The Australian: Lithium-ion battery tipping point is upon us

Media Coverage


Christina Lampe-Onnerud has joined the board of Syrah Resources.

Syrah Resources Photo of Christina

Picture: Stuart McEvoy

When lithium-ion battery pioneer Christina Lampe-Onnerud helped Saab build its first all-electric car for the 2010 Paris Motor Show, the general feeling at the event, where new concepts are the main game, was that this was nascent technology that carmakers should be keeping an eye on.

Just six years later, Lampe-­Onnerud, a technology innovator and entrepreneur who founded battery developer Boston-Power, believes things have advanced fast enough to hit a tipping point that will drive a revolution in cars and then in the electricity market.

And she has a message for utilities that have only recently started paying lip service to the disruptive technologies set to turn car and power markets on their heads — get on board and encourage development or get left behind.

“I believe we are experiencing this year, or will next year, the tipping of the market for electric drives, and right behind the electric drive is the electricity market,” said Lampe-Onnerud, who was in Melbourne recently for the annual meeting of graphite miner Syrah Resources.

The tipping points for both markets are related to driving battery costs down. She says electric cars that cost $US35,000 to $US40,000 and are affordable on an average US wage are almost here. And when demand ramps up, it should inspire new technological innovation that will be used to drive down the cost of larger scale batteries which will revolutionise electricity grids.

“There a quite a few corporations that are now doing very aggressive forecasts, for instance BMW says by 2025 that 50 per cent of its cars should be electric,” Lampe-Onnerud said. “Lithium-ion batteries can be a $US300 billion market in 10 years if the vehicle and grid markets take off.”

The Swedish-born, US-based battery expert joined the board of the graphite-focused Syrah last week. Graphite is a key material for anodes in lithium-ion batteries and Syrah’s Balama deposit in Mozambique, which should be in production next year, is one of the biggest and best in the world.

As well as traditional graphite markets, Syrah is targeting the growing battery anode market, making Lampe-Onnerud’s knowledge of technology and the industry especially valuable.

The view that the battery revolution is gathering pace has being taken on board by more investors in recent months, pushing Syrah’s market value 40 per cent higher to $1.2bn in the past six weeks and doing similar things to lithium plays like Perth’s Pilbara Minerals.

“There’s a high level of ambition here, teamed up with some pragmatism,” Lampe-Onnerud said of Syrah, whose managing director and major shareholder is the relentlessly enthusiastic Tolga Kumova, and whose chairman is mining veteran Jim Askew.

“I think I can be helpful, especially in these advanced markets, where you can say this is typically what the market wants, this is how we think … and here are the pitfalls.”

She says Syrah has huge opportunities for collaboration with battery manufacturers as the market grows and traditional players, such as Sanyo, Sony, and Panasonic, come to grips with new Chinese players and the game-changing ambitions of Tesla.

Lampe-Onnerud, whose PhD in Inorganic chemistry was on cathode materials in lithium polymer batteries, founded Boston-Power in 2005 from her Boston home to develop safer, better-performing lithium-ion batteries for laptop computers. This set the basis for the lessons in car batteries. She left in 2012 and then worked for private equity giant Bridgewater Associates before leaving to focus on her own technology company, Cadenza Innovation.

Cadenza’s goal is to drive down the cost of lithium-ion batteries to levels where their use in cars and commercial power is economic.

She expects the tipping point for grid power will come when commercial real estate finds it economic to use lithium-ion batteries for things like storing power generated at off-peak times, which she says is a cost of about $US200 per kilowatt-hour. “At the price, you get payback — then, with innovators continuing to push prices down to $US100, life changes,” she said.

As far as what that means for traditional utilities, she says most power stations will remain but the higher emitters and peaking plants could be pushed out.

“The interesting question will be whether the utilities join the innovators or … miss the boat.”

As an example, she points to solar panels, which were not embraced by utilities, leading developers to find support elsewhere.

“They are saying they are interested but they are yet to fully embrace the innovation,” she said of most utilities. “You want to drive it, placing orders early, rather than sitting back and seeing if something comes.”

For the full text of the article, click here Lithium-ion battery tipping point is upon us



Matt Chambers

Resources reporter