An employee of a US battery factory (Microvast) tests lithium-ion units on the factory's final line.picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)
In a typical home or work environment there are ten batteries.
Mobile phones, watches, laptops, tablets, consoles, household appliances, tools, speakers, bicycles, scooters... All devices are based on the same technology: lithium-ion cell batteries.
However, these batteries are expensive, have limited capacity, and lose effectiveness over time.
The reasons for its scarcity are due to the fact that the reserves of its main chemical element are insufficient and half a dozen countries (China, Australia, Congo, Chile, South Africa and Indonesia) monopolize the production of this and other necessary resources, such as cobalt, vanadium, molybdenum, nickel, copper, graphite or manganese, among others.
The irruption of the electric car and the need for storage of energy generated by intermittent renewable sources aggravate the problem.
There is no material for so much battery.
A study by the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) looks at possible solutions.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the increase in consumption until 2050 will cause the demand for materials for batteries to be between 30% and 40% higher than the supply.
In this sense, the Basque research center CIC energiGUNE, a European benchmark in batteries, warns: "It is necessary to make joint and rapid decisions."
The European Parliament prohibits selling combustion cars in 2035
Zero emission policies are added to regular home and work use.
In this sense, in seven years there will be 50 million electric vehicles in Europe and, by 2050, almost all of the 270 million units that will make up the EU vehicle fleet should be electric.
Electric mobility is the main driver of battery demand, but not the only one.
“Currently, electromobility leads the demand for the battery market, but to avoid tensions in the industry, the demand for the stationary one should not be underestimated [which will allow the storage of electricity from intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, or complement the capacity of existing batteries]”, warns Johan Söderbom, head of intelligent networks (
) and Innoenergy storage at the recent BatSum23 meeting.
EU forecasts are that vehicles will require 1.5 terawatt-hours (one and a half billion watts) in two decades and stationary batteries between 80 and 160 gigawatt-hours.
Söderbom's warning is corroborated by the JRC, which advises: "Prices for stationary systems are much higher per kilowatt-hour of stored energy than for electric vehicle batteries due to the additional costs of system elements."
The solution, according to the European research center, is to invest in the development and production of batteries such as lithium-ferrophosphate (LFP), sodium (Na-ion) or reduction-oxidation reaction flow (redox-RFB). ) without vanadium.
These developments seek to reduce the dependence on critical raw materials from current systems, since more than 80% of the world's lithium comes from Chile, Australia and China, while more than 60% of the cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But they are not the only lines.
"We have to make batteries smarter and for that we have to improve very specific aspects, such as cell sensors or the ability to self-repair," explains Robert Dominko, a researcher at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and member of the directive of the European initiative Battery 2030+.
Two operators, in a lithium mine in Atacama (Chile) last August. John Moore (Getty Images)
The Joint Research Center report points out that lithium-ion based technologies will still maintain their hegemony in the market in the coming years and points out the following developments, with their advantages and disadvantages, as well as alternatives.
It is a cheaper, more durable, safer technology and does not contain cobalt and nickel, which are expensive materials.
It is gaining ground in mobile and stationary applications and will increase in importance in the future, although its energy density (ratio of storage capacity to the volume it occupies) is lower compared to nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) combinations. and nickel, cobalt, and aluminum (NCA).
Its great disadvantage is its low value in the recycling chain and the limited manufacturing capacities in the EU.
Nickel, manganese and cobalt (NMC).
It is an expensive battery that has been modified so that the last element is not so relevant.
Its main advantage is its high value for recycling, but it is also little present in the European production chain.
Variants with less cobalt and more nickel are widely used in the automotive industry.
Nickel, cobalt and aluminum
This development, widely used by Tesla, competes with previous technologies in EV applications, but results in shorter life than NMC and less thermal stability.
European production is very limited, almost zero, despite its high value for recycling.
Lithium and Titanium (LTO).
Its components make it expensive and have low energy density, but they last longer, are safe, have a high capacity for fast charging, and are effective in high temperature conditions or for tasks that require a long time without recharging.
Europe does produce them.
For Johan Söderbom, one of the keys to doing without lithium is the "promising development of ion-sodium technology".
According to the JRC, this is cheaper and safer and does not require critical raw materials.
However, they have lower performance than conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Sodium and sulfur correct these limitations by having greater energy density, power, useful life and storage capacity, which is where much research is being focused.
Most of the redox flow batteries (reduction-oxidation reaction) are based on vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid, which is corrosive and toxic.
“Vanadium has many strengths: it is cheap and stable.
But if you have a leak from one of these batteries, that's not pretty.
Tanks must be designed to be extremely durable”, explains Eduardo Sánchez, a researcher at CIC energiGUNE to the European scientific magazine
The main components of this technology are two liquids, one positively charged and one negatively charged, which are pumped, when the battery is in use, into a chamber where they are separated by a permeable membrane and exchange electrons to create a current.
Current research is aimed at finding chemical combinations with cheap, safe and non-critical materials, such as saline solutions in water that store carbon-based ions, which could be a solution for seasonal energy storage.
Traditional lithium-ion batteries have three key components: two solid electrodes (anode and cathode) and one liquid (electrolyte).
When the battery is in use, electrons flow from the anode to the cathode to power any device.
Positive lithium ions diffuse through the electrolyte, attracted by the negative charge on the cathode.
When the battery is charging, the process is reversed.
The European ASTRABAT project aims to replace this liquid electrolyte with a solid one (such as a ceramic material) or a gel to gain energy density, safety and agility in manufacturing.
However, Sophie Mailley, coordinator of this project in France, believes that "innovation is still needed in this field."
“Lithium-based solid-state batteries already exist, but they use a gel as the electrolyte and only work well at temperatures around 60°C, which means they aren't suitable for many applications,” she explains.
being investigated are lithium-ion batteries with anodes rich in silicon (Mercedes-Benz will incorporate this material from 2025), lithium-metal (Volkswagen is committed to this technology by 2025), lithium-sulfur or lithium-air, which uses lithium oxidation at the anode and oxygen reduction at the cathode to induce current flow.
There is agreement that the best-known, cheapest and most mature batteries, those used to start combustion vehicles or as auxiliary systems "cannot maintain their position as market leaders with electric mobility on the rise", according to the JCR.
Another key to ensuring the future availability of these basic components of devices, vehicles and storage systems is recycling, which could reduce lithium, cobalt and nickel extraction by between 25% and 35% in a decade and a half. , according to a report by the Institute for a Sustainable Future at the University of Technology Sydney (Australia).
Globally, 600,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries are recycled.
This amount is expected to exceed 1.6 million metric tons by 2030.
But reprocessing these batteries and the metals they contain is difficult and expensive.
“The battery of an electric vehicle is a very complex piece of technology with many components, so a recycling facility is very complicated.
In the long run, that's going to be important, but in the short term it's got a ways to go," Michael McKibben, a geologist at the University of California, told
According to research collected by
the cost of recycled lithium from batteries is five times higher than lithium extracted from mines.
Similarly, some processes used, such as the smelting of the devices to extract the metals, consume a lot of energy, emit toxic gases and cannot recover the coveted lithium.
Researchers are studying other, more effective procedures.
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