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Sustainability-in-Tech : Friendlier Alternatives To Lithium-Ion Batteries

In this article, we look at what the issues around lithium-ion batteries are, why we need more sustainable alternatives, then we’ll look at some examples of the latest, environmentally-friendly alternatives.

What Are Lithium-Ion Batteries? 

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are a type of rechargeable battery which function by moving lithium ions between the battery’s positive and negative electrodes during charging and discharging. This movement of ions allows the battery to store and release energy.

These batteries are commonly used in a wide array of electronic devices including smartphones, laptops, tablets, power tools, portable speakers, drones, smartwatches, and backup power supplies. However, one particularly important (and growing) use for them is within electronic vehicles.

What’s So Good About Them? 

Some of the main advantages of lithium-ion batteries are:

– High energy density, meaning they can store a large amount of energy in a relatively small and lightweight package.

– Longer lifespan compared to many other types of rechargeable batteries.

– The fact that they don’t suffer significantly from the memory effect, which is where batteries lose their maximum energy capacity if they are repeatedly recharged after being only partially discharged.

Why Do We Need So Many Lithium-Ion Batteries? 

LIBs are integral to modern technology and the global shift towards renewable energy and electrification. Their widespread use in consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and energy storage systems, combined with their high energy density and efficiency, plus their wide range of applications and pivotal role in clean energy transition are reasons why we now seem to be so reliant on them. Other reasons why LIBs are so essential in today’s world include:

– Their versatility. Originally commercialised in the 1990s, their versatility means they have been adopted to become integral to so many consumer electronics. This versatility has also led them to become increasingly central to electric vehicles (EVs), also thanks to their high energy density and lightweight design.

– Their importance for the clean energy transition, such as decarbonising the transportation and electricity sectors. For example, they enable high-performance EVs and are critical for energy storage, supporting the grid’s shift towards renewable sources like solar and wind.

Why The Need For Alternatives To Lithium-Ion Batteries? 

The escalating demand for batteries (primarily driven by the global push towards electrification and renewable energy) has highlighted the critical need for more sustainable battery technologies. As the world gradually moves away from fossil fuels, the role of batteries becomes increasingly vital, especially for storing energy from intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind.

Environmental, Ethical And Other Concerns 

Although LIBs are currently the backbone of energy storage and electric vehicles, producing them is not without its problems. For example:

– Environmental and geopolitical concerns. The production of these batteries involves mining to extract lithium and cobalt, often in environmentally sensitive or politically unstable regions. About 60 per cent of today’s lithium (expected to rise to 95 per cent by 2030) is used for batteries. The extraction, mainly in Argentina, Australia, Chile, and China, is water-intensive and energy-consuming, posing environmental concerns. Also, Lithium batteries contain a variety of chemicals, compounds, and toxic and harmful substances such as mercury, cadmium, lead and of course lithium itself.

– High production costs. These batteries are expensive to produce due to the high costs of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. These materials are in limited supply and high demand, making mining operations costly. This is why transitioning to non-cobalt batteries could reduce electric car costs significantly. For example, it’s estimated that non-cobalt batteries could enable electric car manufacturers to reduce the cost of their cars by 30 per cent (Berkeley Law Centre for Law, Energy, and Environment).

– Surging global demand. The demand for LIBs is projected to grow to 4.7 TWh by 2030 (it was 2.6 TWh in 2019), increasing the market value to over $400 billion. This growth highlights the need for more sustainable and ethically sourced materials.

– Supply chain and R&D expenses: Supply chain constraints, especially China’s dominance in the lithium and graphite market, impact prices. Additionally, ongoing research and development efforts to enhance battery performance and safety contribute to the high overall costs.

– Their significant weight (in EVs). LIB packs in electric cars can weigh several hundred kilograms, constituting a substantial part of the vehicle’s total weight. This weight impacts vehicle design, including aspects like structure, handling and efficiency. This has recently flagged other concerns, e.g. The Institution of Structural Engineers calling for car park designs to evolve to cope with bigger, heavier electric cars (fuelling fears that car parks could collapse if we all switch to electric cars).

The Alternatives 

The environmental and ethical concerns around LIBs have led to the search for more sustainable alternatives. Examples of the alternatives being explored so far include:

– Sodium-ion Batteries. Sodium has properties like lithium and although sodium-ion batteries are larger than their lithium counterparts, they are easier to source (e.g. from seawater) and are more sustainable. This makes them a viable option for non-portable applications such as storing electricity from solar panels.

– Calcium-ion Batteries. Research at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has proposed calcium ions as an alternative to lithium in batteries. Calcium is abundant and inexpensive, making it a promising candidate for sustainable energy storage. Despite challenges like the larger size and higher charge density of calcium ions (which affect diffusion kinetics and cyclic stability), researchers have developed special materials to accommodate calcium ions effectively.

– Organic rechargeable batteries. These batteries are transition-metal-free, eco-friendly, and cost-effective. They represent a significant shift from current lithium-ion technologies and could potentially address the environmental and economic concerns associated with the widespread use of transition metals in batteries.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?

As the search for sustainable alternatives to lithium-ion batteries gains momentum, its implications for organisations, especially in the electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing sector, may be profound. Transitioning to alternative battery technologies (e.g. non-cobalt, sodium-ion, calcium-ion, or organic rechargeable batteries) could significantly reduce production costs and address many of the environmental and ethical concerns at the same time.  This would align with the rising environmental consciousness and presents an opportunity for EV manufacturers to decrease vehicle prices, potentially widening their market reach and consumer base.

Embracing alternatives would also show a commitment to sustainability, thereby enhancing an organisation’s environmental credentials, and could position companies at the forefront of innovation, offering a competitive edge in an industry increasingly geared towards eco-friendly solutions. Additionally, diversifying battery technology addresses vulnerabilities in the lithium and cobalt supply chain, mitigating risks associated with supply disruptions and price volatility.

Also, the move towards more sustainable batteries aligns with regulatory demands and consumer expectations for environmentally responsible practices and while alternatives to LIBs might introduce new design and efficiency challenges, they may also provide opportunities for innovative vehicle designs and improved performance.

That said, however, we’re still some way off from finding a viable single alternative and it will take something very special to cause a shift away from the economy that’s grown up around lithium and the commitment of countries and industries to it so long as cheap, abundant supply is around. Even at this stage in a climate emergency, economic and political (rather than environmental) aspects appear to have more sway over decisions, e.g. the US Biden administration’s support for a huge lithium mine, now under construction in northern Nevada. Also, it’s worth remembering that building EV’s, never mind the batteries, is a major source of carbon production in itself. For example, to make an EV produces an average of eight tons of CO2, plus two additional tons of CO2 per year to run it (from the energy used to produce the electricity).

In essence, therefore, a real shift in battery technology won’t just be about environmental goals but will also be about addressing economic and political factors and finding ways to drive forward-thinking business strategies in the evolving landscape of EV manufacturing.