Batteries- here we go!
Batteries are increasingly being installed in cars, as well as being used in the energy grid infrastructure, making them an essential pillar for achieving the targeted climate neutrality. At the same time, critical voices have become louder: voices that point to the social and environmental impacts along the supply chain: Dam breaches at bauxite mines, difficult-to-control conflict minerals such as cobalt, and water-intensive raw material extraction for copper and nickel. These impacts are accompanied by increasing protests pointing to local communities who are loosing their livelihoods due to mining operations.
Thus, the European Commission is taking the famous “first steps in a right direction” and has adopted a European Battery Regulation in 2020, which was supposed to have come into force in January 2022, but is now expected to wait until mid-2023.
The exciting thing about the regulation is that it brings the battery into play as the first holistic product with human rights and environmental due diligence requirements. This involves mining of raw materials, C02 footprints, longevity, as well as issues of repairability, collection targets, and recycling standards including the use of recyclates.
Not much headwind is heard from the industry in the debate. They are probably looking at the sleepy entry into e-mobility and want to regain competitiveness with the higher standards.
Unfortunately, gaps are already opening up: The due diligence requirements should probably only apply to mobility batteries in e-cars above a certain size. Yet people and nature at the mines don’t care whether the raw materials go into the e-bike, the remote control or the e-car. Moreover, only some raw materials used in batteries are affected, excluded are e.g. copper and bauxite.
So, the bottom line is that the regulation will remain a progressive “step in a right direction” from a conservative point of view, and will hopefully come into force soon and more sharply than blurred.
In addition to the legal bedding of social and environmental issues, research continues to advance: the energy density of lithium cells has greatly increased in recent years. In Korea, researchers* are successfully working on a technique called “spin coating,” which coats the anode surface and increases the life of the cells.
There are research contributions on batteries made from commonly available raw materials: Aluminum, sulfur and salt. They are safe (non-flammable), inexpensive and fast, which makes them good for use in electric vehicle charging stations.
The electric scooters of the Chinese manufacturer Niu, which relies on sodium-ion batteries, can refuel there. The batteries are almost twice as big, but they seem to win out in the end in the trade-offs of cost, weight storage capacity and availability of raw materials.
The development teams of a Scandinavian joint venture of battery manufacturers are replacing fossil graphite anodes with lignin, a substance that makes up 20-30% of trees and is a waste product of paper production. The batteries will be larger, but have faster charging times and possibly higher capacity.
In parallel, Swiss researchers are working on a biodegradable, paper-based rechargeable battery that can be activated with a few drops of water. It could power sensors, for example.
Batteries remain a cornerstone of our electrical future. The first steps toward fairness and sustainability have been taken, and it is imperative that they are tightened up further in the coming years.