Are batteries becoming a problem for the world?
Recent years have seen a massive increase in the use of electric products and vehicles, in what is often seen as a positive movement towards clean energy and away from non-renewable, environmentally damaging fossil fuels. But it could be a mistake to suppose that battery power does not come with its own issues.
Thirst for lithium
Among other materials, vehicle, and computer batteries need lithium. A 2022 McKinsey report suggested that global lithium needs would increase by more than 300% from 2021 to 2030, and lithium production is expected to grow by 20% every year. Projections show that by 2030, 95% of lithium will be used for batteries.
Right now, lithium is mined in countries including Chile, Australia, Argentina, and China. But there are unmined reserves in our others of the world, such as Portugal and Brazil, that are starting to be opened up, despite environmental concerns on the local level.
Demand for lithium is increasing at an exponential rate, due in part to the booming sales of electric vehicles (EVs). Last year EVs accounted for 10% of global vehicle sales, a figure that’s expected to rise to 30% by 2030. Both the EU and California have posed a ban on the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2025.
According to ZDNet, Smartphone batteries use just a few grams of lithium, while the average EV takes up around 10kg (22lb). This year’s figure for projected lithium consumption is half a million metric tons, but this is set to rise to 3.7 million by 2035.
But as a non-renewable resource, the rapidly-rising appetite for lithium is also depleting the world’s supply at an alarming rate.
The cobalt conundrum
The next problem comes from cobalt. This is another metal used for rechargeable batteries, 57% of which is used for EVs, tablets, and smartphones, according to the Cobalt Institute.
Around 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where various controversies surround the mining industry. These include allegations of exploitation and child labor (according to a 2019 court case against US tech companies), as well as a number of health and environmental issues.
Other battery concerns
To make matters even worse for the battery industry, the increasing demand is beginning to be exploited by a new trend of counterfeit batteries. The FBI recently made a public service announcement (PSA) to bring attention to the issue.
Batteries that did not come from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and have been subject to standardized testing can also be dangerous, with the potential for overheating and even causing explosions.
The disposal of batteries is another problem, with Greenpeace predicting the world to be burdened with 12.85 million tons of non-recyclable EV lithium-ion batteries by 2030.
So it all sounds like doom and gloom for the battery industry right now. But we still have reason to believe there’s light at the end of the carbon-free tunnel.
New battery technologies
A recent article in the MIT Technology Review suggests that battery technology is progressing by the day, and solutions will be arrived at in the not-too-distant future.
One of these is the movement towards solid-state batteries, which use a solid instead of a liquid electrolyte, consisting of materials such as ceramics. This would mean safer batteries with shorter charging times, which are most likely to use lithium but potentially other materials. Quantumscape has recently started shipping solid-state batteries to automakers that include Volkswagen.
Another new development is sodium-ion batteries, which may not be an improvement in terms of performance, battery range, and charging time, but they come from a resource that’s cheaper and more widely available. CATL is a Chinese battery firm that plans to start producing sodium-ion batteries for EVs this year.
Stora Enso is a Finnish paper company that has partnered with Northolt, a Swedish company, and plans to start manufacturing batteries by 2025. The difference is that they will use lignin, a polymer they will extract from wood pulp, to create a carbon material for battery anodes.
Anodes currently use synthetic graphite, which comes from heating carbon to high temperatures, often at coal-fired power plants. In batteries, anodes are used in conjunction with charged ion particles, which come from materials such as lithium or sodium.
Lignode is the name of the wood-based carbon anode from Stora Enso, while graphene is a similar lignin-based battery from the Swedish company, Bright Day Graphene.
These batteries are made from the by-product of paper making, so they don’t call for the felling of trees, and Stora Enso claims its batteries will bring charging down to eight minutes.
The promise of battery recycling
Recycling batteries would reduce the reliance on raw materials and the challenges of disposal. Companies in Canada, China, and the US are working towards separating and purifying the lithium and nickel in EV batteries so they can be reused.
In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act of late 2022 provides substantial funding for the manufacturing of batteries and EVs, while other countries are also keen to meet their net zero goals.
As things stand, batteries seem to be the next major obstacle on the road to a greener planet, though this could be about to change. With encouraging new technological developments and government support, the world will surely be sustainably charged before long.
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