From mining-extraction fluids to heat-resistant components, the chemical industry is gearing up for an increase in demand related to the growing electric vehicle (EV) market. In the past year, the sector has closed several deals to capitalize on opportunities in the EV supply chain.
This includes Celanese Corp.’s $11 billion purchase of DuPont de Numours Inc.’s mobility and materials business, a move that the company referred to as an “attractive automotive opportunity” in an investor presentation. The company highlighted the deal’s market potential for EV battery applications, including thermal management, power electronics, infrastructure, and vehicle weight reduction. A year earlier, Celanese acquired Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Santoprene business for $1.15 billion. Santoprene produces thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPV), a sealing or gasket material that resembles rubber and has weight-reduction properties.
Celanese expects EVs and hybrids to require up to twice as much Santoprene content versus internal combustion engines. Shortly after announcing the deal in 2021, Brandon Ayache, Celanese’s senior director of investor relations said Santoprene’s added content in EVs “is due to increased electrical infrastructure, greater noise isolation requirements and expanded under-the-hood applications.”
In the U.S., the chemical industry will play a key role in President Biden’s efforts to secure a domestic EV supply chain through his American Battery Materials Initiative. On Jan. 13, The U.S. Energy Department offered a conditional $700 million loan to Ioneer, a lithium and boron producer based in Sydney, Australia, to develop a domestic supply of lithium carbonate for EV batteries from its Rhyolite Ridge project in Esmeralda County, Nevada. The project could potentially support production of lithium for about 370,000 EVs a year, according to the Energy Department.
As Chemical Processing columnist Barry Perlmutter noted, it’s expected that lithium demand will rise from approximately 500,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) in 2021 to 3 million to 4 million metric tons by 2030.
To gain a better understanding of the EV market potential for the chemical industry, CP spoke with Al Greenwood, deputy news editor for ICIS, a global commodity market intelligence service.
EVs can weigh hundreds of pounds more than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. Also, as the Associated Press reported, heavier vehicles could pose safety risks, warned Jennifer Homendy, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. The chemical industry supplies resins that EV manufacturers can use to replace heavier metal parts, Greenwood says.
“Batteries are the single-most expensive component for an electric vehicle,” he says. “Companies want to lighten the weight of the vehicles, so they can use smaller batteries and cut down the production costs.”
Polyurethane, nylon, polypropylene compounds, polycarbonate and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene are some of the materials that OEMs are looking to for EV weight reduction, according to Greenwood.
Another possibility is the use of adhesives as a light-weight alternative to bolted parts. Greenwood notes that Dow has a line of adhesives that can replace metal bolts and welds in vehicles.
EVs generate heat from the additional wiring that they require. They also spin at speeds as high as 20,000 RPMs, which also generates heat. That means automakers will need resins to withstand high temperatures, Greenwood says. They will also need lubricants that can tolerate hotter temperatures and, in some cases, manage heat.
EVs have many more electrical components than internal combustion engines, so OEMs need to think about protecting those parts. This means they will need sealants and coatings to shield their electronical systems from moisture — in some cases this might include specialized types of nylon. Also, wiring and cables will require insulation to protect against arcing, Greenwood says.
Chemicals in Extraction
The chemical sector can expect to see increasing demand for sulfuric acid used in lithium ore mining to leach out the minerals, Greenwood says. He points to Ecovyst as a player in the sulfuric acid market. In a Sept. 23 company update, Ecovyst CEO Kurt Bitting noted that the company’s challenge with lithium mining is keeping up with the fast pace of demand.
The Road Ahead
In the near future, chemical companies will likely introduce new EV-specific products, Greenwood says. For example, many of the early-model EV transmissions used the same lubricant mix as an internal combustion engine vehicle. Chemical companies are developing lubricants that are only for EV. Expect that trend to continue in the near term, Greenwood says. Also, existing chemical products, such as ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, may be repurposed for the EV industry.
“We see companies increase capacity for that material, specifically to address electric vehicles,” he says.