4 reasons why we need alternatives to lithium-ion batteries

By BEN COOK

  • Lithium not currently mined on the scale we will need in the future
  • Insufficient global mineral reserves to meet projected demand
  • Fears that breakdowns in global free trade could jeopardise supplies

We urgently need to find ways to make viable batteries using raw materials other than lithium, cobalt and nickel.

That was one of the conclusions of a report published last year by the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK), which is recognised as one of the leading European centres for the assessment and evaluation of sustainable economic resources.

The need for alternative types of battery is growing because the storage sector faces a number of major challenges, according to the report, entitled ‘Restructuring the Circular Economy into the Resource Balanced Economy. The challenges include:

  1. The global energy transition from fossil fuels to non-fossil fuels is a much larger task than we think

Achieving the energy transition is going to lead to an unprecedented demand for minerals. Most minerals required for the transition have not been mined in bulk quantities before. In addition, many of the metals used in the technology we hope will drive and accelerate the transition face mining supply risks. 

Cast your eye over a periodic table and you’ll see references to the key ingredients of rechargeable batteries, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, tin, tantalum, magnesium and vanadium. The problem is that many of these minerals have limited availability and consequently there is a risk to future supply. Indeed, if we take the example of zinc, the GTK report highlighted that there is expected to be a “serious threat” to the supply of zinc within the next 100 years.

  1. Current mineral production is not high enough to meet projected demand, plus current global reserves are not large enough to meet consumption targets

We cannot rely on long-term supplies of lithium, cobalt and nickel, which form the basis of the vast majority of batteries used for energy storage purposes. Now is the time to start exploring the use of alternative battery technologies. But what would these other types of technology look like? There is a wide range of different types of storage currently in use or development – include compressed-air storage, for example, and even storage technologies that make use of hemp and seawater.

  1. Mining activity will have to increase substantially in order to source the elements needed for the types of batteries that are currently most widely used

The source of the unprecedented quantity of metals that we will need to support the energy transition will have to be mining. The GTK report said that “very preliminary calculations” show that current production rates of metals like lithium, nickel and cobalt are much lower than the level that will soon be required. “It is equally apparent that current global reserves are also not enough,” the report said. This will require a sharp increase in the number of mines in operation in a short period of just a few years. However, there is certain to be considerable opposition to any increases in mining activity due to environmental concerns. Lithium mining, for example, can cause air contamination and soil degradation. The large amount of water used in lithium extraction has also led to water-related conflicts involving communities in Chile, for example.

  1. China’s control of the raw materials value chain means Europe is likely to lose market share

In 2019, China directly controlled approximately 80 per cent of the raw materials value chain (specifically mining, refining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling). It should also be noted that this does not account for Chinese-held corporate foreign investment in industrial assets around the world. The ‘Made in China 2025’ plan is “designed to secure the remaining 20 per cent for Chinese interests in the name of long-term security”, the GTK report said. It added that, if this plan is even partially successful, then Europe will struggle to maintain market share in industrial sectors and will lose market leader status in some cases. The report added: “One of the implications (considering the United States strategic responses to this) could be a break down in global free trade.”

In summary, the projected boom in energy storage is mainly based on the assumption that there will be a massive uptake in lithium-ion batteries. However, what these projections are often failing to consider is that we are not currently in a position to scale up production of minerals like lithium to the level that will soon be required. Among the reasons for this is that it is highly likely that there will be widespread opposition to the development of new mining projects due to environmental concerns.

In addition, as supplies of these vital minerals become depleted, it is going to become more difficult – and thus, more expensive – to mine such minerals and thus production costs will soar.

Consequently, more attention and investment needs to be focussed on the development of alternative types of batteries and energy storage if the much hoped for energy transition is to take place on the scale we all so desperately need.

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