Ed Conway Profile picture
Feb 12, 2022 31 tweets 10 min read Read on X
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

Mar 18
Britain's motoring lobby group the @SMMT has insisted that an unprecedented 2,000% increase in car exports to Azerbaijan has NOTHING to with Russia and is explained by the fact that this former Soviet state is a “flourishing market in its own right”.
This is rather... odd
🧵 Image
Before we get onto that, some background (thread on this here👇).
TLDR: UK car exports to Russia have collapsed, because of sanctions. But UK car exports to countries neighbouring Russia have suddenly risen by nearly the same amount. Esp Azerbaijan
Following my original report we now have new figs on UK car exports.
They show flows to Azerbaijan have continued. £42m in Jan. 3rd highest EVER.
Now there's no way of being 100% sure what's going on here. you can't track consignments beyond Azerbaijan (if they ever reach Az) Image
Read 13 tweets
Mar 12
🚨The strange tale of British luxury cars & Russian sanctions🚨
🧵A thread on some v striking charts which raise some disturbing questions abt the car industry.
Let's start at the start.
Wealthy Russians love high-end British cars.
Don't just take it from me. Take it from her 👇
So when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was not without significance that all Britain's major carmakers said they would stop sending their cars to Russia.
Anyway, shortly afterwards, the UK imposed sanctions which made it illegal to do so anyway...
There are two sanctions of note here.
First, UK companies cannot send "dual use" items to Russia which could be turned into weapons.
Second, there was a specific ban on the sale of any car over £42k👇
So it's pretty simple. No cars. Esp not luxury cars. legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2022/452/…
Read 15 tweets
Mar 6
A few thoughts on what was supposed to be a big event but ended up feeling, well, a wee bit thin.
And that’s the first thing to say.
Strikingly, this Budget was HALF as big as the Autumn Statement. Look at the difference between the scorecard totals 👇
Was it a tax-cutting Budget?
I mean… not really.
Well, OK, the net impact is taxes aren’t going up as quickly as they were 6 months ago.
But (and I think this is pretty crucial) THEY’RE STILL GOING UP. The tax burden will be higher at the end of this Parliament than before.
Here’s a good illustration of that.
The bars here show you the impact, across the economy, of the decision a few Budgets ago to freeze tax allowances. The bars are in negative territory.
People are paying more in taxes as they get dragged into higher thresholds… Image
Read 14 tweets
Feb 23
🧵Here's a thread about an obscure economic theory from a century and a half ago, which is about to become a MASSIVE deal.
⚡️It helps explains why tackling climate change is going to be v v hard. Some say impossible.
The story begins with this building👇
Yes it's the @SphereVegas.
Not just a massive entertainment venue but also the world's biggest screen. By all accounts it's an amazing spectacle both outside and in, where there's also a ginormous wraparound LED screen (also one of the biggest anywhere)
Get up close to that enormous exterior screen & it looks v different.
You see an array of little glowing pucks, each one decked with 48 light emitting diodes (LEDs). These act as the "pixels" of the image you see from miles around. These things are magic businessinsider.com/what-the-las-v…
Read 32 tweets
Feb 21
🚨How British companies are bolstering Vladimir Putin’s war machine🚨
A depressing thread.
But an important one.
With some pretty shocking charts.
Let’s begin with the “official” picture. It suggests UK trade with Russia has collapsed since Feb 2022. Down by 74%… Image
Now let's fill in the data.
Look how we're no longer exporting cars or heavy machinery to Russia. Because the govt is well aware this stuff could be repurposed into weapons. So the official line is that this is a big success story.
Looks like Russia's economy is being starved Image
But clearly the Russian economy isn't doing as badly as all that. Indeed Russia is due to grow faster than any G7 nation this year 👇
And that's just the economy. Now look at the battlefield and Russia is looking v strong. No shortage of weapons/drones etc despite sanctions
Why? Image
Read 17 tweets
Jan 20
With Tata steel having just confirmed the closure of the two blast furnaces at Port Talbot, here are a few important datapoints.
First, UK steelmaking has collapsed faster, over the past half century, than ANY other country in the world save for Venezuela.
Pretty shocking👇 Image
The Tata plan is to replace the two blast furnaces with two electric arc furnaces.
There are some strong arguments - not all of which come back to net zero.
One is that Britain produces more than enough scrap steel to satisfy its needs. At the moment this is mostly exported Image
Electric arc furnaces exist to RECYCLE steel via a massive electric current.
UK has long been an outlier in having v few of them. Look: less, proportionally, than nearly any other country in the world.
Essentially we stuck with blast furnaces far longer than most other nations... Image
Read 10 tweets

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