Sustainable Materials

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Electric vehicle manufacturers and battery makers have long been searching for the “Holy Grail” technology that could lower the cost of batteries while also extending their range. Government research labs, venture capital, startups, and large corporations have all toyed with different ways to get to the promise land.

But one material is emerging as the most promising innovation to date that could actually lead to cheap, long-range and fast-charging electric vehicles: graphite. Companies included today are: General Motors Company (NYSE: GM), FMC Corporation (NYSE: FMC), Magna International Inc. (NYSE: MGA), Pretium Resources Inc. (NYSE: PVG), Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF (NYSEARCA:LIT)

Graphite is a crystalline form of carbon. Within graphite is graphene, the world’s thinnest material that has some superlative properties. Graphene is incredibly durable and tough – 200 times stronger than steel – yet ultra-light weight. It is described as the world’s strongest and lightest material. It is also transparent, and conducts electricity substantially better than copper. Electrons can travel using graphene with virtually zero resistance and no heat loss, nearly qualifying it as a superconductor.

These virtues have singled it out as one of candidates most likely to take lithium-ion batteries to the next level, potentially leading to a breakthrough for electric vehicles. The thinking is that graphene will allow EVs to recharge must faster and go longer distances.

The only problem is that production of graphene is still low. Graphite itself is still cheap, but the trick is rendering out the graphene. Scientists were only able to separate out graphene in 2004, and researchers and entrepreneurs are still looking for ways to mass produce the material at low cost.

There lots of ideas to render out graphene – synthetically, electro-chemically, ultra-sound and microwaves are just a few.

Another method that shows promise is one using a bio-electro chemical industrial process, as in the one pioneered by a small company called BEGO, a company based in Hong Kong. BEGO’s process is low-impact, using naturally occurring microbes, along with salt electrolytes and electrodes to coax out graphene from graphite.

Unlike some competing approaches from other companies that typically use electro chemical or expensive synthetic processes, BEGO only operates in ambient temperatures, without heat, pressure or vacuum. As a result, BEGO argues that it can produce graphene in a safe, clean and inexpensive way.

The process is apparently so exciting that Global Li-Ion Graphite Corporation (LION; GBBGF) a pure-play graphite producer, decided to invest in BEGO. On October 25, LION announced a MOU to take a 16 percent stake in BEGO as well as a 49 percent stake in BEGO Energy Storage. BEGO will welcome the investment as it will provide a cash injection at a time when the company is trying to scale up.

LION is eager to accelerate the graphene production timeline, which will provide a jolt to the market for graphite – which LION produces. LION (LION; GBBGF) has graphite assets in Nevada and Madagascar, two locations that might seem random, but are strategically positioned to take advantage of mass EV manufacturing in Nevada (think Tesla) as well as the EV markets in China and India.

Graphite demand is expected to skyrocket as EVs gain traction – graphite demand could double in the coming years, according to UBS. For now, graphite prices remain low. The rush for materials and commodities needed for EV manufacturing has set off multiple bull runs. The price of lithium has skyrocketed as automakers scale up EV production. Cobalt has also seen a huge run up in prices. Graphite could also see similar price increases, but it is still early. Still, analysts see prices doubling or tripling from current levels.

The company (or companies) that figure out how to mass produce graphene could be at the center of the EV boom. Graphite producers, such as LION, will also see a bright future. If they succeed, the era of the electric vehicle could come a lot sooner than everyone thinks.

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