Electric batteries – Is lithium-ion the answer?
Electric vehicles are here to stay. Major carmakers have had to start taking electrification seriously. The industry is set to see a huge shift from a “fuel-intensive system to a material-intensive energy system”. In the coming years, hundreds of millions of electric vehicles will hit the roads around the world and each of them will carry massive electric batteries. Each of those electric batteries will contain tens of kilos of materials that have yet to be mined!
Challenges for a world with electric vehicles
There are two challenges that currently dominate the thoughts of material scientists as they look to the future.
- One challenge is how to reduce the use of metals that are scarce, expensive, or problematic to mine – due to environmental and social costs.
- The second challenge is the recycling of batteries used in electric vehicles. Ideally, the valuable metals used in these batteries should be reused. Recycling is a key component in the future of electric batteries.
It is less expensive to mine metals in most instances than to recycle them at the moment and it must be a priority for the global carmakers to develop processes to recover metals in a way that competes with mining.
The growth of lithium
Reducing the amount of metals that are used in EV batteries is a challenge for researchers. It varies, but a single car lithium-ion battery pack could contain eight kilos of lithium, 35 kilos of nickel, 20 kilos of manganese, and 14 kilos of cobalt. Lithium batteries will become the dominant technology in the near future as the cost of these batteries has dropped dramatically. It is now said that lithium-ion batteries are now 30 times cheaper than in the early 1990s when they were introduced as small portable batteries – even though they are now larger and have increased performance. As a result, it is expected that electric cars should reach price parity by the mid-2020s. Especially as some estimates actually put electric vehicles as cheaper than petrol when you look over the lifetime of the car. This is because they seem to be less expensive to power and maintain.
Lithium is not scarce. It’s estimated that 21 million tonnes are in the current global reserves according to the US Geological Survey. This is enough to take EVs to the mid-century. The challenge lies in scaling up the production to meet the demand and also in the environmental concerns that run alongside this move away from petrol and diesel. Extraction of lithium from rock or water requires lots of energy and it will be modern techniques that extract lithium that will succeed, such as taking it from geothermal water using geothermal energy.
The real worry is cobalt
Cobalt is the most valuable component of the current electric vehicle battery. The largest global supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where two-thirds of the world’s total resource is located. There are concerns over conditions in these mines, as well as child labour worries and the danger of toxic exposure for workers if not handled correctly. Other supplies such as those found on the seafloor may be exploited but present other environmental hazards. The other ingredient in EV batteries, nickel, could also face shortages.
Experiments are being undertaken with low-cobalt or cobalt-free cathodes and the challenge is to use cobalt-free material to mimic the same crystal structure as lithium cobalt oxide with the same energy density. There are many laboratories around the world that are working on cobalt-free options including Tesla who say they plan to eliminate cobalt from batteries altogether in the next few years!
Here’s a Tesla we recently repaired at the workshop in Chesham. This 2019 Tesla needed repairs to both the offside door and rear bumper. We painted these and blended them with the offside quarter with excellent results. Read more about our other recent repairs on the blog.
Recycling electric batteries
If batteries for electric vehicles are made without cobalt, the unintended consequence is that recycling becomes less economical. That is because other materials (especially lithium) are cheaper to mine than to recycle. Batteries are shredded into a powdered mixture which is broken down into elements – by liquifying in a smelter or dissolving in acid. The metals are then processed using precipitation to become salts.
The vast majority of lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, Japan, and South Korea. The recycling methods are growing faster in line with the demand. One maker of lithium-ion cells in China can recycle 120,000 tonnes of batteries a year! They are also able to recover most of the lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Strict battery-recycling requirements have been proposed by the European Commissions from 2023 although prospects for a domestic recycling industry are uncertain. The US President wants to spend billions of dollars on an electric battery manufacturing industry and support recycling but regulations are still on the way.
The cathodes that carmakers are using now could well be very different to those which will be used in 10-15 years. This is when the life cycle of present-day cars will come to an end. The most efficient method for retrieving the materials may be for the manufacturer to collect its own batteries at the end of the life cycle. It’s impossible to predict the chemistry of the cathodes which is constantly evolving.
The foreseeable deluge of spent batteries from electric vehicles is reported in the media as a looming crisis. It is also a big opportunity. Analysts predict that once millions of large batteries begin to reach the end of their lives, recycling will be made more efficient. Simply by the economies of scale. The business case of recycling will therefore be more attractive.
We can learn from the lead-acid batteries that start our petrol-powered cars. Lead, of course, is toxic, batteries are hazardous and must be disposed of safely. An efficient industry developed to recycle them and nowadays over 98% of lead-acid batteries are recycled. Even though lead is cheap.
Conversion to electric is a key part of global net-zero
Current electric-car batteries may last up to 20 years, probably outliving the vehicle it was made for. The market for lithium-ion batteries will take a while to reach a good size because they are very durable. This means that when old EVs are scrapped the batteries are taken out and reused. Usually for stationary energy storage or for powering boats. The batteries are not recycled or thrown away until much later.
A report from the IEA includes a road map for achieving global net-zero emissions by mid-century. This holds conversion to electric transport as a key part of that achievement. The confidence that challenges are solvable is a growing consensus among policymakers, researchers, and manufacturers. It’s clear that there is no time to lose when it comes to keeping climate change to a manageable level.
At Car Magic and Non-Fault Car Accident Repair, we carry out repairs on all makes and models of cars and most vans from our workshop in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. We have over 20 years experience and work on electric, petrol and diesel cars, vans and taxis. Our team can deal with bumps, scrapes, and dents. We also regularly work on resprays, renovations, and restoration of even the most classic of vehicles. Read more about our work on our blog.
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This article is an edited extract from Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce enough?, published by nature.com on 17 August. Read in full here.