant of Li-ion cells. This interview covers his opinion and views on how the challenges with respect to cell manufacturing can be overcome.
We do not manufacture Li-ion cells in India as of today. Unavailability of raw material, cell technology and large capital investment are cited as the reasons for the same. How can India overcome these barriers to start manufacturing Li-ion cells locally?
A practical suggestion would be to choose 2 Cathode streams for sustained production of LIBs (Lithium-ion batteries) in India. The nickel route for high density where footprint and weight are critical as for EVs and a second stream of Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) for stationary application, ESS for Solar, Wind, Inverters, 2 wheelers and 3 wheelers etc. The machinery required to manufacture the cells are the same and a plant can switch from one Cathode chemistry to another quite easily. The effort should be to replace Cobalt as an immediate target. Many research efforts are currently underway to avoid use of cobalt altogether. An example would be a Korean Company working with Prof Goodenough (Nobel Laureate for invention of Li-ion battery) to completely replace Cobalt with Nickel.
Abundant sources of Nickel exist in Orissa, Jharkhand which are presently being beneficiated by ore processors like Nicomet. We also have assured supplies of other raw materials such as Aluminium, Iron compounds, Phosphoric acid etc. Nickel is cheaper than Cobalt and easily available. LFP is indeed a product par excellence from the safety point of view and stable current output.
Only Lithium Carbonate needs to be imported. 14,000 tonnes of ore is reported to be available in Mandya district of Karnataka as surveyed by ASI/DAE. This awaits beneficiation and manufacture of Lithium Carbonate. The Central Government has facilitated Khanij Bidesh organisation to sign separate MOUs with Argentina and Bolivia to ensure continued supply of Lithium compounds. To get a correct perspective, it is necessary to mention that Lithium forms only 1.4% of the cell weight.
Graphite used for Anode will be available. Epsilon Advanced Materials is putting up a plant in Ballari, Karnataka for making anode grade Graphite with a capacity of 60,000 TPY. Silicon, another Anode material is available in purified form.
The chemical industry in India is well-developed. Chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical intermediate industry and oil refineries can generate the intermediates required to make the organic solvents. New chemicals can be developed at short notice by Research institutions like National Chemical Laboratory and Indian Institute of Science. The separator is a proprietary item made of PP – PE composites and needs to be imported for some time to come.
Technology for manufacture of LIBs is developed by ISRO and CECRI (under CSIR) and is available for transfer to entrepreneurs.
What are your reasons for recommending LFP chemistry for ‘Make in India’?
LFP has the highest safety rating among other cathode systems and has a steady discharge curve. The raw materials are available and cheaper than costly Cobalt and Nickel. On the downside, LFP has a lower voltage (3.2 V against 3.7 V of NCA) and lower Ah capacity. This results in a weight and footprint penalty. Additional number of cells are needed to meet the voltage and Ah requirement (about 30 % higher than NCA) and is therefore not likely to be accepted for high end EV cars, mainly due to the higher weight and higher volume occupied. LFP is suitable for trucks and buses where a higher battery weight is acceptable. Of course, it is also suited for 2 wheelers and 3 wheelers. Many E-rickshaws are already installed with LFP batteries. In stationary applications like Inverters, Solar and Wind energy storage, the LFP batteries are already in use in a large scale in India. Hence, I believe LFP has a good future in India.
What role do you think the MSMEs can play in making India self-reliant in Li-ion battery space (given we are importing 100% of Li-ion cells at the moment)?
The MSMEs in the battery sector in India control 40-50 % of the lead-acid battery production at present. The new technology offered by LIBs should be taken as an opportunity by the MSMEs; in addition to the lead battery plant, setting up pilot plants of LFP/LIBs side by side could generate handsome revenue for them. Marketing will not pose a problem since the demand at present seems to be well over 450 million cells a year (import figures in 2019), and it will grow over the years. There is a significant demand for batteries used in inverter, E-rickshaws etc where LIBs are being introduced in place of Lead acid. Imported cells are also assembled to meet the demand for Energy Storage of solar and wind power installations in remote areas where batteries cannot be attended to periodically. Every entrepreneur can serve a niche area, say, inverter, and solar and wind power in the market they are already serving presently.
At what capacity can Li-ion cell manufacturing become financially viable for a business?
This is the main question I have tried to answer in my book. A minimum of 500 -1000 cells per day will be a viable proposition. 2-4 pilot plants for LIB manufacture could generate such an output with an investment of Rs 3-5 crores. Investment is proposed in 3 tranches.
Can you suggest a phase wise approach for industry to increase local value addition in the Li-ion battery supply chain?
This is the only acceptable way in view of the high investment cost. I propose 3 tranches of investment at intervals of 1-2 years. First stage will be import of cells and assembling them in India. This is already being done by many entrepreneurs. The investment is low at this stage. Welding and building a BMS is the first step. Second stage involves import of rolls of Cathode, Anode, Separator and make cells and assemble them into batteries. In the third stage, coating of Cathode and Anode can be taken up. Machinery for coating, drying are added at this stage. The total investment is estimated at Rs 3-5 Crores.
Will the MSMEs also need training in additional components of a BESS (Battery Energy Storage System), such as thermal management system, BMS etc?
Yes. The BMS and BESS systems essentially consist of PCBs and electronic circuits. Such systems are already being made by some of the entrepreneurs. Awareness and training of operators in welding as well as operators making PCBs (electronics) will be necessary in the first phase.
In the second phase, slitting and cutting of rolls of cathode, anode, separator need a different skill set of the operator. Such trained workmen are available from ITIs and other occupational training centres.
Air cooling to dissipate heat is adequate for all small installations. Most electric cars circulate 10% Ethylene Glycol around the batteries kept on the floor of the car. High voltage stationary installations in closed spaces should have adequate ventilation to keep the batteries below the temperature threshold to prevent thermal runaway conditions. At least 2 levels of protection – one at cell level – Current Interrupting Device (CIDs) and Positive Temperature Controllers (PTC) and another at battery level – the BMS exist. Forced ventilation for Stationary systems and coolant circulation for EVs to further control the temperature should be standard adjuncts. Safety gears when working at higher voltages above 60 V are essential.
What is your outlook on Indian battery technology space in the next few years?
Since we are looking for clean and renewable energy sources, only Solar, Wind and Nuclear Energy sources are the practical primary sources of energy to be considered. There are several electrochemical systems with different chemistries, but only a few are suitable for practical use. The ones with high energy density like Lithium-Ion will survive. But the higher cost and safety concerns are holding back a still faster growth. Both Lead-acid and Lithium based batteries will continue to dominate in the near future. The Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and similar systems will continue but with a much smaller scale of production. Lithium cells will become cheaper due to low cost materials which will be used in future. When recycling of cells and recovery of costly chemicals are introduced, a further reduction of cost can be realised. Recycling of spent batteries is essential for sustainable growth and to preserve the environment.
For EVs, LIBs will be dominant technology. New cathodes using cheaper and abundant materials will be introduced. Higher energy density and safety will be targets, extending the running range of vehicles on a single charge.
We can predict that cells of higher energy density and safer chemistries will come faster than we may think, given the fast pace of research going on all over the world. In the global scenario, many Governments support scientific projects engaged in energy research. Replacing Lithium Iron Phosphate with Lithium Iron Pyrophosphate (Li₂FeP₂O₇) has the potential to increase voltages to 3.8-4 VPC equal to NCA. This could become a game changer when developed. More details are available in my book.
About the author – C.S.Ramanathan is a Battery Consultant, and holds M.Sc; D.I.I.Sc. degrees from the Indian Institute of Science. Earlier, he was Head of R&D at AMCO Batteries Ltd and has been a consultant to many battery manufacturers in India and abroad. His latest book on ‘Manufacture of Lithium-Ion Battery (LiFePO4 based) – An introduction for MSMEs‘ contains required technological inputs to manufacture Lithium-ion batteries – manufacture of Cathode and Anode chemicals, coating chemicals and procedures, choosing the right electrolytes and final assembly and testing. For any book enquiries, Mr Ramanathan can be reached at these coordinates – firstname.lastname@example.org; 9845049975.
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