Biden bets on battery independence in the United States

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President Biden wanted to spend this week talking about his climate agenda and reducing dependence on China, but Vladimir Putin got in the way.

Even as Biden described Russia sanctions as punishment for invading Ukraine, his administration moved on: On Thursday, it released a series of reports on supply chain vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic. and how it plans to address it.

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The reports cover everything from vaccine manufacturing materials to semiconductors, but among the main areas of interest is the culture of domestic battery manufacturing. Biden’s solution is government funding — billions of dollars — to kick-start innovation throughout the electric vehicle supply chain, from lithium mining to battery recycling. The money will come from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which I spoke about in October.

With soaring prices for battery minerals like nickel, lithium and cobalt adding to his inflation problems, Biden focused his presidential powers higher up the supply chain this week. On Tuesday, he hosted an event with California Governor Gavin Newsom to tout federal support for two companies — MP Materials, which deals with rare earth elements used to make magnets for electric vehicle motors, and Berkshire Hathaway. Energy, one of three companies testing methods for sustainable lithium. mining in the Salton Sea in California.

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There are many risks of failure. As Joe Lowry, a lithium mining consultant, pointed out to me, none of the companies working in the Salton Sea have demonstrated that their technology, known as direct lithium mining, can work at commercial scale. And as my colleague David Baker has reported, other companies have tried and failed in the past.

In a few months, the Department of Energy will begin the process of awarding $6 billion in subsidies for battery production, about half of which is earmarked for national materials sourcing and battery recycling.

Battery executives are lining up, including Ryan Melsert, a former Tesla executive who is now the chief executive of American Battery Technology, a Nevada startup focused on both mining and recycling battery metals . Melsert, who helped design Tesla’s gigafactory in Nevada, believes he’s found a way to process metals that’s both cleaner and more efficient than what’s typically done in China.

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He has already won a Department of Energy grant for a project with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis to demonstrate that his company can take old batteries from automakers, recycle them and convert them into cathode materials for new cells.

Melsert says it will be a few years before there are enough old electric vehicles on the road to power his recycling plant. In the meantime, it relies on consumer electronics, waste from battery factories and electric vehicles recalled for battery fire risk.

“We continue to see very large mass recalls of electric vehicles – hundreds of thousands of vehicles at a time,” he said. “So recalls are playing a big role right now, along with defects and manufacturing waste.” Even so, it will still be a long time before domestic companies alone can meet automakers’ demand for battery materials, especially as the production of electric vehicles continues to grow. Chris Burns, another former Tesla employee who is trying to fill gaps in the U.S. supply chain, agrees the biggest hurdle is meeting demand. Burns is CEO of Novonix, which is building a plant in Tennessee to make synthetic graphite for batteries, which he says can extend their lifespan.

“Consumers want it to be national automakers, and the administration wants it to be national, but there just aren’t enough players right now,” Burns said of battery materials and processing companies. “That’s one of the challenges we will face in this decade.”

©2022 Bloomberg LP

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