Homegrown Aluminium-based solutions are India’s best bet as we aim for manufacturing leadership in E-mobility and clean energy storage
Energy for the Future
The past decade has witnessed an increasingly powerful momentum in renewable energy. The rapid demand for energy for urbanisation and industrialisation in the developing world could have been hard on the environment, but relentless efforts to improve energy efficiency and the decisive shift to clean energy has mitigated some of that adverse impact. Technological advances in renewables and supportive policies from the government have also augured well for the environment.
This new era of energy will see a significant shift towards decentralised energy production and significant investment in energy management and storage. Technology shifts in battery storage, cell chemistry along with rapid advances in electric mobility have opened new vistas. Some of the energy storage available today are batteries (lead-acid, sodium sulphur, Ni-based, Li-based, Aluminium based, flow batteries etc.), fuel cells, capacitors/super capacitors, superconducting magnetic energy storage, flywheel storage, solar fuel, pumped hydroelectric storage, compressed air energy storage, thermal energy storage etc.
Every technology has its advantages and drawbacks and needs to be chosen with an eye on intended application, cost, and environmental impact.
The Indian context
India’s dependence on fossil fuels has made it the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and its cities regularly top the rankings for polluted air, putting its population at the risk of lung diseases and premature death.
India has pledged a 33-35% reduction in GDP emissions intensity from 2005 levels by committing to source 40% of its energy needs from clean energy by 2030. For that to happen, a massive expansion in electric mobility and renewable energy is needed. It is also important to note that India imports oil to cover over 80 percent of its transport fuel and the country will be well served if transport fuel consumption is substantially reduced.
Against this backdrop, a shift to e-mobility is not just a necessity but also an opportunity for India to position itself as a global leader in exporting battery and e-mobility technologies and solutions.
E Mobility – Indian perspective
The Indian automobile industry is unique with two wheelers dominating the personal mobility segment.
- Two-wheelers constitute nearly 80% of the total vehicles on road.
- Three-wheelers (passenger and goods), including tempos ~ 5% of the total vehicles. This is expected to be the fastest growing segment.
- Premium four wheelers (cars) are only ~ 2% of total sales.
Globally, most of the technology development has focused on the premium end of the market; this offers India a window of opportunity to create a policy environment to promote green technology solutions for the domestic market which can be leveraged globally.
Leadership in EVs
India should develop the ambition to establish technological and manufacturing leadership in the small EV segment like two wheelers, three wheelers and small cars. These smaller vehicles require a distinct set of technological and industrial capabilities, energy networks and business models and here, India can leverage domestic scale advantage to create solutions for the world.
To fuel this segment, the Indian government has envisioned the conversion of two and three wheelers into 100% electric ones by 2030. However, in India, most players have based their solutions on assembling Lithium-ion batteries using imported cells from China, Korea and Japan, resulting in high-cost E-mobility solutions.
Existing policy frameworks – FAME
The government had introduced the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME -2) scheme in 2015 to boost E mobility by 2020. The outlay of Rs 10,000 Cr was to be used in offering incentives for the purchase of these electric buses, 2, 3 and 4 wheelers. Recently, the government extended the scheme to 2024, with a major thrust on 2 & 3 wheelers and E-buses. The outlay will now also support the creation of a battery-charging infrastructure across the country.
The scheme is gaining popularity because of the availability of better charging infrastructure and better vehicles from manufacturers. In fact, many start-ups and established players have announced large investments in this sector. Though EVs have picked up speed, the supply chain for batteries hasn’t been as responsive.
Local Battery Landscape
For mass adoption of EVs to become a reality, they must be able to rival internal combustion engines (ICEs) and be cost competitive. The main driver of incremental costs for EVs is the battery pack, which for a 500km range/60kWh capacity costs 2-3X the cost of ICE engine. If we consider the cost of electric motor and inverter, the gap is wider.
Large battery pack costs need to drop to about $100/kwh from current $150-$200/Kwh to turn things around. A key driver for battery cost decline (in $/kwh) is energy density improvement (in Wh/kg). This is powered by improvements in the chemistry and in the engineering of the cells.
Lithium-ion enjoys a head start, but not without challenges
Lithium-Ion batteries have had a head start over other types of batteries because of high-power density, long life, low self-discharge and low maintenance costs. However, these batteries also come with baggage: Cobalt, an integral element of most Lithium-Ion batteries is a difficult input owing to scarce availability, need for careful handling and cost. Plus, there are big environmental concerns around mining of these minerals including lithium and the toxicity of the compounds used in the battery’s electrodes. Moreover, L-ion technology is reaching its limit in terms of energy density (the amount of energy it can store by weight or volume). Last, the end-of-life management for lithium-ion batteries pose significant challenges as recycling is currently not commercially viable.
Smarter alternatives India must consider
Hence, sustainable alternatives for energy carriers need to be built with elements which are abundant and relatively inexpensive. A few options being considered are:
- Hydrogen: Recognised as one of the most promising energy carriers, this can be produced by steam reforming of methane or natural gas, or electrolysis of water which is abundant. However, hydrogen also has issues especially for the transportation segment because of storage and safety concerns.
- Aluminium: Aluminium-based energy generation technologies are being researched for more than 50 years now. Aluminium is looked upon as a promising candidate for large-scale integration in energy storage technology options globally, and unlike hydrogen, it is easy to transport and store. It has several key advantages which make it suitable as a prospective energy carrier such as:
- Abundant availability
- Recyclability – Aluminium is 100% recyclable thus reducing dependence on primary aluminium and most importantly
- Electrochemical energy: Aluminium has high electrochemical equivalent value of 2.98 Ah/g (electrical output per unit mass) which is second highest after lithium (3.86 Ah/g) and higher than other active metals such as zinc (0.82 Ah/g) and magnesium (2.20 Ah/g). and
- Stability, when aluminium is exposed to the atmosphere, it is immediately covered by an oxide film which protects metal from further corrosion, thus providing the safety of its storage and transportation. Also, under neutral-ambient conditions, there is negligible self-discharge of aluminium due to the presence of the oxide film.
- Low environmental impact.
Focus on battery giga-factories must consider alternatives to Li-ion batteries
The Indian government has taken many steps to indigenise the entire value chain for E-Mobility. NITI Aayog has announced a target of 50 GWh and would support the establishment of three to ten giga-factories of 20 GWh to 5 GWh capacity each in the country. The manufacturers would be given a grace period of five years from notification of the scheme to ensure adequate localisation.
Many state governments have announced schemes to encourage E-Mobility, have offered matching subsidies and are willing to support strengthening of EV infrastructure. This has encouraged established players and start-ups to commit resources to develop world-class E- Mobility technologies and solutions. Many have announced plans to invest across the battery value chain.
Government agencies CECRI, CSIR, DRDO, ARCI and other R&D centres too have stepped into the fray to build indigenous supply chains. Most of their efforts today are focused on Lithium-ion battery and indigenisation of anode materials like graphite and copper foils or cathode materials like aluminium foils. A few companies are working on the battery chemistry aspects to improve the battery properties. Battery management systems is another critical area, where Indian companies have made good progress, given the IT expertise of the country.
- A major challenge for India in developing cells is the lack of critical raw material and import dependence on Lithium, Nickel, and Cobalt. Today, China controls most of these resources. What then, must India focus on?
- Right Choice: Selecting the right battery chemistry is critical as batteries dictate the costs of electric vehicles. The strategy should be to use battery chemistry with optimised cost and performance at Indian temperatures. India should encourage local manufacturing of such battery cells.
- Exploring new chemistries: India has been late in securing mines which produce these materials and now should focus on recycling of used batteries. It should aim to become the capital of ‘urban mining’. This is crucial given the expected size of the Indian market and the fact that many batteries will be used in 2 & 3 wheelers becoming a headache for the environment once the battery life expires.
- Above all, India must focus on developing battery technologies using abundantly available local materials such as Aluminium, especially considering the focus on E- Mobility and renewables.
Aluminium based batteries the right choice for India
The above considerations make Aluminium-based batteries the best choice for India given that the country is among top 10 bauxite players globally with over 600 Mn tonnes in reserves. Indian companies can manufacture all the-aluminium constituents locally. Let us consider Aluminium air and ion batteries.
Al Air Batteries
The battery works by tapping electricity generated when aluminium plates react with oxygen in the air. It has one of the highest energy densities for a battery. It is stable, does not pose fire hazard and is environment friendly. It also provides a much longer range, potentially over 1500 Km. While it cannot be charged these batteries can be recycled to produce aluminium in a close loop. To make this technology commercially viable, an infrastructure for swapping and collection must be incentivised by the government. In India, Israeli company Phinergy and IOCL have announced a JV to this effect, which holds plenty of promise.
Al Ion Batteries
A fast-emerging technology, Al ion batteries is built along the same lines of Li-ion batteries. An Australian company is talking about Al-ion batteries that can be charged 60X faster than lithium-ion batteries and provide much longer range. These are expected to be safer, greener and more durable as compared with Lithium-ion batteries.
From the Indian perspective, these advances are significant indicators how the philosophy of Atmanirbhar Bharat can be translated into action. Demand from electric transport and renewable energy storage means India could provide a market big enough for aluminium-air batteries to be established as an alternative to the Li-ion based technologies.
Use of Aluminium in EVs beyond Batteries
Aluminium foil is extensively used as a current collector (substrate) for cathode materials coating in Lithium-ion batteries. However, due to its unique properties, it is also used in cell tabs and containers. Many manufacturers extensively use battery boxes made from aluminium alloys, conforming to the lightweight design and strength of end-use applications. Many modern EVs use aluminium in rolled or extruded forms to design battery enclosures. The high-strength extrudable aluminium alloys provide excellent strength, rigidity and allow for complex designs to take shape.
There is also a direct relationship between vehicle curb weight and the energy requirement in Wh/Kg for electric vehicle driving range. Light-weighting is essential for E-mobility given the high cost of battery and issues surrounding range. Light weighting through aluminisation is an established criteria in the auto industry and its importance is only growing as we switch from ICEs to EVs.
The Way Forward
India should aggressively promote development and commercialisation of aluminium-based solutions for battery technologies and electric vehicles. In addition to already announced policies to promote indigenisation of battery and EV technology it will be prudent to work on policies that:
- Promote “Make in India” and localise manufacturing of the entire value system of EVs, including electronic component manufacturing and EV charging infrastructure.
- Incentives based on share of local value added and materials in total cost of manufacturing.
- Clear policy position on end-of-life EV and battery directives to ensure close loop recycling technology, like the ones based on aluminium, becomes commercially viable.
- Incentivise private sector to develop aluminium based battery solutions and recycling ecosystem through a collaborative innovation fund.
- Indigenous development of Al based batteries (Al Air/Al ion) with academia/government body (ISRO/DRDO) and with Aluminium industry participation.
- Funding and ecosystem development initiatives like – NITI Aayog supported and CSIR funded Project “ICeNGESS” (Innovation Centre for Next Generation Energy Storage Solutions) which at present only includes LiB can also be instituted or extended to include Al based batteries. This will enable identifying and establishing a supply chain for Al based batteries.
Exciting times ahead
In the coming days, India can make rapid strides in energy storage and E-mobility; hence it is imperative to develop/redesign the current ecosystem to achieve these goals. India is ranked fourth globally in installed renewable power capacity, with solar and wind power leading the way. It has set a goal to generate 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 – five times the current capacity. This means that India would generate 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
With around 300 sunny days a year, India has the potential to lead the world in solar electricity, which will be less expensive than existing coal-fired power by 2030, even when paired with battery storage. In fact, in 2021 the growth rate is expected to be 47% YOY with an expected addition of 1875 MW.
This ambition would call for innovation, partnerships, and significant capital. The private sector has a major role to play in building collaborative partnerships to achieve sustainability goals and ensuring inclusive growth for all. The industry partners are willing to invest and will need support considering the large investment and long gestation periods. The government is taking active steps in the form of policy support, incentive schemes to promote the storage industry. Encouragement for research towards technology development of aluminium based batteries, academia – industry partnerships, creation of battery swapping infrastructure are some of the steps along with focused performance-based linked incentives will go a long way in achieving the desired goals and heralding the era of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
Authors Brief Bio: Nilesh Koul is Senior President Marketing, Business Development & Strategic Initiatives, Hindalco and Sagar Dhamorikar is Joint President Innovation and Business Development, Hindalco
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