The biggest challenge: everyone wants more battery power
To drive the world’s energy transition, we need at least a hundred times more battery capacity than we have today. However, for batteries to be part of a greener future, we need to rethink how they are sourced, manufactured and recycled. So says Y. Shirley Meng, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.
Battery technology is increasingly viewed as the key to the energy transition. As society seeks to end its dependence on fossil fuels, batteries provide the most viable alternative – for everything from decarbonizing transportation and industrial processes to providing backup and storage solutions in renewable power generation.
While battery technology has never been hotter, it’s also experiencing some considerable growing pains.
“The biggest challenges are caused by two major shortages: a lack of raw materials resulting in supply chain issues, and a shortage of talent,” says Professor Y. Shirley Meng, adding that even just a few years ago, nobody could have predicted how quickly the battery industry would grow.
“Covid has been a major wakeup call, reminding us that we need a more robust supply chain,” she continues. “Before the pandemic, we relied a lot on Asia for the supply of batteries, whereas now Western companies are scrambling to figure out where to build plants and how to secure the material supply.”
Access to renewables is key for success
However, as Meng points out, a battery is only as green as the grid that powers it.
For battery technology to be sustainable, it needs to be where the green electrons are,
"For battery technology to be sustainable, it needs to be where the green electrons are," she says. “If you charge your car in a grid that doesn’t include a lot of renewable energy, then the battery itself is not contributing to reducing the carbon footprint of the planet.”
As demand for batteries increases, Meng emphasizes the importance of building factories in the right place and expanding access to renewable power.
“Battery production needs to happen in places where electrification and renewables are readily available,” she says.
This need extends to key industrial processes like heating, which could be made significantly more efficient and sustainable through the use of electric heating solutions.
Electric heating for improved efficiency
“This is especially relevant in cathode production, where extremely high temperatures are required to heat the precursors to produce the cathode materials,” Meng explains. “Using inefficient heating methods will result in more emissions during the manufacturing process.”
Another issue is the lack of the crucial raw materials needed to make batteries, such as nickel, cobalt and copper. One solution is to look for ways to modernize and increase efficiency in the mining companies and lithium refineries, while another is to explore alternatives to lithium-ion batteries.
Next-generation battery technologies
Various alternatives for next-generation batteries are currently being studied. According to Meng, three of the most promising include lithium-metal, solid-state and sodium-ion batteries.
“Lithium-metal batteries have the potential to increase energy density and could therefore unlock applications like flying cars,” she says. “Solid-state batteries are significantly safer but also far more costly to produce. Sodium-ion battery technology is still in its infancy but could be very promising because sodium is so readily available.”
Batteries should be designed for recycling
Another way to reduce pressure on the existing supply chain is to find more efficient means of recycling lithium-ion batteries.
“At present only around 20 percent of Li-ion batteries are recycled, so we have to start thinking about how we can reuse the elements,” Meng says. “This is a product that should be designed for recycling from the outset. We need battery packs circulating on the planet forever – not being dumped into landfills.”
A hundred times more capacity
Looking to the future, Meng emphasizes the importance of developing what she calls a healthy battery industry.
“To pivot the energy transition for the world we need a couple of hundred terawatt-hours, which is at least a hundred times more capacity than we have today,” she says, adding that this capacity somehow needs to grow without depleting our natural resources or sacrificing the planet.
“We need to think about how to do the mining, where to do it, and how to do the recycling,” Meng says. “This will require planning and careful consideration of element distribution. I’d love to see new battery producers positioning themselves in places with ready access to renewable resources and looking into the potential alternatives to lithium for the future.”
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