Indian Oil hedges its bet on aluminum battery to take on lithium in Electric Vehicles

A drive to reduce dependence on imported materials and technology, especially from China, is pushing India to invest in a battery technology that uses aluminum rather than lithium as the key ingredient.

Indian Oil Corp., the nation’s largest oil refiner, has teamed up with an Isareli startup Phinergy Ltd. to develop the aluminum-air battery.

India has few exploitable options to produce lithium, the key metal for the current generation of electric-vehicle batteries, but its eastern jungles hold large reserves of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum. Lithium reserves are very scarce in India.

India is among the top 10 bauxite producers. It has some 600 million tonnes of the ore in proven reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, though India’s mining ministry estimates that untapped resources may be many times that amount. Moreover, India has invested heavily in production of aluminum over the years to become the world’s second-biggest smelter of aluminum.

An aluminum-air battery could win advantages over its lithium-ion rival in three other crucial ways. It is potentially cheaper, vehicles using it would have a longer range, and it’s safer.

The battery works by tapping electricity generated when aluminum plates react with oxygen in the air. It has one of the highest energy densities for a battery. But the system has a number of drawbacks that have kept it from wide-scale use since it was first proposed in the 1960s.

Chief among them is the cost of materials that need to be added to the battery to prevent the power from dropping and the fact that the cells can’t be recharged. Instead, Phinergy’s plan is for users to be able to quickly swap in a new battery and send the used one to a recycling facility.

It takes just three minutes to replace the battery, about the time it takes to fill up at a gas station, Ramakumar said. The fuel retailer plans to use its network of filling stations as swapping points. To assess the viability of wide-scale use in India, automakers Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd., Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. and Ashok Leyland Ltd. are carrying out vehicle tests that are expected to take almost a year. If there’s enough demand, Indian Oil and Phinergy plan to set up a gigawatt-scale facility to make the batteries in India.

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