World’s biggest lithium producer’s new lab will focus on EVs

Albemarle Corp., the world’s biggest producer of lithium, is fast-tracking advanced forms of the metal that could result in better batteries for electric vehicles.

A new lab in North Carolina will develop lithium products two to three times faster than previously, Chief Technology Officer Glen Merfeld said Wednesday. In particular, they’ll use cell-phone-sized custom samples to test out how well a lithium-concoction will work with, for example, new car models. That’s a process that currently takes months and happens off-site at manufacturers.

The lab will be an accelerator for what was “an incredibly slow process and was really arms-length,” Merfeld said in an interview.

The challenge is that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all with lithium. Electric vehicle batteries are highly engineered, and to achieve the right performance, everything from the purity of the lithium to crystal structures and particle sizes are scrutinized by battery and automobile makers.

Automakers are rushing to secure supplies to ramp up electric vehicle output as they set up green-vehicle targets amid a global transition away from fossil fuels.

The lab is also creating a razor-thin form of lithium that will make batteries cheaper and more powerful. The foil measures just 20 microns, or about a fifth of a human hair. Albemarle said it may achieve thicknesses of 3 to 5 microns in the future. The technology could reduce costs by 50%, said Merfeld.

Lithium foils could replace graphite, an expensive part of batteries currently used in electric vehicles. Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said in September the key to the company’s promised $25,000 car is to bring down power costs by reducing graphite and cobalt.

Albemarle’s innovation center is expected to be fully operational in July.

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