Can we become a battery superpower?

Feb 21, 2023

Gelion founder and principal technology advisor, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, talks with Cosmos Magazine about the battery industry in Australia.

We’ve got the smarts and the minerals – and the federal government wants us to corner the market.

The federal government is currently taking submissions on a national battery strategy, which will aim to enhance the uptake, export and manufacture of batteries around Australia.

Australia has abundant renewable energy resources, and many of the minerals – like lithium and vanadium – that form key components of batteries.

According to the government’s issues paper, this, combined with our strong R&D capacity, gives us a unique opportunity to be a world leader in the battery industry.

So: how can the government help us get there?

“One has to spend some money to take it from the bench into prototypes, and then into something that’s manufacturable,” says Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, a chemist at the University of Sydney, and founder and principal technology advisor at battery manufacturer Gelion.

“At each stage, there are different levels of technology readiness that need to be tested, complied with, before you have a mass-produced product. And that is expensive,” adds Maschmeyer.

“There are probably people out there who are inventing things that are brilliant, but they don’t have access to the funding, or may need business assistance or matchmaking with another company that could help them,” agrees Samantha McGahan, manager of VSUN Energy within resources company Australian Vanadium.

McGahan says that while this government assistance could be financial, it doesn’t necessarily need to be.

Maschmeyer says that universities aren’t funded to help with this technology development, and companies that can afford it, don’t always step in.

“It’s a bit non-sexy to some degree. Shareholders are not that excited if you say ‘give me X million dollars, so I can test my battery’. They want to have breakthroughs and excitement, but there’s really hard crunch work that needs to be done.”

He adds that government can instead provide support, citing the US Department of Energy’s “very, very successful” National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries as a good example policy to follow.

“They can, in a sense, almost carbon copy what they did in the US.”

Onshore manufacturing of batteries – currently at a very small scale – are a particular opportunity for Australia, since local demand for batteries will be increasing.

McGahan points out that it makes sense for things like electrolytes, a crucial component of battery chemistry, to be manufactured near where they’re going to be use.

“It’s cheaper to make it here, because otherwise you’re just shipping sulfuric acid and water around the world […] With rising fuel costs for shipping, that’s just getting better and better for us.”

Maschmeyer says that modern battery manufacturing is capital intensive, but not labour intensive, making it a sensible industry to have it onshore.

“To have a sufficient ecosystem of companies around that can service the factories – whether it’s air conditioning, or fixing machines that are broken with high-end engineering, that is a little bit thinner in Australia,” says Maschmeyer.

McGahan adds that a keen workforce – particularly electrical and chemical engineers, and geologists – will also be important.

“Personally, I think that it really needs to start at the primary school level. You need to start getting the children interested,” says McGahan.

Submissions for the National Battery Strategy close on 3 March 2023


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