On a bookshelf in his home near Montreal, Denis Geoffroy keeps a small vial of lithium iron phosphate, a slate gray powder known as LFP. He made the material nearly 20 years ago while helping the Canadian firm Phostech Lithium scale up production for use in cathodes, which is the positive end of a battery and represents the bulk of its cost.
At the time, Phostech was making only about 1 metric ton (t) of LFP per year. Geoffroy mixed the precursors at a facility in Quebec and cooked the mixture in a kiln in Ontario, more than 700 km away. “Then I would put it in my car and drive home,” he says. “I would go to FedEx to ship it to customers.”
Eventually, Phostech graduated to bigger LFP factories, culminating in a 2,400 t per year plant near Montreal in 2012. Despite the progress, LFP never caught on as a chemistry for electric vehicle batteries in North America. Carmakers in the region opted instead for cathodes made with nickel and cobalt, which offer higher energy density and more range. In 2021, Johnson Matthey, which acquired the Montreal facility in 2015, put the plant up for sale.
Nickel and cobalt prices have increased substantially in the past few years, however, and nonprofit watchdogs say mining for the metals is connected to environmental problems and child labor. Nickel-based batteries are also more likely to catch fire and can’t be recharged as many times as LFP batteries.
After initially snubbing the chemistry, several big carmakers are now turning to LFP as a way to cut lithium-ion battery costs.