Ed Conway Profile picture
Feb 12 31 tweets 10 min read
The Humber Refinery in NE England.
This place looks and smells like a ghost of fossil fuel history. It's where they turn crude oil into petrol, jet fuel & many other petrochemical products.
It won't seem the obvious place to start a thread abt batteries.
But bear with me
🧵 Image
Because the gritty reality of how batteries are made is often skirted over in most reports.
But the deeper you go the more fascinating it gets.
So before we get to the stuff u know about - the gigafactories & lithium mines - let's ponder this place. Why? It's the missing link..
Actually before we head in, let's recall the basic chemistry of a battery, which isn't immediately obvious from the outside.
This is a typical cylindrical lithium-ion battery.
A Tesla is a big slab of thousands of these batteries with a car on top. But now let's look inside. Image
Actually the shape of these batteries is a bit misleading. They're not, as u might think, canisters of liquid with positive electrode at top and negative at bottom.* They are "jelly rolls" of thin metallic film, all rolled up.
* Well, there is liquid too but that's another story Image
Here's what you see when you dissect a typical cylindrical cell: wound up tightly inside the steel canister is a long, metre or more length of film. It's heavier than it looks.
Unpeel it and uncoil it and you find layers of cathode and anode. And between them a polymer separator Image
Here I am, holding the innards of a typical cell.
Cathode in my left hand, anode in my right.
THIS, ultimately, is the battery. And the key principle is: lithium ions pass from cathode to the anode as it charges. Vice versa when discharging Image
The cathode is where u find the lithium/cobalt/nickel/manganese etc & the VAST majority of battery coverage focuses on it, for a understandable reasons:
a) it's where the lithium is
b) some of these minerals are v hard to source ethically esp cobalt
c) cathodes are sexy
They're sexy because that's where a LOT of the clever 🔋chemistry about how much energy can be stored goes on. Cathode active materials are a really big deal but all this sexiness means we often neglect the ugly sister of the battery world: the anode.
When people in government and sometimes business ponder batteries they rarely give much thought to the anode. Why? Because unlike the cathode with its cocktail of elements, anodes are usually made almost entirely of graphite. Boring, right? Well, hold on.
Because it turns out the graphite is of more than passing importance to good battery design. The matrix of that graphite can determine how quickly lithium ions find their way across, and how long they stay there before returning. Or, to put it another way...
Some graphites help a battery charge faster - much faster. Some help it hold its charge much longer. And in recent years battery makers have become v clever in the way they deploy graphite in their cells. And one key trick is to use an ever increasing amount of SYNTHETIC graphite
For it turns out there are 2 types of graphite.
There's the kind you mine from the ground: natural or "flake" graphite 📸.
And the man-made kind.
& the synthetic kind is much better for fast charging. The dream of a 15 minute charging EV depends on synthetic graphite! Image
That takes us back to Humber. Let's go into the plant, towards the enormous drilling rigs you see here. Security is tight (you'll see why soon enough). But once in, wind your way past the spaghetti of pipes where they clean and crack the oil, towards the enormous coke drums. Image
Here they take the bottom of a barrel of oil - the heavy stuff which would otherwise be burnt in ship engines with v high emissions - and bake it into petroleum coke, a very pure form of carbon. They've been doing it for decades here, first with Libyan oil, then North Sea crude.
Up until recently this coke was mainly used in the manufacture of aluminium & in electric arc furnaces for steel.
But yrs ago they realised they could turn this coke into an almost perfect form of graphite.
This, here, is the main feedstock for synthetic graphite in your battery. Image
If you have an iPhone there's a high chance the battery contains this North Sea coke in it.
Similar thing if you have an electric car, depending on where the batteries are made.
For real.
Thought batteries were made from lithium? Well, yes. But there's even MORE graphite in them. Image
That's why in charts like the one I tweeted last night you'll see that our need for graphite for our future gigafactories is actually GREATER than our need for lithium. Look at the height of the bars! But cathodes are sexier than anodes so no one pays much attention
Anyway, it's hard to know where to start with this info isn't it?
It is one of the best kept secrets of the green revolution. And while the amount of cobalt in cells is being engineered down, synthetic graphite is going the other way.
After the graphite coke is made here in Humberside it's shipped off, mostly to China, where it is turned into graphite, after which it is put into batteries. That this happens mostly in China means a lot of people think the entire graphite supply chain is already sewn up. Not so. Image
Because it turns out it's actually quite hard to do what they do here in Humberside. There's decades of experience & IP here. So much so that a few years ago a Chinese spy tried to steal their secrets (from parent company Phillips 66's Oklahoma HQ) reuters.com/article/us-usa…
Most people in the UK are completely oblivious that we have a key part of the battery supply chain on our doorstep. Downing St isn't even aware of it.
Maybe because when it comes to batteries anodes aren't sexy.
Cathodes are sexy
Gigafactories are sexy
Lithium is sexy.
Maybe because while ministers are v happy to be pictured in pristine factories they don't like the "optics" of flame-belching oil refineries.
No matter that a molecule of oil turned into graphite is doing more to help reduce long-term emissions than most manufactured products. Image
So the Humber Refinery carries on doing what it's doing and no one in Whitehall pays it much attention. Even though it's literally world-renowned in anode circles for the quality of the coke produced here. Or that it's the only place in Europe making this stuff.
When critical minerals committees in US/EU (and, soon, the UK) make lists of key materials they tend to include natural graphite as something to keep an eye on but not synthetic, even tho it's the big growth area in batteries. Maybe because they assume it's easy to make. It's not
If one were genuinely interested in industrial strategy one would be pondering why this place ships graphite coke to China to be turned into anodes, which are then imported back as a Chinese product.
Why aren't we doing that here, in a low income corner of the north of England?
Is it because graphitisation is another high-energy high-emissions process, so doing it here would undermine our chances of getting to net zero - even tho it's helping the world replace petrol cars w/ electric ones? Maybe. But I wouldn't discount plain ignorance either.
Side note: this goes to a deeper point, one I've written about before. Economics is v good at aggregate statistics. It's much less good at understanding how the economy fits together. We need more maps like this one from @theapcuk of battery supply chains edmundconway.com/we-need-more-m… Image
Anyway, I'll prob do another thread or two on batteries in the coming days, having spent quite a while delving into the topic. Not only is this product central to our industrial and environmental future, it turns out the deeper you go the more interesting and surprising it gets!
Here is my long read about batteries. And when I say long I mean LONG.
But it's long because it's the most fascinating thing I've written about for ages.
Pls do share if you enjoy news.sky.com/story/inside-t…
Here's our mini-documentary about batteries. Everything you ever needed to know about one of the most important products of the 21st century... in less than 15 minutes.
If you enjoyed this thread you'll love it.
Produced by @aoifeyourell edited by @tsueyek
I’ve written something based on the above on my website (with a few extra nuggets I couldn’t fit on Twitter).
If it was of interest, do sign up for the newsletter as I’ll be posting more somewhat random but hopefully fascinating stuff in the coming months edmundconway.com/jelly-rolls-an…

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More from @EdConwaySky

Jun 23
One of my favourite analogies about inflation is the one Karl Otto Pöhl came up with:
Inflation is a bit like toothpaste. Very easy to squeeze out of the tube. Very difficult to get back in once it's out.
Worth pondering this, because we're entering peak tube-squeezing period...
One way of thinking about this is by splitting inflation into two varieties. This is a massive oversimplification but bear with me.
You've got:
1. Statistical inflation showing up in the data, fuelled, say, by energy price rises/covid/monetary policy, &
2. Psychological inflation
The real fear central bankers have is that as statistical inflation reaches new heights it then triggers psychological inflation - when people see how high prices are and then start to believe that this is simply the new norm.
Then things start to spiral 🌀
Read 13 tweets
Jun 8
I find this chart from the @OECD pretty disturbing.
At the very moment everyone is trying to diversify away from Russian gas, there’s a dearth of new supply coming online from liquefied natural gas.
Look at the years 2022, 2023, 2024.
This is a very, very BIG DEAL…
The point here (and it’s one I’ve made before & folks like @rob_by_robwest have been banging on about for a while) is that we’ve been underinvesting in new energy capacity for a long time.
Govts have been talking the talk on the energy transition without actually delivering.
Energy prices are high now not just because of Russia vs Ukraine but because we didn’t invest enough either in new LNG capacity or enough green energy to replace the MWh we were losing as we phased out fossil fuels.
Much of this current crisis was avoidable.
Of our own making.
Read 5 tweets
Jun 8
- UK forecast to have the worst economic output in the developed world next year.
- British economy will flatline in 2023, says @OECD
- @OECD urges Chancellor to cut taxes or raise spending compared with current plans
Full story: news.sky.com/story/cut-taxe…
Worth noting: the @OECD analysis already takes into account the latest set of measures (extra help with energy bills and windfall tax).
Here’s the relevant section from their Economic Outlook report today:
OECD chief economist @LaurenceEco on why UK has worst growth forecast in OECD next yr:
1. Higher inflation in UK than elsewhere in Europe.
2. Faster tightening of monetary policy & larger fiscal contraction.
3. Trade frictions and what’s happening with global supply chains.
Read 8 tweets
May 26
A thread about @rishisunak’s cost of living bonanza.
Another non-Budget Budget.
Once again the Chancellor has chosen to give away a LOT of money outside of the non-formal fiscal events where he has to show his working.
So let’s read between the lines…
First things first, will this make much difference to the average household?
Short answer: yes. Definitely.
As I say this is a LOT of money.
Consider the backdrop. This shows you the share of household spending on energy going back to 1957.
Here’s where we are now…
Here is where that proportion goes when avg energy bills get to £2,800.
Not just in unprecedented territory but way, way above anything we’ve ever seen before. This is the starting point - before any govt intervention…
Pretty gruesome.
Read 13 tweets
May 26
After months of dismissing the benefits of windfall taxes, @rishisunak announces a “temporary targeted energy profits levy”.
Eg a windfall tax.
“But,” he adds, “we have built into the new levy a new investment allowance similar to the super-deduction.”
New UK windfall tax on oil/gas companies will raise around £5bn of revenue over the next year.
Bigger than expected.
But prob not enough to cover the impending giveaways for households.
- 8m people on means-tested benefits will get a one-off cost of living payment of £650. Cost: £5bn.
- 8m pensioner households who receive winter fuel allowance will get a one-off £300.
- For 6m people on disability benefits: one-off payment of £150

Total cost: £9bn
Read 5 tweets
May 23
Did you know where salt comes from?
Did you know how it's made?
Did you know how astonishingly important it is, not just for food but for our way of life even in the 21st century?
And did you know it's another staple item seeing unprecedented price rises?
Note: This thread is a kind of companion piece to the one about tomatoes 🍅from a couple of days back and is based on a deep dive I've done into the forces behind the rise in the cost of living.
You can watch the full thing here:
Anyway, did you know that almost all the salt consumed by humans in the UK comes from beneath a few fields in rural Cheshire?
We've been getting salt from this Triassic slab of halite since before Roman times.
And so it goes today.
Here's the field where it comes from.
Read 23 tweets

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