With China intensifying export controls, Japanese companies relying on crucial battery and semiconductor materials manufactured in China are contemplating alternative solutions. They are actively seeking materials sources to achieve supply diversification.
1. Alternative Solution Cannot be Translated into Immediate Success
While countries like Japan and South Korea have swiftly initiated strategies to find alternative solutions, the majority are still in the evaluation, research, or testing stages, unable to provide immediate assistance.
Even if alternative graphite production sources outside of China, such as in North America or Australia, are identified, it is likely to increase manufacturing costs, thereby impacting the selling price or profit performance of electric vehicles.
2. Back to Negotiation with Chinese Manufacturers
The post-export control scenario may accentuate the cost advantage of Chinese battery manufacturers, influencing the effectiveness of various protective measures taken by Europe and the United States to counter Chinese electric vehicles.
Consequently, countries may ultimately realize that returning to the negotiation table with China is more practical than going through a prolonged process, aligning with China’s primary objective.
3. Material Edge Won’t Last Forever
The continuous export restrictions on critical materials by China may encourage countries to persist in developing alternative solutions. For instance, OEMs like Tesla, GM, and Stellantis are actively investing in research on rare-earth-free motors to reduce dependency on Chinese rare earths.
While currently constrained by battery material technology, graphite remains the highest-value anode material. Yet, numerous companies are also exploring anodes with higher energy density, such as silicon oxide (SiO) and lithium metal (Li Metal).
Therefore, China must recognize that material advantages may not be permanent, and the core lies in the ability for technological iteration.
According to IJWEI’s report, Japanese companies heavily reliant on key battery and semiconductor materials manufactured in China are expanding their sources as China intensifies export controls.
On October 20th, China announced that certain graphite items, including high-purity, high-strength, and high-density synthetic graphite materials and their products, cannot be exported without permission.
This regulation officially takes effect on December 1st of this year. Graphite is crucial for manufacturing the negative electrode of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. While the permit requirements do not constitute a ban, they may lead to a reduction in China’s graphite exports.
Over 80% of the natural graphite used in Japan comes from China. In case of a disruption in graphite imports, Mitsubishi Chemical Group in Japan is considering strengthening its production of electrode materials in Shandong. The company is also exploring partnerships in Australia and production in Mozambique and Norway to diversify the supply.
Representatives from Nissan Motor Company have stated that they will consider sourcing graphite and other key electric vehicle materials from alternative regions.
Panasonic’s battery subsidiary, Panasonic Energy, is collaborating with a Canadian graphite company on research for large-scale production of electrode materials. In September of this year, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the Canadian government signed an agreement to strengthen the battery supply chain.
According to data from the United States Geological Survey, the global graphite production reached 1.3 million tons in 2022, experiencing a 15% year-on-year growth due to the popularity of electric vehicles. China contributes to 70% of the graphite production and is a major producer of synthetic graphite. China serves as the primary low-cost exporter for both types of materials.
“The costs of procuring graphite will inevitably rise, the focus will be on how companies maintain their competitive advantage while bearing the costs.” as stated by Noboru Sato, visiting professor at Nagoya University.
Graphite is not the sole crucial mineral for China. In August of this year, China intensified export restrictions on gallium and germanium, vital rare metals used in the manufacturing of electronic components and semiconductors. Customs data indicates a significant decrease in the export of these two metals.
Japanese manufacturers are also exploring materials sources unaffected by China’s export controls. Kanto Denka Kogyo, a chemical producer, is testing lithium compounds from regions like South America to manufacture battery electrolytes. The company is also collaborating with Sumitomo Metal Mining to test technology for lithium recovery from discarded electric vehicle batteries.
At the same time, Japan is using diplomacy and foreign aid to ensure a stable supply of critical materials. Both China and Japan have confirmed the establishment of new bilateral export control dialogues. Senior trade officials from both sides will engage in regular consultations on export restriction issues.
The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is seeking JPY 260 billion (approximately USD 1.74 billion) in the supplementary budget proposal for this fiscal year to support Japan’s battery manufacturing. Some of the funds may be allocated for investing in companies producing synthetic graphite in Japan.
Last year, Japan’s additional budget provided approximately JPY 200 billion to support the extraction, refining, and processing of critical minerals. Companies investing overseas in the production of rare metals will receive subsidies of up to half.
Companies outside Japan are also taking action to mitigate the impact of Chinese supply restrictions. According to Business Korea’s report, South Korea’s company Posco Future M, which produces battery materials, has preemptively planned to manufacture synthetic graphite using coal tar, a byproduct that can be sourced domestically in Korea.
As the global competition in electric vehicle power batteries intensifies, Chinese battery giant CATL (Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Ltd.) has been unveiling its new generation of automotive power batteries. Notably, during the “2023 Chery Tech Day” event, multiple batteries from CATL were showcased, with a strong focus on their second-generation sodium-ion battery.
According to a report by “mydrivers,” although several of CATL’s batteries were showcased during Chery’s event, including the Shenxing Superfast Charging Battery, Qilin Battery, and Sodium-ion batteries. It is set to be the debut choice for Chery vehicles.
The report from mydrivers further indicates that Sodium-ion batteries have garnered significant attention due to their cost-effectiveness, stable performance, resilience to low temperatures, excellent charge and discharge rates, and the ability to meet the energy density requirements for various applications, including two-wheeled electric vehicles, power tools, energy storage, and A00-grade electric vehicles.
CATL introduced the first-generation Sodium-ion battery in July 2021, featuring a single-cell energy density of 160 Wh/kg. It allows for an 80% charge within 15 minutes at room temperature and maintains over 90% of discharge capacity even in low-temperature environments as cold as -20°C.
The latest updates suggest that CATL is already in the process of developing the second-generation Sodium-ion battery.
Source to China Times, due to weak demand and inventory piling up, the prices of a key chemical raw material, lithium carbonate, have recently been on a declining trend. Since the launch of lithium carbonate futures on the mainland on July 21, in just over two months, the price of lithium has fallen by nearly 100,000 CNY, marking a 39% decrease. In late September, lithium carbonate futures prices briefly dropped below 150,000 CNY per ton, reaching 145,000 CNY, marking a new low since their introduction.
Market analysts suggest that the current price of lithium carbonate futures on the mainland is around 150,000 yuan per ton. In the short term, prices are susceptible to the impact of supply contraction. While there may be some upward momentum following the sharp decline, the strength of the rebound is limited.
According to STCN from China, in the spot market on October 4, the benchmark price for battery-grade lithium carbonate was 175,000 CNY per ton, showing a monthly decline of over 20% compared to the 224,000 CNY per ton at the beginning of September. The benchmark price for industrial-grade lithium carbonate on the same day was 161,000 CNY per ton, reflecting a decrease of 23.33% by MoM.
Ruida Futures stated that from a fundamental perspective, the current situation of relatively ample lithium carbonate supply has not changed for now. With the recovery of operating rates in 2Q23, demand has not met expectations, leading to the inventory kept piling up, and continuous price declines.
It is worth noting that due to poor end-demand and cost inversion, several lithium salt factories (upstream in the lithium battery industry chain) have recently announced production cuts. Among them, the Chinese lithium carbonate giant, Zhicun Lithium Industry, recently announced a reduction in production of around 3,000 tons of lithium carbonate from September 29 to October 25. In addition, some of the others are discounting to reduce their inventory as well. Recently, there has also been an increase in production cuts and maintenance shutdowns in lithium salt factories in Sichuan and Jiangxi.
According to a recent report by itdcw, several Chinese new energy companies unveiled ambitious overseas expansion plans during the last week of September, with the highest investment commitment reaching almost a billion dollars.
This development comes as global demand for batteries skyrockets, driven by the rapid growth of the overseas new energy automotive and energy storage industries. Chinese companies in the new energy industry chain are strategically positioning themselves across the globe to better serve the expanding oversea markets.
Five Companies Announce Overseas Expansion in a Week
The hustle week could tracked back to a significant announcement from Ningbo Shanshan Co., LTD on September 27th. Their intention to establish a project company in Finland, aiming to invest in the construction of an integrated base capable of producing 100,000 tons of lithium-ion battery negative electrode materials annually. The total investment for this venture is not expected to exceed 1.28 billion euros.
On the very same day, a subsidiary of Lopal Technology signed a MOU with LG Energy Solution, Ltd. This agreement outlines their collaborative venture to operate a cathode material factory in Indonesia, further expanding the global footprint of Chinese battery companies.
XTC New Energy Materials also made a significant move on September 26th, announcing their plans to establish Joint Venture in France. This strategic collaboration with the French company Orano is set to build a production line with an annual output of 40,000 tons of ternary cathode materials, bolstering their presence in the European market.
Not to be outdone, CATL unveiled their investment plans in Indonesia on September 25th. Their vision includes the construction of Indonesia’s first project for the production of 30,000 tons of high-nickel power battery ternary precursor materials in the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, Central Sulawesi Province. The total investment for this endeavor is approximately 109.6 million RMB.
Additionally, South Korea’s LG Chem is gearing up with Huayou Cobalt on September 24th. Together, they are planning to establish an electric vehicle battery material factory in Morocco, slated to commence production in 2026. Their target is an annual output of 50,000 tons of lithium iron phosphate cathode materials.
Not Random: Calculated Choice to Overseas Moves for Expansion
China’s surplus battery production capacity and skyrocketing prices in recent times have left the battery industry chain market sluggish. This has prompted companies to explore overseas markets as a natural expansion strategy. The EU’s new battery regulations and the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act have set new standards and prerequisites for Chinese battery industry chain enterprises venturing abroad.
Europe’s appeal stems from its stringent EU environmental regulations, which have been pushing for the development of electric vehicles. Hungary’s strategic location has positioned it as a major export production hub for renowned automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi. Its prime geographical location and excellent transportation links make it an ideal gateway to the entire European market.
Indonesia’s selection is attributed to its abundant resources, particularly nickel, of which it holds a quarter of the world’s reserves. Moreover, Indonesia ranks high in global cobalt production. This makes it an attractive destination for battery companies and upstream material enterprises, ensuring a stable supply of essential raw materials.
South Korea is appealing primarily due to its opportunities for collaboration with local companies. Battery material enterprises often find the initial capital requirements and other aspects of independent overseas expansion daunting. With recent international policy changes, Chinese counterparts are favoring collaborative approaches to establish a presence in South Korea.
However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that expanding abroad, while offering access to more overseas market resources, also amplifies risks and pressures borne by these enterprises. This strategic move will test their adaptability and resilience in navigating the complexities of global markets.
In summary, Chinese battery companies are aggressively expanding into overseas markets to meet the surging global demand for batteries, with Europe, Indonesia, and South Korea serving as key strategic locations. While the challenges are significant, these companies are poised to make a significant impact on the global battery industry.