Does Leading The Global Lithium Battery Market Mean That China Has Mastered The Core Technology (1)

On the morning of April 21, 2014, musk parachuted in Beijing Qiaofu Fangcao by private plane and went to the Ministry of science and technology of China for the first stop to explore the future for Tesla’s entry into China. The Ministry of science and technology has always been encouraging Tesla, but this time musk closed the door and got the following reply: China is considering the tax reform of electric vehicles. Before the completion of the reform, model s will still have to pay 25% tariff like traditional fuel vehicles.

So musk plans to “shout” through the geek Park innovators summit. In the main hall of Zhongshan concert hall, Yang Yuanqing, Zhou Hongyi, Zhang Yiming and others have been seated on the stage. And musk waited behind the stage, took out his cell phone and tweeted. When the music sounded, he strode to the stage, cheering and applause. But when he came back to the United States, he tweeted and complained: “in China, we are like a crawling baby.”

Since then, Tesla has been on the verge of bankruptcy for several times as the market is generally bearish and the dystocia problem has led to a half year long customer collection cycle. As a result, musk collapsed and even smoked marijuana live, sleeping in a California factory every day to monitor progress. The best way to solve the capacity problem is to build super factories in China. To this end, musk cried in his speech in Hong Kong: for Chinese customers, he even learned to use wechat.


Time flies. On January 7, 2020, musk came to Shanghai again and delivered the first batch of domestic model 3 keys to Chinese car owners in Tesla Shanghai Super factory. His first words were: Thank you to the Chinese government. He also had a back rub dance on the spot. Since then, with the sharp price reduction of domestic model 3, many people inside and outside the industry have said in horror: the end of China’s new energy vehicles is coming.

However, in the past year, Tesla has experienced large-scale rollover incidents, including battery spontaneous combustion, engine out of control, skylight flying away, etc. And Tesla’s attitude has become “reasonable” or arrogant. Recently, due to the power failure of new cars, Tesla has been criticized by the central media. Relatively speaking, Tesla battery shrinkage problem is very common, car owners on the Internet to denounce the voice also one after another.

In view of this, the state organs officially took action. Recently, the General Administration of market supervision and other five departments interviewed Tesla, which mainly involved problems such as abnormal acceleration, battery fire, remote vehicle upgrade, etc. As we all know, domestic lithium iron phosphate batteries are basically used in domestic model 3.

How important is lithium battery? Looking back on the course of industrial development, does China really grasp the core technology? How to achieve success?


1/ The important tool of the times

 Does Leading The Global Lithium Battery Market Mean That China Has Mastered The Core Technology (2)

In the 20th century, mankind created more wealth than the sum of the previous 2000 years. Among them, science and technology can be regarded as a decisive force in promoting global civilization and economic development. In the past hundred years, scientific and technological inventions created by human beings are as brilliant as stars, and two of them are recognized as having far-reaching influence on the historical process. The first is transistors, without which there would be no computers; the second is lithium-ion batteries, without which the world would be unimaginable。

Today, lithium batteries have been used in billions of mobile phones, laptops and other electronic products every year, as well as millions of new energy vehicles, and even all the portable devices on earth that need charging. In addition, with the advent of the new energy vehicle revolution and the creation of more mobile devices, the lithium battery industry will have a bright future. For example, the annual output value of lithium battery cells alone has reached 200 billion yuan, and the future is just around the corner.

The plans and schedules for the future elimination of fuel vehicles formulated by various countries in the world will also be “icing on the cake”. The earliest one is Norway in 2025, and the United States, Japan and many European countries around 2035. China has no clear time plan. If there is no new technology in the future, the lithium battery industry will continue to flourish for decades. It can be said that whoever owns the core technology of lithium battery means having the scepter to dominate the industry.


 Western European countries set a timetable for phasing out fuel vehicles 

Over the years, Europe and the United States, China, Japan and South Korea have launched fierce competition and even scuffle in the field of lithium batteries, involving many famous scientists, many top universities and research institutions, as well as giants and capital consortia in petroleum, chemical, automobile, science and technology industries. Who would have thought that the development path of the global lithium battery industry was the same as that of semiconductor: it originated in Europe and the United States, stronger than Japan and South Korea, and finally became dominated by China.

In the 1970s and 1980s, lithium battery technology came into being in Europe and America. Later, Americans successively invented lithium cobalt oxide, lithium manganese oxide and lithium iron phosphate batteries, which took the lead in the industry. In 1991, Japan was the first to industrialize lithium-ion batteries, but then the market continued to shrink. South Korea, on the other hand, relies on the state to push it forward. At the same time, with the strong support of the government, China has made the lithium battery industry the first in the world step by step.

In the evolution of lithium battery industry, Europe, America and Japan have played an important role in promoting technology. In 2019, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to American scientists John goodinaf, Stanley whitingham and Japanese scientist Yoshino in recognition of their contributions to the research and development of lithium-ion batteries. Since scientists from the United States and Japan have won the Nobel Prize, can China really take the lead in the core technology of lithium batteries?


2/ The cradle of lithium battery 

The development of global lithium battery technology has a long track to follow. In the early 1970s, in response to the oil crisis, Exxon set up a research laboratory in New Jersey, attracting a large number of top talents in physics and chemistry, including Stanley whitingham, a postdoctoral fellow in solid state electrochemistry at Stanford University. Its goal is to reconstruct a new energy solution, that is, to develop a new generation of rechargeable batteries.

At the same time, Bell Labs has set up a team of chemists and physicists from Stanford University. The two sides have launched an extremely fierce competition in the research and development of next-generation batteries. Even if the research is related, “money is not a problem.”. After nearly five years of highly confidential research, whitingham and his team first developed the world’s first rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

This lithium battery creatively uses titanium sulfide as the cathode material and lithium as the anode material. It has the advantages of light weight, large capacity and no memory effect. At the same time, it discards the shortcomings of the previous battery, which can be said to be a qualitative leap. In 1976, Exxon applied for the world’s first lithium battery invention patent, but did not benefit from industrialization. However, this does not affect whitingham’s reputation as “father of lithium” and his status in the world.

Although whitingham’s invention inspired the industry, the battery charging combustion and internal crushing greatly troubled the team, including gudinaf. Therefore, he and two postdoctoral assistants continued to explore the periodic table systematically. In 1980, they finally decided that the best material was cobalt. Lithium cobalt oxide, which can be used as the cathode of lithium-ion batteries, is far superior to any other materials at that time and quickly occupied the market.

Since then, human battery technology has taken a substantial step forward. What would happen without lithium cobaltite? In short, why was the “big cell phone” so big and heavy? It’s because there’s no lithium cobalt battery. However, although lithium cobalt oxide battery has many advantages, its disadvantages are exposed after large-scale application, including high cost, poor overcharge resistance and cycle performance, and serious waste pollution.

So goodinav and his student Mike Thackeray continued to look for better materials. In 1982, Thackeray invented a pioneering lithium manganate battery. But soon, he jumped to Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) to study lithium batteries. And goodinaf and his team continue to look for alternative materials, reducing the list to a combination of iron and phosphorus by once again systematically swapping the metals in the periodic table.

In the end, iron and phosphorus did not form the configuration that the team wanted, but they formed another structure: after licoo3 and LiMn2O4, the third cathode material for lithium-ion batteries was officially born: LiFePO4. Therefore, the three most important lithium-ion battery positive electrodes were all born in dinaf’s laboratory since ancient times. It has also become the cradle of lithium batteries in the world, with the birth of the above-mentioned two Nobel Prize chemists.

In 1996, the University of Texas applied for a patent on behalf of goodinaf’s laboratory. This is the first basic patent of LiFePO4 battery. Since then, Michelle Armand, a French lithium scientist, has joined the team and applied with dinaf for the patent of LiFePO4 carbon coating technology, becoming the second basic patent of LiFePO4. These two patents are the core patents that can not be bypassed in any case.


3/ Technology transfer

With the development of technology application, there is an urgent problem to be solved in the negative electrode of lithium cobalt oxide battery, so it has not been industrialized rapidly. At that time, lithium metal was used as the anode material of lithium batteries. Although it could provide quite high energy density, there were many problems, including the gradual powdering of the anode material and the loss of activity, and the growth of lithium dendrites could pierce the diaphragm, resulting in short circuit or even combustion and explosion of the battery.

When the problem was very difficult, the Japanese appeared. Sony has been developing lithium batteries for a long time, and has paid close attention to global developments. However, there is no information on when and where lithium cobaltite technology was obtained. In 1991, Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in human history, and put several lithium cobalt oxide cylindrical batteries into the latest ccd-tr1 camera. Since then, the face of the world’s consumer electronics has been rewritten. 

It was Yoshino who made this important decision. He pioneered the use of carbon (graphite) instead of lithium as the anode of lithium battery, and combined with lithium cobalt oxide cathode. This fundamentally improves the capacity and cycle life of lithium battery, and reduces the cost, which is the last force for the industrialization of lithium battery. Since then, Chinese and Korean enterprises have poured into the wave of lithium battery industry, and new energy technology (ATL) was established at this time.

Due to the theft of technology, the “rights alliance” initiated by the University of Texas and some enterprises has been wielding swords all over the world, resulting in the patent scuffle involving many countries and companies. While people still think that LiFePO4 is the most suitable power battery, a new cathode material system combining the advantages of lithium niobate, lithium cobalt and lithium manganese has been quietly born in a laboratory in Canada.

In April 2001, Jeff Dann, Professor of physics at dalhous University and chief scientist of 3M group Canada, invented a large-scale commercial nickel cobalt manganese ternary composite cathode material, which promoted the lithium battery to break through the last step of entering the market. On April 27 of that year, 3M applied to the United States for the patent, which is the basic core patent of ternary materials. This means that as long as in the ternary system, no one can get around.

Almost at the same time, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) first proposed the concept of rich lithium, and on this basis, invented layered lithium rich and high manganese ternary materials, and successfully applied for a patent in 2004. And the person in charge of this technology development is thackerel, who invented lithium manganate. Until 2012, Tesla began to break out the momentum of gradual rise. Musk offered several times of high salary to recruit people from 3M’s lithium battery R & D department.

Taking this opportunity, 3M pushed the boat along the current, adopted the strategy of “people go, but patent rights remain”, completely disbanded the battery department, and made higher profits by exporting patents and technical cooperation. The patents were granted to a number of Japanese and Korean lithium battery enterprises such as Elektron, Panasonic, Hitachi, Samsung, LG, L & F and SK, as well as cathode materials such as Shanshan, Hunan Ruixiang and Beida Xianxian in China There are more than ten enterprises in total.

Anl’s patents are only granted to three companies: BASF, a German chemical giant, Toyoda industries, a Japanese cathode material factory, and LG, a South Korean company. Later, around the core patent competition of ternary materials, two top industry university research alliances were formed. This has virtually shaped the “innate” technological strength of lithium battery enterprises in the west, Japan and South Korea, while China has not gained much.


4/ The rise of Chinese Enterprises

Since China has not mastered the core technology, how did it break the situation? China’s lithium battery research is not too late, almost synchronized with the world. In the late 1970s, under the recommendation of Chen Liquan, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Germany, the Institute of physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences established the first solid state ion laboratory in China, and started the research on lithium-ion conductors and lithium batteries. In 1995, China’s first lithium battery was born in the Institute of physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, thanks to the rise of consumer electronics in the 1990s, China’s lithium batteries have risen simultaneously, and the emergence of “four giants”, namely Lishen, BYD, bick and ATL. Although Japan led the development of the industry, due to the survival dilemma, Sanyo Electric sold to Panasonic, and Sony sold its lithium battery business to Murata production. In the fierce competition in the market, only BYD and ATL are the “big four” in China.

In 2011, the Chinese government’s subsidy “white list” blocked foreign-funded enterprises. After being acquired by Japanese capital, ATL’s identity became out of date. So Zeng Yuqun, the founder of ATL, planned to make the power battery business independent, let Chinese capital participate in it, and dilute the shares of the parent company TDK, but he did not get approval. So Zeng Yuqun founded the Ningde era (catl), and made progress in the original technology accumulation, and became a black horse.

In terms of technology path, BYD chooses safe and cost-effective lithium iron phosphate battery, which is different from the high energy density lithium ternary battery in Ningde era. This is related to BYD’s business model. Wang Chuanfu, the founder of the company, advocates “eating a cane to the end”. Apart from the glass and tires, almost all the other parts of a car are produced and sold by itself, and then compete with the outside world with a price advantage. Based on this, BYD has been firmly in the second place in the domestic market for a long time.

But BYD’s advantage is also its weakness: it makes batteries and sells cars, which makes other auto manufacturers naturally distrust and prefer to give orders to competitors rather than themselves. For example, Tesla, even though BYD’s LiFePO4 battery technology has accumulated more, still chooses the same technology of Ningde era. In order to change the situation, BYD plans to separate the power battery and launch the “blade battery”.

Since the reform and opening up, lithium battery is one of the few fields that can catch up with developed countries. The reasons are as follows: first, the state attaches great importance to strategic protection; second, it is not too late to start; third, the domestic market is large enough; fourth, a group of aspiring technical experts and enterprisers work together to break through. But if we zoom in, just like the name of Ningde era, it is China’s economic achievements and the era of electric vehicles that shape the Ningde era.

Nowadays, China does not lag behind the developed countries in the research of anode materials and electrolytes, but there are still some shortcomings, such as lithium battery separator, energy density and so on. Obviously, the technology accumulation of the west, Japan and South Korea still has some advantages. For example, although Ningde times has been ranked first in the global battery market for several years, domestic and foreign industry research reports still list Panasonic and LG in the first rank, while Ningde times and BYD are in the second rank.


5/ Conclusion

Undoubtedly, with the further development of related research in the future, the development and application of lithium batteries in the world will usher in a broader prospect, which will promote the energy reform and innovation of human society, and inject new momentum into the sustainable development of economy and society and strengthening environmental protection. As a leading auto company in the industry, Tesla is like a catfish. While stimulating the development of new energy vehicles, it is also taking the lead in challenging the lithium battery market environment.

Zeng Yuqun once disclosed the inside story of his alliance with Tesla: musk has been talking about cost all day. The implication is that Tesla is pushing down the cost of batteries. However, it should be noted that in the process of both Tesla and Ningde era’s rush in the Chinese market, both the vehicle and the battery should not ignore the quality problem because of the cost. Once so, the original domestic series of well intentioned policies will be greatly reduced in significance.

In addition, there is a grim reality. Although China dominates the lithium battery market, the most core technologies and patents of lithium iron phosphate and ternary materials are not in the hands of the Chinese people. If compared with Japan, China has a large gap in human and capital investment in lithium battery research and development. This highlights the importance of basic scientific research, which depends on the long-term persistence and investment of the state, scientific research institutions and enterprises.

At present, lithium batteries are moving towards the third generation after the previous two generations of lithium cobalt oxide, lithium iron phosphate and lithium ternary. As the core technologies and patents of the first two generations have been divided up by foreign companies, China does not have enough core advantages, but it may be able to reverse the situation in the next generation through early layout. In view of the industrial development path of basic research and development, application research and product development of battery materials, we should be prepared for a long-term war.

It should be noted that the development and application of lithium batteries in China are still facing many challenges. For example, in the actual use of lithium battery new energy vehicles, there are still some problems, such as low energy density, poor low-temperature performance, long charging time, short service life and so on.

Since 2019, China has cancelled the “white list” of batteries, and foreign enterprises such as LG and Panasonic have returned to the Chinese market, with an extremely rapid layout offensive. At the same time, with the increasing pressure on the cost of lithium batteries, the competition in the domestic market is becoming more intense. This will force the relevant enterprises to win the advantage in full competition with higher product cost performance and faster market reaction ability, so as to promote the upgrading and continuous growth of China’s lithium battery industry.

Post time: Mar-16-2021
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