Although the lithium-ion battery is an important part of modern life, there are still questions about the lithium-ion battery being environmentally friendly.
After three scientists who helped develop the rechargeable battery, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded to them; the batteries were made popular by everything, from mobile phones to electric cars.
John B Goodenough (97) was the oldest Nobel laureate. He shared the nine million Swedish Kronor ($904,000 award) with fellow researchers M Stanley Whittingham, Akira Yoshino, and John B Goodenough.
According to the Nobel Committee, lithium-ion batteries are used worldwide to portable power electronics we use to communicate and work, study, listen, play music, search for knowledge, and to learn.
Although they are lauded, there are still some issues with lithium-ion batteries. We take a look at their operation and the problems that they face.
What is the difference between lithium-ion and other batteries?
Batteries form an integral part of 21 st century, providing electricity in a portable, convenient format.
However, the problem with many batteries, including lead-acid or nickel-cadmium, is that they tend not to last very long and must be thrown away.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the US throws away over three billion batteries annually.
This means that it is not only the pockets of the average person who is suffering but the entire environment.
This is why rechargeable batteries such as the Nobel Prize-winning ones using the reactive alkali metal lithium are designed to solve this problem.
The foundation for lithium-ion batteries was created during the 1970s global oil crisis. M Stanley Whittingham, a Nottingham-born engineer, worked to develop alternative energy sources.
Whittingham constructed the cathode (positive terminal of a lithium battery), and then Whittingham made the anode (negative terminal of a battery) from metallic lithium.
Although the device produced just over 2 volts but was explosive due to the metallic lithium, John B Goodenough used cobalt oxide in 1980 to increase the battery’s potential.
Akira Yoshino, who used the cathode to create the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery, created it in 1985. Sony released the first version of the product in 1991.
Olof Ramstrom, professor of chemistry, recently stated that lithium-ion batteries “enabled” the mobile world.
Lithium-ion batteries power everything today, from smartphones, tablets, and laptops to electric cars.
Many questions have been raised about whether batteries should be kept in play as the world shifts towards a more sustainable future. Many companies, though, such as Eco Tree Lithium, provide some sort of a solution for this environmental issue
Environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries
Price and storage at grid-scale
It is still uncertain whether the lithium-ion battery can be used to store large amounts of grid-scale energy in an effort to clean up the grid and substitute fossil fuel plants.
This may be the most economical solution, but the real question is how much it will cost to store lithium-ion batteries grid-scale.
In a study published by the Energy & Environmental Science journal in early 2018, it was found that to meet 80% of US electricity demand. One would need either a national high-speed transmission system capable of balancing renewable generation over hundreds of miles or 12 hours of storage.
A battery storage system that is this large would cost over $2.5tn at current prices.
A 2016 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago’s Argonne national lab on energy storage for decarbonising the electricity sector found potential problems in using grid-scale batteries.
A lot of battery storage can lead to steeply declining returns, according to the study.
It was concluded that battery storage combined with renewable plants is not a good substitute for large, flexible, coal- or natural-gas-combined-cycle plants. These plants can be tapped at any time, run continuously, and adjust their output to meet changing demands throughout the day.
Wildlife death and pollution
Massive problems have been reported in the vicinity of the GanzizhouRongda lithium mine, Tibet.
After toxic chemicals leaked from the mine, fish from the Liqi River were discovered dead in large numbers by protestors from Tagong. They led a march through the streets.
In the last seven years, there has been a dramatic rise in mining activity. This has resulted in two similar incidents. After drinking the polluted waters, fish and other livestock were found to have died.
One of the companies that undertakes mining operations is Chinese auto firm BYD (Build Your Dreams), the largest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones in the world.
South America’s environmental problems
Chile is the second-largest lithium producer in the world after Australia.
Miners drill holes in salt flats to pump salty and mineral-rich brine up to the surface to start operations.
The holes can be left open for up to 18 months to allow the liquid to evaporate. After that, the liquid will return to collect the lithium carbonate, which can then turn into metallic lithium.
This leaves us with a situation similar to Tibet’s, where local habitats are destroyed and nearby rivers polluted. Hydrochloric acid is used in the lithium process.
The main problem in Chile is the high water consumption from lithium mining. Each tonne of lithium is produced 500,000 gallons of water.
Salar de Atacama was a place where mining activities accounted for up to 65% of water consumption, which caused havoc for the local farmers.
Argentinians living in Salar de Hombre Muerto have raised concerns about lithium mining in South America. They cite contamination of streams and irrigation of crops.
Reports have indicated that lithium operations can also cause soil damage to farmers who use the area for their livestock.
The Friends of the Earth Europe charity released a report on lithium: “Extraction of lithium has significant ecological and social impacts, particularly due to water-polluting and depletion.
“In addition to toxic chemicals, lithium processing requires them to use.
“The release of these chemicals via leaching, spills, or air emissions can cause harm to communities, ecosystems, and food production.
“Moreover, lithium extraction invariably harms the soil and causes air pollution.”
Akira Yoshino, who was awarded the Nobel Prize, admitted that the key to electric mobility’s future is finding a way to completely recycle batteries. However, the industry is still far from being there.
A Japanese chemist revealed that the key to securing sufficient raw materials to fuel the increase in electric vehicle demand is recycling batteries.
Yoshino spoke to Bloomberg and stated that electric vehicle batteries could be recycled. If all Japanese car batteries are collected and processed, the cost will be worth it.
The University of Birmingham is working to recycle lithium-ion as part of the UK government’s PS246m ($312m).
Australia’s research found that only 2% of its 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion trash is being recycled.
This could also lead to fluids from batteries leaching into landfills and being released into the environment.
Dr. Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s Lithium Recycling Project told Wired that “Manufacturers are understandably secretive about their batteries, which makes recycling them difficult.”
Recycling lithium cells from electric vehicles and devices is easiest if you shred them. This creates a mixture that can be separated by using burning techniques.
This method, however, results in a significant amount of lithium being wasted.
Concerns about lithium-ion batteries and ethics
DR Congo and the cobalt
Cobalt, a silver-tinted metal that is crucial for the production of batteries, has attracted the attention of the world and is now central to many of the industries that will determine the future.
Cobalt, along with lithium, nickel, and manganese, are essential elements in lithium battery cells. They make up the metal oxide mixture of the battery cell’s anode, from which electricity can be generated.
For example, an electric car requires approximately 10kg of this precious resource. However, without it, grid-scale storage of battery energy is very difficult.
Geopolitically, China is now in danger of monopolizing the cobalt market and could play a greater role in lithium-ion battery manufacturing than most countries.
Around 70% of the world’s cobalt is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are many interested parties engaged in a frenetic battle for control over mining operations.
Casper Rawles, a senior analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, identified a major concern. He noted that there is no electric car industry without DRC Cobalt but that the region is one of the most unstable, volatile, and dangerous on the planet.
China’s cobalt supply is 80%, with a large portion of its battery-ready, high-grade cobalt coming from Chinese-owned refineries.
The control of critical raw materials like cobalt and the world-beating manufacturing and processing capacity will determine who controls the industrial power in automotive and storage.
Cuba is the only country with more cobalt than the rest of the globe after DCR. However, investment is slowly moving into Australia, Idaho, and Alaska to extract cobalt from nickel deposits as the US wakes up to this situation.
Cobalt currently costs 30% more per kilogram than lithium and twice as much to produce a nickel.
Therefore, automakers such as BMW, Toyota, and Tesla are working together with their suppliers to reduce cobalt in batteries or even replace it completely with a nickel substitute.
However, the latter has chemical properties that reduce their battery’s lifespans. The former raises concerns about the incendiary risks posed by batteries at current levels of cobalt content.
Aluminium could one day replace lithium-ion batteries.
According to a report published last month, a new concept for aluminium batteries could be a more sustainable way of storing energy than the current market.
It has twice the energy density of previous aluminium batteries, according to researchers in Sweden and Slovenia. However, it may have lower production costs and less environmental impact than today’s lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
It could be used to store solar and wind energy, among other things.
The project was led by Professor Patrik Johansson at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.
He stated that the material costs and environmental impact of his new concept were much lower than what is currently available, making it feasible for large-scale use, such as storage of wind energy or solar cell parks.
“Additionally, our new battery concept has twice as much energy density than the current state-of-the-art aluminium batteries.”
In previous designs of aluminium batteries, the anode (or negative electrode) was made from aluminium and graphite.
Graphite has too little energy to make battery cells that are efficient enough to be of use.
Prof Johansson’s Gothenburg-based group has collaborated with a research team at the National Institute of Chemistry, Ljubljana (Slovenia), to create an aluminium battery.
Their concept replaces graphite with a nanostructured organic cathode made of the carbon-based molecule Anthraquinone.
This organic molecule can be stored in positive charge carriers in the electrolyte. It is the solution in which electrons move between electrodes. This makes it possible to have a higher energy density.