Can we guarantee, that there are enough materials to cope with the increasing need for energy storage? What if batteries would be easily recycled, or even compostable? Is it possible to produce battery raw materials under environmentally friendly and ethical conditions? What if the world could run on renewable energy? In order to make this happen, we need to put more efforts in the next generation battery research and education. And we need to do it now.
Europe has set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, and to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Finland is targeting carbon neutrality already by 2035, and being carbon negative soon after that. In order to reach these goals, we urgently need clean, safe and affordable energy storage solutions, which are based on circular economy principles: Electrification of transport is one of the main methods to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which creates an increasing demand for batteries. In addition, we need stationary energy storage solutions to enable efficient use of renewable energy, like wind and solar energy. We also use batteries every day in our portable devices. Having safe and long-lasting batteries with fast charging would definitely have a significant impact on our well-being and quality of life. In addition, we surely need more environmentally friendly or even bio-based batteries to reduce the amount of toxic electronic waste and tackle the anticipated problems with materials sufficiency.
The need for annual energy storage in year 2040 is estimated to be close to 10 000 GWh (European Patent Office, “Innovation in batteries and electricity storage, A global analysis based on patent data,” September 2020). Today, the annual level is 200 GWh. This means that we have to find ways to produce batteries at an accelerating rate. Currently, the dominating energy storage type is the Li-ion battery (LiB). LiBs have already enabled great steps towards a cleaner world, and LiB developers were rightly awarded with a Nobel Prize in chemistry in year 2019. However, Li-ion batteries as such cannot fulfil all the battery needs in the world as the amount of batteries is estimated to be 50 times higher in 20 years from now. One of the main concerns is that LiBs contain substances that are on the EU critical raw materials (CRM) list, e.g. cobalt, lithium, and natural graphite. This means that those materials are economically important and there are risks with their supply due to their limited overall availability, or production in only a few places on Earth. COVID-19 has been a good learning experience about importance of local production, and the battery value chain certainly is heavily dependent on materials coming from Asia or Africa. In addition, some of the battery materials are linked with unethical or polluting production and mining, or have problems with safety.
What solutions we have to tackle to problems and needs stated above? As the need for energy storage is urgent and increasing, we need to take action to find solutions in both short and long term. We should use materials, which are mined in a sustainable way, and at the same time minimize the use of critical raw materials. We need to design batteries, which can be recycled and have a long lifetime. In parallel, we need to develop batteries that are not using critical raw materials at all. In addition, we should develop batteries that contain more, or only, bio-based and renewable materials. And as the amount of batteries that are collected for recycling is less than 50% even in Europe, we need to design a compostable battery for disposable, low-power applications.
All these actions are needed. And all these actions are possible with novel battery chemistries. And we should not focus in novel chemistries only due to environmental reasons. This is the best option to secure economic growth and industrial production of batteries in Europe. As Asia leads the battery development of Li-ion batteries and most of the LiB patents are from Asia, Europe should focus in the next generation of batteries to ensure that we have freedom to operate and create new knowhow.
We, in Europe and in Finland, still have the possibility to take a leading position in the development of next generation batteries, and guarantee a sustainable future for us. But we need to take action now and guarantee enough funding for research and development of novel batteries.
This is the first part of our double-edged blog about sustainable future of batteries. In the next part we will dive into the practical examples of novel materials for batteries, including e.g. solid state electrolytes, sodium instead of lithium and organic or even bio-based materials – stay tuned! And do not forget to sign up for our Future of Sustainable Batteries panel discussion on December 1st!