Lithium-ion batteries use lithium and graphite — now add some tin to triple capacity
An interesting item this month in The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Washington. It reports that a team at Washington State University is working on building a better battery for smartphones. Actually, the story first emerged two years ago when some technical journals featured the work of Professor Grant Norton and his team at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. They had come up with the idea to introduce a tin anode rather than a carbon one, so — they hoped — tripling capacity and allowing faster recharging.
But it was not a smooth road. Last year it was reported that, while Washington State had received funds to equip a laboratory capable of testing its battery materials in commercial sizes and that tin anode batteries held great promise, these anodes were still plagued by a problem similar to silicon-based batteries. “As the lithium ions enter the tin anode, the tin can swell up to a third its size – which is both good and bad. Its good because the tin can swell to hold more lithium ions than traditional carbon based anodes, but it is also bad because the swelling can cause the tin to short circuit,” the report said..
But it seems that Norton’s team is hot on the trail of this breakthrough. And Norton is clearly excited at the thought of the returns from any patents developed by the university. Super lithium-ion batteries could end up being for Washington State what Gatorade is to the University of Florida, he told the newspaper. (The latter university’s medical school developed the drink in the 1960s and still receives royalties.) He figures that 500 million of the little batteries for smartphones could be required in the near future.Grabbing just 10% of that market would be something big.
“So if you think, each of those batteries is maybe $30 or $40, and you’ve got 14% of that (the anode comprising that portion of the battery), times 50 million, these numbers start to add up to be something significant,” he told the newspaper.
That’s just one new development. There are also reports that Stanford University is part of an effort to develop a product called Stanene, a single layer of tin atoms that may be the first element to provide 100% efficiency in conducting electricity.
Meanwhile, analysts are talking down tin, notwithstanding this base metal has been in deficit for three years. They are predicting the metal is about to lose price momentum. Yet, on Tuesday at the London Metal Exchange, tin jumped a healthy $245/tonne to $23,650. The Japanese are clearly interested in being part of the tin story. Last week Toyota Tsusho and Nittetsu Mining signed on the dotted line to take 25% of the Achmmach tin project in Morocco. The Australian project manager, Kasbah Resources (ASX:KAS) will retain 75%.
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Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, tin consumption rose from 250,000 tonnes a year to 350,000 tonnes, mainly due to the use of the metal in solders for electronic goods (as the industry moved to lead-free solders). In Asia in 2012, tin demand for solder was just a whisker under 150,000 tonnes. In Europe, by contrast, the greatest share of tin consumption is in tinplate (the material that lines tins containing food and beverages). The growth in the drinks sector is limited though with most producers using aluminium cans.
Overall, tin’s second largest application is in chemicals, particularly as a stabiliser in PVC manufacture (and this could be ready for a leap in China as that country moves away from using lead stabilisers).
The tin price has been given quite a boost by the Indonesian government banning any export of tin that is not sold through its new official exchange in Jakarta, a ban enforced last month when a navy vessel intercepted an illegally exported cargo and seized 2,822 tonnes of tin on its way to Singapore.
The big question hanging over the tin market is what is happening in Burma (Myanmar). More than 90% of Chinese tin imports last year came across the border from Burma. Some experts say the tin comes largely from artisanal workings near the Chinese border, but this begs the larger question: what if Burma were to gear up for commercial production?
Last year the International Tin Research Institute in London reported that three Australian junior exploration companies (Avenue Resources, Intercept Minerals and Eumeralla Resources) had announced first steps in trying to tap the tin and tungsten resource potential of Burma. Said ITRI: “Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the largest country in mainland SE Asia and includes a belt of tin-tungsten mineralisation mainly running along its eastern border with Thailand. The country’s Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploitation has identified 480 tin and tin-tungsten deposits, with potential primary and alluvial resources in the order of 40 million tonnes of ore.”
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