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Progress, despair, hope - the dark past and bright future of energy storage

by
Engagement Director

You could argue that progress with batteries is good. That said, there are numerous geographic, geopolitical, and humanitarian challenges to address across the lithium-ion batteries supply chain.

Mobile phone battery life is one of the more pernicious social challenges of our generation. My last blog teed me up to talk about batteries; my aim is to show you that all hope is not lost. This blog will touch on battery challenges and hope in the future.

The move to lithium-ion batteries in the 1990s was a great improvement on lead acid batteries in terms of performance, and production increases over the last decade have led to an 85% reduction in price per mAh (price is the main item on which lead acid batteries can compete), and energy density is improving each year. So, you could argue that progress with batteries is good. That said, there are numerous geographic, geopolitical, and humanitarian challenges to address across the lithium-ion batteries supply chain.

That is to say, the raw materials that make up most commercial Li-ion batteries are problematic. In layman’s terms, one of the more common ‘cocktails’ is a lithium-based electrolyte, with a cobalt-based cathode and a graphite-based anode. One of the challenges here is the high geographical concentration of their component raw materials: for cobalt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has around half the world’s cobalt reserves and accounts for more than two-thirds of the cobalt mined each year; of the ~15m tonnes of lithium in the world, Chile has over half in its reserves.

Lithium mine in the Atacama desert.  The colour of each section varies according to its pH level.

However, geography/geology is not the only factor here – consider that Chinese companies control seven of the largest DRC cobalt mines, and Chinese refineries produce 80% of the world’s battery-ready, high-grade cobalt. The Chinese company Tianqi controls around half the world’s lithium supply. It is clear that innovative battery companies outside of China may be hard-pressed to scale if they rely solely on the lithium-cobalt mix.

Consider too the human factor. Blood diamonds are well-known about and generally frowned upon, but blood cobalt rarely makes an appearance in the news. Many, many school trips to Beamish as a child have made me think life down a coalmining pit wasn’t all that fun, but that pales in comparison to what Congolese children are put through. Amnesty International’s 2016 exposé on the human price we are currently paying for electric vehicles is a sobering read:

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/.

Fortunately, there are advancements in alternatives to Li-ion batteries which may well usher in a more sustainable battery mix to use in our electronics, so that developed countries’ decarbonisation drivers are underwritten less by grave social (and ecological) injustices at the start of the supply chain. For example, sodium-ion batteries, aluminium-air batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells are just around the corner (even if some large Li-ion battery players will refer to the latter as “fool sells”). And these developments promise a wealth of technical progress across lifetime (number of discharge cycles), safety (remember those phones that catch fire?), temperature operating range, physical size, cost per mAh, etc.

There are of course high barriers to entry for these technologies (high-capex infrastructure, raw material securing, regulations etc.) and a testing competitive landscape (suppliers, buyers, direct/indirect competitors etc.); it is a commercialisation challenge I would be keen to get my teeth into. This new generation of technologies will be the answer to the maiden’s prayer for less damaging and better performing batteries.