The future is electric
Almost 150 million electric vehicles (EVs) are set to be on the road by 2030 according to a International Energy Agency (IEA) report. The IEA highlights that global EV stock could even soar to 250 million should countries embrace stronger decarbonization policies as the world moves towards net-zero goals. However, while we often hear about the need for more EVs the energy storage systems that are critical to their deployment are not mentioned – but have you ever wondered where electric car batteries come from?
About Lithium-Ion Batteries
Electric cars use lithium-ion batteries as they are high-capacity and can recharge fully with minimal energy loss. The main components of these rechargeable batteries which are carbon, a metal oxide, and lithium. Within these batteries are five key technical elements, the anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and lithium ions. A typical EV battery (NMC532) contains roughly 8 kilos (17 lbs) of lithium carbonate, 35 kilos (77 lbs) of nickel, 20 kilos (44 lbs) of manganese and 14 kilos (30 lbs) of cobalt. There are a wide range of lithium batteries on the market that combine different metals and lithium, such as manganese or iron, but at their core, these are all lithium batteries.
As the key component of EV batteries, lithium demand has skyrocketed, while the market for lithium-ion battery packs and its components has grown considerably. EV batteries have entered into production relatively recently and the infrastructure needed to meet current demand is being built rapidly as countries seek to secure their own supply chains. In certain cases, EV batteries and their components have become core policy issues, exemplified by the U.S. Geological Survey’s designation of lithium as a critical material, and the Department of Energy’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries. This has made lithium and other battery minerals a commodity with national security implications.
One of the core issues concerning the materials of EV batteries is sustainability. Cobalt, nickel and lithium are all extracted using environmentally-damaging methods. In addition to this, they have all been linked in one way or another to other socio-economic issues. As a result of this, considerable investments have been made to find opportunities to either improve the environmental impact of mining these metals, or creating new extraction methods capable of disrupting the industry.
Researchers are successfully finding ways of removing nickel and cobalt from battery compositions, with some believing the “cobalt problem is essentially solved,” as Davide Castelvecchi explains in Nature. As far as lithium is concerned, the technology sector has found new ways of extracting lithium in a more sustainable manner – like EnergyX’s LiTAS™ system, which uses Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) to collect larger lithium yield at a faster rate without using as much water or chemicals, and at a fraction of the cost. EnergyX’s technology was tested by a third-party in live extraction conditions in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni in 2022, and achieved some of the best in-class results in terms of sustainability and efficiency.
From this perspective, there are some solutions readily available within the battery industry. Mining Technology’s Zachary Skidmore highlights the benefits of innovations like those pioneered by EnergyX, “It is expected that reserves from new extraction methods will be central to making up the shortfall of lithium needed to facilitate the increased demand. Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is expected to boost existing capacities via increased recoveries and lower operating costs, while also improving the sustainability aspects.” With new technologies set to deliver
Source of EV Batteries
China currently dominates the global EV and EV supply-chain market, but global governments are vying to secure their own supply chains. When it comes to the components that make up these batteries, they can be traced back to several specific countries. Half of the world’s cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Indonesia, Australia, and Brazil make up the lion’s share of global nickel reserves, and South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle’ consisting of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina hold 75% of the world’s lithium. Rising demand for lithium has also led to further explorations – this has uncovered new deposits in Mexico, Iran, Afghanistan and India, but the infrastructure to mine and process the metal is nonexistent.
A 2023 report by Bloomberg highlighted that through its long-term investing in established battery markets and influence in emerging markets in South America and Africa, China could control a third of the world’s lithium by 2025. Beijing’s shadow has loomed ominously over major economies shifting to battery-heavy technology, and its dominance on markets is leading countries like France to create fully-integrated supply chains from mine to battery that could curb reliance on China’s services. EnergyX has actively sought to implement a similar integrated supply chain in the United States, where lithium production is still too low to meet domestic demands, and Washington has provided little indication of where it intends to secure its supply.
While sourcing lithium for batteries is a primary issue, solutions for their end of life are actively being developed. At the moment, recycling makes up a negligible portion of EV batteries, but the industry is confident that once the market matures, recycled materials will have an important impact on the manufacturing process. Castelvecchi continues, “Battery and carmakers are already spending billions of dollars on reducing the costs of manufacturing and recycling electric-vehicle (EV) batteries. National research funders have also founded centres to study better ways to make and recycle batteries, […] a key goal is to develop processes to recover valuable metals cheaply enough to compete with freshly mined ones.
EV Batteries Are a Global Product
The future is electric, and global governments are working towards decarbonizing at very fast rates by reducing the emissions created by the transport and energy sectors. The rising popularity of electric cars has highlighted the importance of cooperation across governments and industries, as well as the need to ensure that sustainable development is taken into account at every step in the supply chain. As it currently stands, the lithium sector as well as the market for electric vehicles is controlled by China as it continues to enforce new low-carbon policies domestically and invests heavily in sourcing raw materials overseas. If other countries are serious about funding a green transition and its associated infrastructure, policies and investments must follow.