Time to lead in battery development

By Sara Mustafa

Ahead of this year’s COP26 conference, the UK aspires to lead the climate change crusade as enshrined by the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, an announced end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, or the setting of highly ambitious Net Zero targets in law. This ambitious goal has put the UK on the path to becoming the fastest G7 country to decarbonise vehicles, while also promoting and supporting a boost in electric car manufacturing. This has unleashed a mining boom for raw materials for car battery manufacture. The industry is forecast to rise from $7 billion in 2020 to $58 billion by 2024 - but it’s not all good news.

While the world scrambles to reduce emissions and replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the implications of mining required to supplement the transformation have become a serious issue in its own right. Mining and refinement of raw materials contribute to 30% of battery development greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has raised concerns over the mining of raw materials due to environmental impact, the devastation to livelihoods and its link to human rights violations. Not only has it created concern from an ethical standpoint, but also in terms of density the cost of electric cars is growing substantially due to limited resources. For a world that is moving towards clean energy through electric mobility, there is currently a lot standing in its path.

One of the biggest contributing problems is that the minerals, such as cobalt and graphite, used in lithium-ion batteries are concentrated in just a few countries. Two-thirds of cobalt production derives from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), of which 20% comes from artisanal mines where up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions and for marginal income. Environmental risks come as the mines can generate sulphuric acid when exposed to air and water, further devasting rivers and aquatic life. Similarly, graphite’s form of extraction is highly invasive, leaking dust and fine particles into the atmosphere, causing health problems in the region and the contamination of soil. Furthermore, lithium, another major mineral, is estimated to use almost 2 million litres of water to produce just one ton of lithium. Found in only a handful of countries, it uses up to 65% of the water in the Salar de Atamaca region in Chile, one of the driest desert’s areas in the world. Such extraction causes groundwater depletion, soil contamination and other forms of environmental degradation. The environmental and human rights concerns are not only intensified due to their geographical density but on top of that, they are mostly located in developing countries. As it stands, poor countries are unwilling or unable to afford research on sustainable mining techniques, especially since the minerals count for only a small part of the battery.

However, there are solutions. UNCTAD has found that adverse environmental impacts can be mitigated by investing in sustainable mining techniques and technologies that can recycle the minerals found in used lithium-ion batteries. Recycling will prevent the raw materials from going to landfills; it will use less energy to make primary raw materials which reduce emissions, thereby conserving resources and the environment. Scientists are also researching the possibility of using silicon instead of graphite and using sodium instead of lithium. These developments could be a game-changer, removing the need for extensive mining, and reduce the world's dependence on vital raw materials like graphite where 80% of reserves are only found in China, Turkey, and Brazil. Advancements in this sector will help deal with the expected increase in demand. These developments could also lead to lower prices and thereby encourage greater and faster uptake of electric vehicles.

Nonetheless, concerns persist as to whether techniques and technologies will be introduced in time to tackle the growing mineral crisis, considering the UK’s looming 2030 target. Further problems also exist. A 2019 study at the University of Birmingham stated the UK has to act now to prevent electric batteries from generating a ‘mountain of waste’. Currently, the challenge that comes with recycling is that no technology exists which can separate the raw materials from the battery, like graphite and lithium, without contamination. Compounding the issue, lithium cathodes degrade over time, meaning they cannot be reused. Efforts are already underway to solve this. The Birmingham Energy Institute is developing technology to safely remove Lithium-ion cells from batteries and prevent degradation. Meanwhile, Northvolt, founded by two Tesla Executives in 2016, is also trying to prove that car batteries can be recycled on a larger scale.

With the forecasted end of the sale of new petrol and diesel-fuelled cars less than a decade away, it is a prime moment for the UK government to step up and demonstrate its leadership in the clean energy era. To do that, it needs to overcome a lack of funding in research and development. As the Science and Technology Select Committee recently heard, the UK lagged behind in overall funding into research against competitors like the US who had started research in the early 1990s. For the UK to realise the Government’s ambition of becoming a “science superpower”, there needs to be an increase in investment into battery research and development. The lack of maturity the UK has in the battery development sector compared to its competitors makes stepping up as a leader in sustainable technologies a challenge. However, as one witness told the Committee, “it is not too late to ramp up your research dollars so that five to 10 years from now those research projects are turning into companies.” With so much at stake and the rewards so great, it is another opportunity for the UK to cement its sustainability leadership credentials.

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