Energy Storage News: CATL Factory In Germany & Rio Tinto’s Lithium Plant In California

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Chinese battery manufacturer Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) began building its first battery factory outside China in Erfurt, a city in the German state of Thuringia. “Germany is home to a strong automotive industry and several of CATL’s key customers,” said Matthias Zentgraf, head of Europe CATL in a press release. “We believe that the combination of Germany’s industrial tradition and CATL’s tradition of innovative battery technology will greatly accelerate the electrification of the automotive industry in Europe.”

CATL battery factory
Image credit: CATL

CATL has been chosen as a battery supplier by BMW, Volkswagen, Daimler, Volvo, and Bosch. One of the factors that makes Erfurt an attractive place for a battery factory is that it is within four hours of several several electric car manufacturing facilities, especially the one in Zwickau where Volkswagen will start making its ID.3 electric sedan shortly.

CATL originally expected to invest about €240 million in the new factory but has now raised that number to €1.8 billion. The factory, which is expected to begin production in 2022, will have an initial capacity of 14 GWh a year with expansion to 24 GWh planned in the years to follow. It will employ 2,000 workers when completed, according to Electrive. In exchange for incentives from the government of Thuringia, CATL has also promised to invest in local research and development programs.

While it waits for the new factory to be completed, CATL will begin manufacturing batteries at the site of the former Solar World Industries plant beginning next year. The existing facility is close to where the new factory is being built.

Rio Tinto Finds Lithium In Borax Tailings

Older readers may remember a television program called Death Valley Days, which was sponsored by Twenty Mule Team Borax. In what may have been the highlight of his acting career, Ronald Reagan was the spokesperson for the company, pitching Boraxo hand soap and other cleaning products.

In 1890, Francis Smith — known far and wide as the Borax King — founded the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Ever since then, borax has been mined in the desert areas of California. Rio Tinto, one of the largest mineral mining companies in the world, has produced borates — a group of minerals used to make soaps, cosmetics and other consumer goods — for nearly a century in the Mojave Desert, which is located about 120 miles north of Los Angeles.

That operation has left behind decades worth of tailings — rock waste, in industry parlance. Rio Tinto began examining those tailings recently, hoping to find gold but discovered something else instead — lithium. It says the tailings have a higher concentration of lithium than most other sources in the US, according to US News & World Report.

Rio Tinto lithium mining
Image credit: Rio Tinto

“The material being used has already been mined, so this will be a low-energy option for the production of lithium,” Bold Baatar, Rio’s chief executive of energy and minerals, told Reuters recently. The company will spend $10 million to build a pilot plant that will extract the white metal using a kiln heated to 1,740° F.

That plant should produced about 10 tons of lithium annually. If it is successful and Rio Tinto sees a business case for expanding production, it will consider investing a further $50 million to construct a larger facility with an annual capacity of 5,000 tons.

The Takeaway

A few years ago, people worried that there would not be enough batteries and lithium available to make the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy possible. But demand always spurs supply. Dismantling government policies that make those transitions possible will be a far greater challenge than supplying the batteries needed to make them a reality.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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