A drive to reduce reliance on imported materials and technology, especially from China, is pushing India to invest in battery technology that uses aluminum rather than lithium as a key ingredient. Indian Oil Corp., the country’s largest oil refiner, has partnered with startup Phinergy Ltd. to develop the Israeli company’s aluminum-air battery.

India has few exploitable options for producing lithium, the key metal in the current generation of electric vehicle batteries, but its eastern jungles contain significant reserves of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.

“Lithium is scarce in the country and we have started looking for an element that is abundantly available as a natural resource,” said SSV Ramakumar, director of R&D for Indian Oil.

India is among the top 10 producers of bauxite. It has some 600 million tonnes of ore in proven reserves, according to the US Geological Survey, although India’s Ministry of Mines estimates the untapped resources could be several times greater. In addition, the country has invested heavily in aluminum production over the years to become the second largest aluminum smelter in the world.

“Clearly the special consideration here is that aluminum is in better supply than lithium,” said James Frith, energy storage manager at BNEF in London. “But with the prices of lithium-based systems steadily falling, developers will be under pressure to find niche applications where aluminum oxygen can gain a foothold.”

An aluminum-air battery could gain advantages over its lithium-ion rival in three other crucial ways, Ramakumar said: It’s potentially cheaper, vehicles that use it would have greater range, and it’s safer.

Battery exchange

The battery works by capturing the electricity generated when the aluminum plates react with the oxygen in the air. It has one of the highest energy densities for a battery. But the system has many drawbacks that have prevented it from being used on a large scale since it was first proposed in the 1960s.

The main one is the cost of materials that need to be added to the battery to prevent the power from dropping and the cells not being able to be recharged. Instead, Phinergy’s plan is for users to quickly swap out a new battery and send the used battery to a recycling facility.

It only takes three minutes to replace the battery, about the time it takes to refuel at a gas station, Ramakumar said. The fuel distributor plans to use its network of service stations as exchange points.

In comparison, lithium-ion batteries often contain hazardous materials that can be toxic if not disposed of properly, making them more difficult to recycle. By 2035, the world will have accumulated around 4 million tonnes of end-of-life Li-ion batteries, according to a BloombergNEF estimate.

Lithium is already well established in the electric vehicle market and absorbing most of the research dollars, with many potential sodium, magnesium or aluminum-based challengers focused on smaller segments such as power systems. emergency, energy storage or low power transport, such as forklifts.

Yet demand for both electric transmission and renewable energy storage means India could provide a large enough market for aluminum-air batteries to find a role. The demand for batteries will reach up to 185 gigawatt hours by 2035, according to the BNEF.

Next growth driver

Amara Raja Batteries Ltd., India’s largest producer of lead-acid batteries, examines existing lithium-based technologies as a ‘next growth driver’, but also sees opportunity to develop alternatives, Vijayanand Samudrala, chairman of the company for new energies, said Tuesday at a BNEF summit.

“I don’t think there is a final word on the maturity of the technology, I can see at least two or three generations of technological change happening in the battery business over the next 10 years,” he said. -he declares.

Indian Oil made a strategic investment in Phinergy in early 2020, and the Indian company’s 30,000 gas stations can “serve as the infrastructure for the deployment of Phinergy technology,” the Israeli company said in an email.

Phinergy systems have been tested by telecommunications companies for back-up power to transmission towers and other sites. The company, which raised $ 60 million in an initial public offering in Tel Aviv earlier this year, ran a test car using an aluminum-air battery to hold the block down. lithium-ion power supply for the charged vehicle which it claims would have a range of 1,750 kilometers. .

To assess the viability of large-scale use in India, automakers Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd., Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. and Ashok Leyland Ltd. are performing vehicle tests which are expected to take almost a year. If demand is sufficient, Indian Oil and Phinergy plan to set up a gigawatt-scale facility to manufacture the batteries in India, Ramakumar said.

Success would aid Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to tackle three pressing issues: reducing pollution, reducing raw material imports and creating jobs.

India’s dependence on fossil fuels has made it the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its cities consistently top the polluted air rankings, putting hundreds of millions of citizens at risk for lung disease and premature death. The government has also pushed companies to reduce the import bill and increase their self-sufficiency. Indian Oil is the country’s largest importer of crude oil.

The refiner has joined major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc, in turning to clean energy as governments tighten emissions regulations.

“We no longer see ourselves as just an oil company. We want to emerge as an energy actor, providing all forms of energy, ”Ramakumar said. “All future fuels must have one common motive: to make India self-sufficient. “

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