Are Batteries The Biggest Barrier To Clean Energy?

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When ‘Fossil Fuels’ became a four letter word and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ became a household name, electricity was suddenly in vogue. Because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases or nitrogen oxide (like diesel or gasoline run motors do), electricity was lauded as the solution to clean energy. But aside from the fact that electricity is often produced by burning dirty fossil fuels, batteries (a crucial component in electric vehicles, cell phones, laptops, drones, and many other technologies that are multiplying exponentially every year) pose a major environmental hazard. When not properly recycled batteries are sent to landfills, where their casing corrodes, leaking chemicals into soil, and eventually reaching our water supply and the ocean — where they can harm various plant and animal species. Even rechargeable batteries are composed of finite natural resources (Cobalt and Lithium) that are primarily available in environments known for unethical labor practices.

These problems have not gone unnoticed. Electric vehicle manufacturers are pouring billions into battery production — and it’s still the biggest barrier to making electric cars energy efficient and green. Drones and drone delivery are also hindered by weight and battery life limitations. Because of the battery’s importance to these two massive markets, there’s high incentive for tech giants including Tesla, Uber, and Google to invest in a solution to the battery.

Over the last month, NewtonX conducted interviews with 15 senior executives from leading car manufacturers producing both electric and traditional cars, as well as senior engineers involved in battery research to discuss the future of batteries in the transport industry, and what solutions are available.

Limited Supply of Materials, Unethical Labor Practices, and Increasing Demand: Why Cobalt And Lithium Are A Major Problem

The most widely used rechargeable lithium-ion battery is primarily comprised of lithium and cobalt, explained one of the senior engineers, who has worked extensively with Tesla. These batteries are used in most smartphones, laptops, tablets, e-cigs, power tools, hybrid cars, and electric vehicles. In 2017, the global demand for lithium was 75,000 tons, and by 2020 NewtonX experts forecast that demand will double. Lithium, however, is an extremely ample mineral — despite projections that by 2030 we will need at the very least seven times the amount of Lithium currently mined, this will barely cap 1% of the earth’s available Lithium.

“The larger problem is Cobalt,” declared a former executive with Waymo. 60% of the entire world’s ore deposits are located in the Congo — where child labor is common, and ethical mining is difficult. Because of this, Tesla and Apple have both committed publicly to only using ethically sourced cobalt. But as one of our senior NewtonX industry analysts the math doesn’t add up: Tesla will require almost 8,000 tons of cobalt for 500,000 Model 3s, which is more cobalt than is currently mined in North America in an entire year. And most of that cobalt is already spoken for, used in military and industrial products. The battery industry currently uses 42% of the global cobalt production, and the other 58% is fully devoted to industrial and military needs.

This same expert projected that demand for cobalt will double by 2022. Tesla seem to corroborate this hypothesis as they proclaimed publicly that they will need “today’s entire worldwide supply of lithium-ion batteries”.

A Potential Solution That NewtonX Experts Say Could Revolutionize Clean Energy

There are two separate approaches to a battery solution:

1.Keep the Lithium-ion battery, but improve it

a) Improve battery life

b) Integrate the battery into an accessible and full-cycle recycling program

2. Create a whole new battery

Improving the Lithium-ion battery

Cobalt, unlike oil, is fully recyclable. The problem is it’s currently not being recycled: only 15% of U.S. cobalt consumption comes from recycled materials today. American Manganese Inc. developed a way to produce enough cobalt to power all of the Electric Vehicles in use today by recycling faulty batteries. Another company called Umicore has also developed Lithium-ion recycling programs. According to a NewtonX expert, Tesla uses a closed loop battery recycling program with Kinsbursky Brothers, wherein 10% of the battery pack can be reused before it’s sent to recycling, and 60% of the battery pack is fully recyclable.

Anther solution is to improve the battery so that it requires less cobalt. Tesla (the company with the strongest incentives to reduce cobalt reliance) has been using a high energy density battery that is a combination of nickel, cobalt, and aluminum, with cobalt representing .14kg/kWh less than it does in most batteries. It’s rumored that 80% of this battery is nickel. The company has set up an enormous battery factory, called Gigafactory, that is located in Nevada, and will be powered through a combination of solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources.

Throw the battery out with the bathwater

The other solution is to completely ditch the lithium-ion battery and search for a new solution. One such solution is Hydrogen based fuel cells. Because converting hydrogen cas into electricity produces only water and heat as byproducts, hydrogen fuel vehicles don’t emit tailpipe pollution when driven, explained a NewtonX engineer. Producing hydrogen does emit greenhouse gases, but the overall impact of a hydrogen based fuel cell is 30% fewer emissions than gasoline-powered vehicles. In 2016, there were only three hydrogen cars available, and in 2017 the industry collectively moved toward electric.

There are also batteries that rely on magnesium, sodium, or lithium-sulfur. China’s EV battery producer, BYD is focused on creating an affordable lithium-iron-phosphate battery that doesn’t use nickel or cobalt. Currently, these alternatives are not viable replacements, but as research continues they may very well become ones.

Electric Vehicles Are Inevitable, And the Battery Race Is On

By 2035, a third of all vehicles sold in the U.S. and Europe will be fully electric, according to the NewtonX energy panel. In fact, last summer France said it will ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. India has committed to doing the same by 2030, and Norway was even more ambitious, aiming for 2025. This commitment to electric vehicles is heartening, but before the move is fully implemented Tesla, GM, and other car manufacturers will need to invest heavily in ensuring that electric vehicles are sustainable, ethical, and above all, green.


About Author

Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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