Recently I shared a prediction on how silicon will play a significant role in the makeup of future batteries (check out my insights here) and I believe this week's geopolitical news may accelerate this transition.
China has announced new measures to reduce exports of refined graphite, the dominant material currently found in lithium-ion battery anodes around the world. China currently refine 90% of the world's natural graphite and are soaring ahead in synthetic graphite segment too!
This move has raised alarm bells for many involved downstream in the battery chain, but it should have come as no major surprise. There has been plenty of attention on the West's reliance on Chinese supply and calls for more secure, diverse battery supply some time! The panic we've seen from outside of China goes to show how unprepared many countries / continents have been. The great Simon Moores of Benchmark Minerals summarised it well "as the rest of the world slept, China's leading position in the anode midstream was building in a huge and significant way”
However, China's move could well be a catalyst for change - we should see a greater push towards non-Chinese natural and synthetic graphite production (already being seen in the US, India, Finland etc) but inevitably the impacts of inflated cost will be felt (at a time when EV production margins are already tight, this news will be of real concern!)
I also see this period as a huge opportunity for silicon alternatives. Silicon has been used in battery anodes for several years, but typically only accounting for 10% of the makeup alongside graphite. There have been historic challenges with silicon cost (compared to graphite) and issues of swelling (lithiation) and dangerous materials.
However, there have been technology breakthroughs which give hope that silicon can be used as the majority, or even the only, anode material in the future. I've worked with some wonderful scaleups here in Europe, such as LeydenJar Technologies and E-magy, working on innovation for 100% silicon anodes and there are a selection of players doing the same, across the pond (GDI, Amprius, OneD, Group14 etc).
Given the costs associated with synthetic graphite production, silicon anodes could well be seen as a viable option, particularly those produced with manufacturing techniques adopted from existing mature sectors like semiconductors and solar. Silicon anodes can also boost energy density and fast charging capabilities of batteries.
Given the changes ahead, this could well be silicon's time!