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Li-S Energy CEO interview
October 28, 2021
Li-S Energy, LIS, video
We spoke to Dr Lee Finniear, CEO of Li-S Energy (ASX:LIS), about the theoretical advantages of the lithium-sulphur battery over conventional lithium-ion batteries and why Li-S Energy can potential make the lithium-sulphur battery a reality with its boron nitride nanotubes.
Stuart: Hello, and welcome to “Stocks Down Under.” My name is Stuart Roberts, and I’m one of the founders of our publication. And with me today is probably the brainiest man we’ve ever had on this show. Dr. Lee Finniear, is joining us from Queensland, Gold Coast. He’s the CEO of Li-S Energy, ASX:LIS. 20th of October 2021. Lee, good afternoon.
Lee: Good afternoon, Stuart. How are you?
Stuart: Well, I’m feeling pretty excited about life because as I like to tell people, my next car is gonna be a Tesla, but I want a lithium-sulfur battery under the bonnet because I have a bit of range anxiety about my Tesla, and you have the solution for that in terms of your battery technology, right?
Lee: That’s actually true, you know, range anxiety is a big inhibitor to people taking on electric cars, simply because they don’t wanna run out of power halfway down to Melbourne from Sydney, for example. But the thing about lithium-sulfur batteries is it’s got a much higher energy density. So we can extend the range of electric vehicles, aviation, drones, a tremendous amount using lithium-sulfur batteries.
Stuart: Right. And not just a little bit, we’re talking five or six times the energy density of the conventional lithium-ion batteries of the current generation, right?
Lee: That’s actually true. The challenge with lithium-ion batteries as they stand is they have a maximum theoretical energy density of 380 kilowatt…sorry, watt-hours per kilogram, which they’re almost hitting now. So there’s not much room to improve anymore. Lithium-sulfur batteries have a theoretical maximum energy density of over 2500 watt-hours per kilogram. So there’s a much higher ceiling, which we can develop those batteries into, which means we can produce batteries with a much higher energy density. That means a much longer range for EVs, a much longer flight time for drones or aviation, and it’s really a lightweight battery. So we’re really, really excited about it.
Stuart: Right. Now, people have been working on the lithium-sulfur battery for a long time on the understanding that if you mix lithium into the anode of the battery…oh, sorry, sulfur into the anode of the battery, you’ll get that energy density. What you end up with is these outgrowths called dendrites on the battery, which basically means that its ability to recharge is severely reduced, but you’ve got some interesting chemistry to solve that complements some geniuses at Deakin University. Share with us what the folks at Deakin have achieved.
Lee: Well, Deakin invents some amazing things. I don’t know if I’ve got long enough to tell you about it all, but they started off by working both on lithium-sulfur batteries, but also on a unique nanomaterial called boron nitride nanotube or BNNTs. And we’ve been able to use those BNNTs to stabilize the sulfur cathode in the lithium-sulfur batteries, and also…
Stuart: Oh, cathode. I think that’s what I know, yeah, it’s the cathode, it is not sulfur.
Lee: You were right where the dendrites form, they form on the anode which is a pure lithium metal. And what we’ve done is also develop a composite nanomaterial working with Deakin to stop the dendrite formation on the anode as well. And those two things have been really important to be able to create that long cycle-life for a lithium-sulfur battery. So you were right, Stuart.
Stuart: Right. And what’s remarkable is people have been trying to produce boron nitride nanotubes for a long time. You know, things work in the nano scale like they don’t work in any other scale. But before Deakin, no one had been able to produce these things in a cost-effective manner. How did they achieve that?
Lee: Well, they worked hard for about 10 years, I must say, to start with. The challenge with boron nitride nanotubes, I’ll call them BNNTs, that’s what we usually call them, is, at the moment, if you go onto the market for a decent purity BNNTs, they cost about a million dollars a kilogram, so crazily expensive. And what Deakin working with BNNT Technology Limited as a part of PPK Group have been able to do, is create a process which allows, instead of grams per week to be to produced, to produce reliable, high-purity BNNTs in kilograms per week, not just in grams per week, at a much lower cost. So we’ve been able to harness that material that was formerly very expensive, and incorporate it into our batteries, not only to solve the technical problem, but also the commercially viable point as well. So we can produce a cost effective lithium-sulfur battery with this kind of protection.
Stuart: Right. Now, what’s the next stage of the journey in terms of… You have at least at bench scale, a lithium-sulfur battery which has potential. We live in interesting times, so these things have a habit of moving ahead quickly, but what are the steps that you need to go through before we can really get excited about that?
Lee: Right. Well, we’re already really excited about it, so you’re quite welcome to get excited about it straight away, but what we’ve got is a single-layer pouch cell. We’ve used, well, pouch cells that we’ve used for testing so far, and that’s normal in value manufacturing, you go up from coin cells to type cells. And then the next step for us is to build what we call multi-layer pouch cells, which are like a double-decker sandwich rather than a single-layer sandwich which allows us to increase the total energy density, and the power of each of the cells. And then we’re testing those at the higher energy draws, at higher charge and discharge cycles to ensure that they’re working in multi-cell layers as well. Having done that at a lab scale, we’re then in the process also of building a pilot line to be able to automate the process of building those cells, so we can build larger cells at higher volume, so that people with devices, whether they’re drones, electric vehicles, or other devices, can then take our cells and use them for testing.
Stuart: Sure. Now, traditionally in the battery industry, there’s various ways that you can pursue commercialization. Some companies I know, I’ve talked to the battery makers in particular, others, you know, go all the way up to the Elon Musk level, should we say, so there’s any number of ways that you can pursue this. What’s the ideal commercialization pathway now that these cells are taking shape?
Lee: The scaling of the battery industry in general is going through a huge revolution now. The volume of batteries required in 10 years’ time is 10 times what it is now, thanks to the decarbonization processes going on, particularly on EVs. So, our approach is, rather than trying, you know, from scratch to compete with battery manufacturers, we’d rather partner with those battery manufacturers. Our commercialization journey involves getting the technology to a point where battery manufacturers will take it on to manufacture it, so we charge royalties for our intellectual property, but also that we have an exclusive distribution agreement for BNNTs, which are essential to build the lithium-sulfur batteries. So, we’ll get a slice both ways, if you like, both from the royalties, but also from the ongoing material usage as these batteries and manufacturers go global.
Stuart: All right. Now, for investors who don’t know you very well, that accent, I think you were saying before, comes from the West Country of England. You’re a native of Bristol, originally. You’re not actually…like, you didn’t actually grow up in the battery industry, or in the various technologies associated with Li-S. Your background is a lot of time in the artificial intelligence game, right?
Lee: That’s right. My PhD is in artificial intelligence and geographic information systems. So, I started off… Actually, I also have a degree in civil engineering. So, I started off moving…you know, building bridges, laying pipelines, that kind of thing. But moving on from that, then worked on the software side, developed a range of software and hardware solutions for things like location-based services, real-time tracking, and that kind of thing. But then, I’ve also run a range of different companies involving electronics engineers, scientists, manufacturing engineers, and brought those to fruition as well. So, it’s a generalist kind of background, but in the technology space. And what I do know is enough to know when somebody is good at their job, and they’re able to do the work we need to do, and when they don’t. And so, my job is to bring the team together to deliver this commercial outcome as quickly as possible.
Stuart: All right. And as I like to joke, there was a time when Elon Musk was pretty good at geospatial-type mapping as well in one of his previous startups. So we all bring a certain amount of generalist expertise to the development of the 21st century economy.
Lee: Absolutely right. And if you’re too narrow, I mean, you just don’t see the broader opportunities in the space. And a part of the job is to make sure we get the right collaborations, and the right partners in place to deliver this solution as quickly as possible.
Stuart: All right. Lee Finniear, thank you for joining us. Well done on the Li-S Energy float, and here’s to a great couple of years ahead as you build out these wonderful technologies.
Lee: Thank you so much. Appreciate being on the show, Stuart. Thanks.